Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Overlooked Environmental Issue of the Year: The End of Sprawl

Chicago seems to sprawl forever in the photo.  Click
for photo caption.
At the close of this year, I am listing several overlooked environmental issues of the year--both good and bad--that didn't make it into the mainstream news and that were somewhat overlooked in the environmental community.  Today, I focus on an interesting development that has far-reaching consequences for the future:  the end of sprawl.

Urban sprawl is a trend that arguably started, or at least accelerated with the development of suburbia in the 1950's and 60's.  It continued relatively unfettered until the most recent economic downturn.  One of the main areas that was hit was by the downturn was the housing market, largely due to overproduction of houses and the associated pricing bubble.  But part of the housing downturn can be partly attributed to changing consumer preferences and the lack of support for widespread suburban sprawl within county or regional governments.  Here's why.

Many people are choosing to live in downtown or near downtown areas instead of suburbs.  There are many reasons for this trend including the cost of gasoline, improvements to downtowns that many cities have made, the expansion of housing options in redeveloped downtown areas, and the gravity that comes with creative spaces.

In addition, existing suburbs are redeveloping and creating greater density around transit-oriented redevelopments that bring housing, retail, and transit together within nodes in existing suburbs.

Plus, individuals are preferring to rent homes over buying given the huge losses many took in the housing bubble.

Local governments are also hesitant to approve new housing developments due to the many unoccupied structures that reduce housing values in their suburban communities.  While cities were hurt hard by the foreclosure crisis, there are many suburban ghost towns.  In addition, the aggressive nature of development prior to the housing boom left many communities with buyer's remorse.  In some places whole swaths of beautiful forest and farmland are now declining monochromatic suburban developments with little sense of place or community that are far from the gravitational pull of the cities.  Policies to prevent poorly planned developments are being put into place.

Now that the economy is improving, it will be interesting to see if the end of sprawl is a small trend or a megatrend that will continue into the future.  There is no doubt that cities will continue to expand.  But how?  Will suburbs redefine themselves by creating more interesting denser places that attract people to them, or will they spread out in 90's style to the ends of the earth.  In Florida, the 1990's style suburbanization nearly connected most of the cities in the entire peninsula.  I think the pause in sprawl is real and we have come to our senses.

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