Economic Downturn Might Be a Catalyst for Smarter Growth

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, October 25, 2008

The land use and transportation policies of the 20th century are destined to change dramatically. They enabled sprawl -- the unbridled expansion of American cities that has engendered enormous unforeseen economic, social, environmental and aesthetic costs.

Instead, we are turning to a list of R-words: rethinking, redeveloping, renewing, revitalizing, retrofitting.

Those words have figured repeatedly in recent articles about major proposed suburban makeovers in Tysons Corner, Rockville Pike and downtown Columbia. Private and public entities also are developing plans for other sites in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, as well as in the District.

Sprawling American suburbs, developed at very low densities, have been zoned and subdivided into residential enclaves designed primarily for driving convenience. Widely dispersed employment, commercial and recreational destinations, coupled with inadequate road systems, have produced severe traffic congestion and climate-changing carbon emissions while denying suburbanites the choice of conveniently walking, biking or using transit.

And does anyone find beauty in sprawl?

Sprawl's emblem is the ugly, ubiquitous commercial strip, dominated by surface parking lots, garish signs and cheaply built, disposable structures.

Land has long been cheaper and more available on the suburban fringe. For decades, semi-rural counties willingly promoted growth and enacted sprawl-inducing zoning laws. Lower costs made exurban homes of all styles and sizes cheaper than comparable homes closer to cities.

At the same time, states and counties continued building roads ever farther out, aided by federal funding. Inexpensive gasoline and easy credit spurred sales and use of cars. Easy credit coupled with the federal tax deduction for mortgage interest also helped home sales. Given the American dream of owning an affordable single-family house, sprawl was inevitable.

But this dream has become a nightmare for many. The latest housing bubble burst as borrowers defaulted on subprime mortgages, home prices fell and foreclosures soared. Not surprisingly, many distressed loans and foreclosed properties are in sprawling exurbs, especially in high-growth states including Florida, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, California and, of course, Virginia.

Today's nightmarish economic crisis does teach a lesson. It at last illuminates the consequences of policies and practices yielding costly sprawl. It shows that growth by limitless outward expansion is no longer sustainable, no longer an option.

What's possible and desirable, if not unavoidable in the future, is growth characterized by the R-words. We must transform portions of our cities and suburbs that already enjoy favorable locations and serviceable infrastructure, but are poorly or insufficiently developed. Properties apt to become economically and functionally obsolete should be revived.

Shifting demographics make such transformations more feasible. Traditional families -- parents with children -- may continue to opt for the suburban model. But traditional families represent less than half of all American households. Millions of households are made up of singles, couples or housemates who neither want nor need the traditional suburban home. They tend to embrace a more urban lifestyle, choosing to live in mixed-use environments where they can go shopping on foot, commute via transit and get along without a car.

Investments in roads, transit and utilities must be aimed at enhancing infrastructure quality and performance within metropolitan areas, not at the fringe. Rather than continuing to suburbanize the agrarian landscape, we should urbanize more of the existing suburbs. This is the essence of "smart growth."

And recession, unemployment and government budget deficits may be just the pushes needed to finally motivate smart growth behavior by citizens and policymakers.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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