What Happens When Nothing Is Done Structurally About Sprawl

Broken Down House- flickr user Derek Bridges

Broken Down House. Derrick Hughes via Flickr.

Despite my life hacks from this post, we have to do something on a structural and legal level about sprawl. Unchecked sprawl is  the urban renewal of today. Instead of providing the services that are needed in the core of the city, there are many cities (mine included) that have chosen to build new facilities outside of the city core.  In addition, many cities have allowed subdivisions to be built and not considered the cost of providing schools, fire protection, streets and other elements that make a city a city, even on the basic suburban level. This is not to say that we should not allow people to go off the grid and be responsible for these services themselves. However, many people buy or rent homes with the expectation that basic services will be taken care of efficiently and competently by the municipality or jurisdiction of which they reside.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in my thoughts. I regularly connect with government leaders, and not just the ones in the planning department, who want to bring more vibrancy back to central cities, but also want to make sure equity is addressed. I believe that the pendulum has shifted towards the idea of density and connectivity, at least among government leaders, developers, planners and others who have a hand in crafting and creating our built environment. Federal funding sources now support reconnecting neighborhoods and many states and local governments have supplemented those funds, either with funds of their own or changes in zoning and building codes to allow different and more efficient types of development. In Cary, a subdivision may not get built, because town leaders recognize the cost of providing services to that subdivision may be too much, even for a town that receives a lot of property tax revenue and is known and loved for its low-density development.

Yet, there are holes. Chuck Marhon, in his latest blog reflecting on having facilitated a series of events on urban development in Menphis had a lot to say about what could result from the reversal of what he has termed “the suburban experiment.” The strongest words he has are below:

Here’s where my greatest fear comes in. When the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised of a prior generation were left behind in our central cities, it was a terrible injustice. Crime and disinvestment followed poverty in a cycle we now too often subconsciously think of as inevitable. But they were left behind in neighborhoods that still functioned. People there could still get around without a car. They could still get groceries. They could walk to school, even if it was a bad school. At least initially, there were still jobs.

When we abandon our exurbs and distant suburbs – something I see as inevitable — if we leave behind the poorest and most disadvantaged, we won’t be leaving them in functioning neighborhoods. We’ll be leaving them in total isolation. Places without grocery stores that can be walked to. Places without transportation. If the 1960’s inner city was inhumane, this will be far, far worse.

We have to get our leaders who are not on board with modern municipal governance in the loop. This is no longer a fringe conversation held by architects at fancy conference halls. Just last week, the New York Times reported that the middle class in the United States is no longer the richest in what are considered “Western” countries. A lot of our prior wealth was predicated by investment into building, which was primarily suburban, and job growth,with adequate salaries available for all skill levels. Now, we have job growth, but if it’s in the service sector the pay does not cover minimum expenses or the jobs are so specialized, they command high salaries, but require expensive training. We have new homes built, but because it’s new construction, the prices are higher. Urban location and connectivity also command a major premium, that is out of reach for those who need it the most, the ones who can’t afford the cars to get to services.

If we don’t work to make the reversal of the suburban experiment sustainable for all, we will have worse slums and less of an economic boost. The seeds for this change have been planted and are already showing up as weeds. Will we pluck out those weeds and prune that garden?

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About Kristen Jeffers

I'm Kristen. Almost five years ago, I got tired of not seeing black women as nerded out about trains, better streets, riding bikes, walking not just out of necessity, tall buildings, old buildings and honestly a lot of other things. I was in grad school for community and economic development (ok, it’s actually an MPA), and I wanted to make sure people knew I existed and that I could help them do this thing called placemaking better. Five years later, I’m still doing that, although not from my hometown of Greensboro, NC, but from Kansas City, MO. I spend most of my time in Kansas City promoting better biking and walking infrastructure metro-wide with BikeWalk KC and the Kansas City B-cycle. But I also wrote a book A Black Urbanist (you can grab that over on the right) and sometimes I give speeches and help other communities tell their stories at design charrettes and public meetings. I’ve also written or appeared in all of the major “urbanist” publications, either as a subject or as a writer, as well as most of my hometown papers as subject or writer as well.