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The death of sprawl: designing urban resilience for the 21st century resource and climate crises


In April 2009—just when people thought things couldn’t get worse in San Bernardino County, California—bulldozers demolished four perfectly good new houses and a dozen others still under construction in Victorville, 100 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

The structures’ granite countertops and Jacuzzis had been removed first. Then the walls came down and the remains were unceremoniously scrapped. A woman named Candy Sweet came by the site looking for wood and bartered a six-pack of cold Coronas for some of the splintered two-by-fours.

For a boomtown in one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States, things were suddenly looking pretty bleak. The adobe-colored two-story houses had been built by speculators in a desert region dubbed the “Inland Empire” by developers. The unsold homes faced vandalism and legal liabilities when the town’s average home sales prices dropped from well over $300,000 in 2007 to $120,000 in 2009. These plummeting prices pushed Victorville over the edge, making the city one of the nation’s foreclosure capitals.

After people began to ransack fixtures from the vacant homes, Victorville town officials warned the bank owning the sixteen-home development that it would be on the hook for security and fire calls. The bank, which had inherited the mess from the defaulted developer, assessed the hemorrhaging local real estate market and decided to cut its losses. A work crew was dispatched to rip the houses down and get what they could—money, beer, whatever—for the remains.

Boom and Bust
Why did this town boom and then bust so spectacularly? After all, it followed a seemingly tried-and-true model of suburban growth that was replicated across the United States for decades.

To begin with, gasoline prices had risen from under $2 in the boom years to over $4 by 2008. Thanks to such massively increased personal transportation costs, Victorville by 2009 had an extremely thin margin between what people thought they could afford and what they now actually could afford. By one estimate, Americans as a whole spend $1.25 billion less on consumer goods for each one-cent increase in the price of gasoline.4 Thus by 2008, compared to 2005, consumers nationwide had $250 billion less to spend on cars, furniture, appliances, and all the other items families typically purchase when moving into a growing area like Victorville. To the alarm of real estate developers, city officials, and investors, the true total costs of living in Victorville (including gasoline and time spent commuting) also weighed heavily against market valuation.

Victorville’s residents are mostly dependent on private cars to get to work—or anywhere else. The town has a few seldom-used local bus routes (less than 1 percent commute ridership) and, statistically in 2007, close to zero percent of people in town walked or rode bikes to get to work. Lacking other viable options, private cars are economic necessities in Victorville; they can also be serious economic burdens, especially in times of high gasoline prices (see figure 23.1). The same is true for millions of people living in similar exurban boomtowns across the U.S. Sun Belt.5

Mandatory car ownership is more than a financial burden—it constantly drains people’s time and health as well as community and family involvement. Making matters worse, because San Bernardino County has only seven jobs for every ten working-age adults, many residents must become supercommuters to where there are more employment opportunities—such as Los Angeles County, which has nearly nine jobs for every ten working-age adults living in the county.6 In 2007, almost a quarter of the people in Victorville spent more than two hours driving to and from work each day, and 10 percent wasted more than three hours in their daily work commute. At least partially because of traffic jams on the 80-mile route into Greater Los Angeles, 15 percent of commuters in Victorville in 2007 left home before 5 a.m.7 Victorville illustrates a story that became all too familiar over the past two decades in the United States, particularly in the West. The town’s explosive growth—from 64,000 people in 2000 to 107,000 in 2007—was in part the result of lax land-use policies combined with a deregulated, no-holds-barred mortgage industry that approved loans for almost any live body that walked in the door. Home buyers and real estate investors also implicitly assumed that there would always be unlimited supplies of inexpensive water and, of course, cheap gasoline.

The rapid ascent of exurbia created conditions for steady nationwide growth in private-car ownership and driving (measured in “vehicle miles traveled”). By 2005, Americans on average were driving about 35 percent more than they were in 1980, and private-vehicle ownership had almost doubled since 1960.8 Car ownership costs—at an average of $5,783 per vehicle—take an even greater toll on personal finances than fuel costs, which averaged $1,514 per vehicle in 2009.9 In addition, the exurbs brought a flood of massive single-family homes built for size as symbols of affluence—but not for energy efficiency. In 2004 the average new house was 40 percent bigger than in 1970,10 requiring additional energy to heat, cool, and maintain.

Even if cars are made to be more fuel efficient or eventually run on more renewable energy sources (e.g., solar-powered electric), the growth of large car-dependent communities will contribute to continued climate and environmental damage beyond tailpipe emissions. A significant amount of the carbon footprint produced by cars comes from their manufacturing, shipping, and eventual disposal. Indirect carbon impacts are also caused by constructing and maintaining parking spaces, roads, and other infrastructure.11 The slurry of discharged auto fluids (oil, antifreeze, transmission fluids) that combines with particulates from engines and brake pads is a key source of water pollution in the United States, causing an estimated $29 billion a year in damages.12

Ultimately, the car-dominant model of urban and suburban development is not sustainable. Recognizing the limitations of this outmoded model is the first step in planning for our future of economic, energy, and environmental uncertainty.

CITIES: The Death of Sprawl by Warren Karlenzig

From the Post Carbon Institute/Watershed Media Book:

Click cover for details.

Editorial Notes: References and charts in original pdf. -KS The Post Carbon Reader is Post Carbon Institutes's new publication due out in October. "...The Post Carbon Reader features essays by some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the key issues shaping our new century, from renewable energy and urban agriculture to social justice and community resilience. This insightful collection takes a hard-nosed look at the interconnected threats of our global sustainability quandary and presents some of the most promising responses..." Other content currently available for download is an extended version of Sandra Postel's essay WATER: Adapting to a New Normal, previously published on EB.

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