Plan to reduce sprawl will boost health, environment
From the billboard, a young woman's face smiles at us against a leafy background. Scrawled across the image in a jaunty white script is a promise: "I will leave the car at home more." The logo in the lower right-hand corner: Chevron. The ad -- the equivalent of an Oscar Mayer commercial saying "Enough hot dogs for me, thanks" -- is a sign of our times. Cynical "greenwashing," guilt and amnesiac denial dominate a public discourse short on realistic paths to energy independence.
There is a deeper irony behind the billboard. In much of America -- and almost all of the places built in the past half-century -- the smiling woman has no choice but to take the car. She lives on a cul-de-sac in a subdivision along a collector road that leads to a state highway, and that highway leads to another collector road that leads to the office, the school, the Walmart and the gym. Often, the voyage also requires using the interstate. This is sprawl, the dominant American pattern of settlement, and sprawl, more than anything else, has cemented our relationship with oil.
Ending our love affair with the automobile, no matter how unhealthy it has become, seems overwhelmingly disruptive. Although more and wider roads lead only to more congestion, states are loath to reject federal highway dollars such as those offered in economic stimulus packages. Highways are easy things to spend money on, so who cares if what they stimulate is sprawl?
The issue is not new for urban planners. We have been talking about it for 30 years, first as an aesthetic problem and then as a social concern: children and the elderly lacking independence, overburdened soccer moms and dads, massive income-based segregation and all that time wasted in traffic.
But the debate has changed now that sprawl has been identified as a contributor to some major challenges to our well-being: oil dependency, climate change and skyrocketing health-care costs. These crises have causes beyond sprawl, but sprawl may be the only one they all share. With oil dependency covered, let's address the other two.
What seems least often mentioned in the discussion of climate change and our "carbon footprint" is the role of city planning. The sustainable-building movement is fixated on gizmos -- "what can I buy for my house to make it greener?" -- but the thing that really matters is location. Households in downtown Chicago produce one-quarter the greenhouse gases of households in nearby suburban Kane County, and that's not because of more efficient appliances. Yet with all the investment in a low-carbon future, how much money is used to encourage migration to city centers?
There are many factors in the rise of health-care costs, but a big one is our excess weight. Thirty-two percent of adult Americans are obese, and obesity contributes to many serious illnesses, most prominently diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that one-third of American children born after 2000 will become diabetic. Diabetes is an expensive disease, consuming 2 percent of gross domestic product.
Obesity is mostly a matter of calories consumed and calories burned. Much attention has justifiably been paid to Americans' diet, but relatively little to the factors that hamper physical activity. Our community planners have taken away from us that most salubrious of activities, the walk. Comparisons of walkable cities and auto-dependent suburbs yield some eye-opening information -- for example, the fact that people living in walkable areas are 2.5 times as likely as those in the least walkable areasto achieve their CDC-recommended 30 minutes of daily physical activity.
And consider car crashes, the greatest cause of injury and death among young people. These are concentrated in our least walkable metropolitan areas. If the entire country shared New York City's traffic death rate, we would save more than 25,000 lives a year, equal every six weeks to the number killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Yet which issue has had a greater influence on U.S. policy?
Oil dependency, climate change and health-care costs are but three of a growing list of ills, rapidly becoming crises, that give us reason to look again at how we build our communities and what policy can do about it. American suburbanization did not happen by accident; it was heavily subsidized by federal and state dollars, most powerfully in the form of highway funds. The first step to a solution is to reduce incentives for sprawl, including new highways or highway lanes. If we have learned one thing from the suburban experiment, it is that you can't grow a green economy on blacktop.
Andres Duany and Jeff Speck are city planners and co-authors of "The Smart Growth Manual" (2010) as well as "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream" (2000), just re-released on its 10th anniversary.