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Death of Sprawl: Past and Future

Foreclosure signSeems like my chapter "The Death of Sprawl" from The Post Carbon Reader is taking on a life of its own. Friday, Christopher Leinberger had an Op-ed in the New York Times, titled "Death of the Fringe Suburb," which restated concepts I had published (and sent Leinberger last year) namely, that the US mortgage crisis and recession were set off by upsidedown economics of sprawl speculation in US exurbs or "Boomburbs" and we can't ever do that again.

The site Adapturbia also recently put together a nifty visual presentation of "The Death of Sprawl" that localized my content to provide context for sprawl issues confronting Sydney, Australia. (Unlike Prof. Leinberger's NYT Op-Ed, they gave me full credit!)

What's important here is that the research and the real estate sales figures are becoming ever clearer: people increasingly prefer to live in mixed-use, transit-oriented walkable and bikeable neighborhoods over drive-everywhere bedroom communities. Those preferences will not change and we will not go back, which is affirmed by the abandoned exurban housing and development that are fast becoming the nation's newest slums: for the first time in the nation's history, suburban poverty now outweighs urban poverty

One need only take a look at the foreclosure heavy areas such as California's Inland Empire: my chapter provided a case study of Victorville, CA, one of the last gasps of the residential car-centered Boomburb economy of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Leinberger's piece hit on the changing real estate taste in demographics (retired Boomers and upcoming Millennials) while my thesis examined how cheap energy fueled exurban 100% car-dependent growth. We both concluded that denser, mixed-use metro areas are the wise investments of the future because: more people want to live that way so that is where investment will occur. Developers know that strip malls, sidewalk-less mini-mansions and business parks that cater to cars only are poison in this economy.

To get where this is going, one need only look at the three cities out of 20 that have had positive real estate sales in the past quarter: Portland (free public transit, leading US city bicycle transit rate), New York (leading US public transit rate, active bikeway development) and Washington, DC (one of highest transit rates behind New York and high walkability).

The national foreclosure capitals, on the other hand, are testimonials to sprawled, exurban, car-dominant development: Las Vegas, Phoenix and California's Inland Empire (San Bernardino and Riverside counties, including Victorville). See map of 2011 US foreclosures below:
Thumbnail image for US foreclosures 2011.jpg

Sprawled communities, exurbs, fringe suburbs, whatever you call them, are underwater in terms of money invested and will remain so. Some of these communities will make themselves more resilient with car-free transport, local food production, water and wildlife conservation and other acitviites that restore local resources, jobs and social interaction.

But many will become abandoned slums and will need to be town down, just as Victorville did with some of its "high-end" residential neighborhoods. Other monuments of sprawl, particularly in desert communities, will remain as stark monuments to the follies of our distant past.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, author of 'How Green is Your City?' and co-author of the United Nations Shanghai Manual on global sustainable city planning and management.

Originally published at the Green Flow blog of Common Current.

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