Call it what you may: Suburban sprawl is at an all-time high, and its effects on our modern society are beginning to show up in interesting ways. Can one make a case linking road-rage and commuting? Does a link exist between property values and the effect of long-term growth in suburban sprawl on public tax dollars? This short essay chronicles the sweeping array of variables that have dismembered our cities’ vital organs and makes a case for inner-city, urban-core development.
The effects are surprising: An estimated 200 million households in the U.S. (the U.S. Census Bureau cites more than 115 million households as defined by intake data, yet adjusted here to include non-traditional and emerging household types) are at an all-time risk of feeling insecure despite the increase in “new urbanism” communities. If there is such a thing as new urbanism, then what is old urbanism, and why is the new urbanism trying to replicate the most successful elements of the old one?
When I researched and prepared for this article in the labyrinth of Butler Library at Columbia University 15 years ago, I was awestruck at the calamity unfolding across cities and metropolises in every corner of our nation. My findings still resonate today with fact patterns that advise caution. The compilation of this report stems from a renewed sense of urgency and a rediscovery of its importance to the community.
While this report takes a critical look at our planning model, it in no way poses a sharp criticism of the myriad citizens who occupy suburbia. In a sense, they are the victims of a lack of choices offered to them. Who doesn’t want appealing housing in seamless, integrated locations that allow transportation options?
Studies have shown fewer people today want to commute compared to two generations ago — but this is not a so-called Millennial issue as it cuts across all age-groups. According to the data researched with various transportation agencies, including the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) of New York City and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), commuters do not enjoy sitting in traffic, remaining motionless amongst hundreds of thousands of other anonymous vehicles. When was the last time you heard an office colleague or personal friend say, “I can’t wait to get on the road and get stuck in traffic?”
Why is this condition placed on our neurological and physical landscape? Why are the vast majority of wage earners in this country fixated on atoning for the one-hour commute to and from work? The answer is no one really wants this condition, but we acquiesce to it because of increasingly limited choices — the dynamics brought on by formulaic-driven and unsustainable development patterns.
Unsustainable development, for this report, is defined as development pattern that exacerbates traffic congestion and contribute significantly to energy consumption as opposed to energy conservation with unintended or intended consequences. It is also a type of development pattern that continues to segregate classes and race like never before. Some readers who own businesses or work in suburban areas may disagree with this idea, arguing that suburban sprawl is a necessary element of areas where work is available.
For the unsustainable suburban developer, notions of mixed use conjure the manipulation of monotonous, monochromatic communities that have been tweaked so slightly that if you were to squint, you still wouldn’t know where you were. In an unsustainable development, for instance, a pedestrian walking in the public right-of-way or a cyclist riding a bike in a dedicated bike-lane, are afterthoughts and will remain underutilized.
In these communities, access to social services via public, mass transit is much less likely than inside the urban core since they are often located on the fringe of cities. You cannot typically walk to nearby restaurants, grocery stores, shops, and cultural centers in an unsustainable development, because they are somewhere else that requires you to get into your automobile and drive.
So-called “new-urbanism” attempts to deal with such scarcity of community amenities, but its frail structure fails to address the main concern of creating nearby jobs, and it is simply reconstituted as suburban enclave, re-packaged and re-marketed, into more efficient sprawl.
In these newly disguised suburban communities, the nearest opportunity for low-skilled work is likely to be found at the fast-food joint in the food court of what used to be the big shopping mall (now the late ’50s, early ’60s throwback of the open-air strip center in the farthest of fringe-communities). This kind of employment doesn’t make a dent in the demand of our vital economies. Temporary jobs have long been considered by the U.S. Department of Labor as unsustainable and do not qualify as garnering the economic impact that long-term, full-time employment does to create truly livable communities. Creating employment centers should be a target for public policy officials and private sector engines in the “new urbanism” of the decades to come.
As the late comedian George Carlin once said, “The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways but narrower viewpoints. We spend more but have less, we buy more but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences but less time.”
This could aptly can be the screenplay for a film describing an unsustainable development pattern (or spark numerous TED talks to come).
Author’s Note: This article was researched and written in New York City in 2001, as inspired by my interaction with neighbor Lance Jay Brown of the architectural faculty at CCNY whilst living in West Harlem, Hamilton Heights. Variations of the research and watercolor were also published March 2008 and May 2010 in BUILDERnews Magazine.
*Featured/top image: From Smart Growth America’s Measuring Sprawl 2014 report.