On defining "Sprawl"

Michael Lewyn's picture

Last week, I was busy trying to turn my paper on sprawl in Canada (available at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn/65/) into a speech.   In my paper, I define sprawl in two ways: where we grow (measured by growth or decline of central cities, controlling for municipal annexations) and how we grow (measured by modal shares for cars and transit).  As I was proofing, I asked myself: why these particular measurements?  What presuppositions underlie defining sprawl based on, say, modal share as opposed to the growth of a urban area's land mass?

It seems to me that how you define sprawl must be based on what you view as interesting or problematic about sprawl.  My concerns about sprawl are based primarily on concerns about freedom and consumer choice.   To me, a region where city living is not a reasonable option is a place lacking in adequate choice, so I define a sprawling region as one where the city has weakened over time.  A region where not driving is not a reasonable option for most people is similarly lacking in consumer choice, so I focused on automobile dependence and used modal share as my leading criterion.

But someone focused primarily on environmental issues would want to measure sprawl very differently.  For example, if your primary interest is in sprawl-related destruction of wildlife habitat or agriculture, you would consider a sprawling region as one with lots of land that is no longer usable by wildlife or agriculture (perhaps measured by the growth of the suburban land mass from X square miles to Y square miles).   If your primary interest is air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions you might wish to define a sprawling region as one with a high level of transportation-related emissions per capita (a much trickier enterprise, since these sorts of statistics are not so easy to find).  If your primarily concern is social and fiscal inequality between city and suburb, you might define a sprawling region as one where a city is much poorer than its surrounding suburbs, and accordingly focus on measures of per capita and household income for a city and its surrounding suburbs. 

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Other definitions

Nice. I took my own stab at identifying varying definitions here. http://www.austincontrarian.com/austincontrarian/2009/02/sprawl-sprol-.html


The best discussion of the definition of "sprawl" I have ever seen, is in "The Compact City Fallacy" by Michael Neuman. His discussion of "sustainability" is also the best I have ever seen.

He also taught me the following important point. "Sustainability" is all about PROCESS. "FORM" is simply not relevant, other than as the end result of the right PROCESS. Neuman identifies (and I already understood much of what he was saying) many aspects of planning-imposed "FORM" as in fact CONTRARY to the "PROCESS" that we are allegedly aiming for.

One particular point. (I have always appreciated your open mindedness, Michael). You say:

".....To me, a region where city living is not a reasonable option is a place lacking in adequate choice, so I define a sprawling region as one where the city has weakened over time...."

One of the worst obstacles to the "CHOICE" of living in the inner city, is the sheer cost of the apartments in cities where growth constraints have forced the land rent curve upwards across its entire length. Inflated fringe land prices mean inflated inner city apartment prices too. NOBODY has MORE "choice" than someone in a city where a fringe home is $130,000 and a decent inner city apartment is $150,000.

The sand city dwellers of California (you know, all those foreclosure disaster areas) lived there BECAUSE the homes there were "ONLY" $350,000; inner suburb homes closer to employment centres were $1,000,000; and decent inner city apartments were $1,000,000 PLUS.

Here is a TV show in Auckland, NZ (an over-planned hell, in my opinion) about the cost of inner city apartments there. Notice the young couple from Texas (temporary residents) complaining about the rip-off prices. They earn more money in Texas AND pay a quarter of what Aucklanders have to, for inner city accomodation. Watch the Real Estate Agent saying in effect "take it or leave it", and spew. (I nearly did).


The Marie Antoinette school of urban planning

She famously said, "then let them eat cake", in response to the suggestion that the peasants lacked bread.

Urban planners who drive the price of urban land up, and say that people should live at higher densities within the existing urban area; are "The Marie Antoinette School of Urban Planning".

"Your majesty, the peasants can't afford houses"......

"Then let them live in multimilliondollar apartments"......

If demand's in inner city/suburb, how can the answer be sprawl?

While I would never advocate no-growth positions in the face of increasing population (for the obvious reasons), I have to say I see one logical fallacy here.

The fact that "sand cities" not only existed but were growing and were relatively affordably priced point to the fact that land is not the limiting factor but rather than the inner suburbs and cities were more desirable. In the face of this, the market response is not necessarily to build more sprawling "sand cities" where the demand is low (as we've seen in the current crisis) but to allow more building in the inner suburbs and inner cities (where the demand is high.) This indicates the market wants to overcome NIMBYism that is preventing more inner suburban homes and more inner city apartments. As planners, it seems we should facilitate the growth in units where people want to be, rather than force the creation of more "sand cities."

I see a similar phenomenon in the Vancouver, BC area. Housing has become inordinately expensive in the city and inner suburbs, due to a variety of factors (including large inflows of capital and probably irrational exuberance in the market, not to mention desirability). Yet one can still buy housing relatively affordably in the less desirable outer suburbs, such as Surrey and Coquitlam, indicating to me that the market wants more housing in the city, inner suburbs and Richmond (near the coast) than in the less desirable eastern suburbs. This to me points to market demand for more density (i.e. more units) in the desirable areas.

Not to mention that "ground oriented medium density" in housing such as townhomes are priced about 25-30% below detached single family homes in the desirable Vancouver inner suburbs - density providing market-based "affordable" housing? It may be hard to accept, but in desirable areas, with millions of people, and with natural constraints (mountains, sea), will the "entry level" house realistically be a single-family detached?

I understand the overall thesis that where fringe housing is expensive, the more desirable areas will be even more expensive - and again would not advocate "no growth" for this reason.

Its well-known that model growth management legislation, such as Oregon's, mandates a 20-year supply of land be available for development, while Washington State's Growth Management Act has requirements that counties accommodate not just needed housing units, but even project the proportion of housing units needed for family-type housing. On the other hand, legislation like CEQA and many low-density Comp Plans have been used to limit the availability of housing.

Expecting these areas (coastal cities with 2+ million people) to have $130,000 suburban homes and $150,000 apartments seems unrealistic (although the latter is actually doable in Portland), as these are prices more typical of areas that are economically depressed, rural, or stable midwestern communities which were immune from the bubble.

I think one driver we don't discuss in high housing costs is the growing income disparity, which is particularly pronounced in coastal metros with large professional classes. The housing prices in the inner city and desirable suburbs come to reflect the mortgages these professionals can get, while pricing out low-wage service workers, teachers, medical workers, and many non-unionized blue collar workers. I don't have an easy answer, but again probably more supply - not just in fringe suburbs, but in the desirable inner cities and inner suburbs, seems like a positive step.


Energy Expenditure.

That's a lot of energy to waste on a Wodehouse comment. Just a thought.



Sprawl And The Housing Crash

This is a good point. The sprawling suburbs on the far edges of metropolitan areas had the most foreclosures, which means that they are now filled with vacant houses.

There is absolutely no economic incentive to build any more sprawl until after those vacant houses are filled, and until that time, laws limiting sprawl will not have any effect in driving up prices.

Needless to say, Wodehouse's studies are all based on conditions before the crash. His studies all say that the price of housing is going up dramatically, while it actually has been going down dramatically for the last couple of years.

Charles Siegel

Sprawl incentives.

There is absolutely no economic incentive to build any more sprawl until after those vacant houses are filled, and until that time, laws limiting sprawl will not have any effect in driving up prices.

Yet new homes are still being built on the fringe. Economics only explains some of the variance. Builders that are carrying paper need to get these houses built.



Production Business

Homebuilding is a production business... if the inputs (land, labor, materials) are priced such that a company can build homes and sell them for a profit (even at the current lower prices) they will, regardless of how those costs are financed (they're really just movable factories). The "foreclosures" mentioned are all homeowners, which really does not effect the builders directly (lowers market prices, but that also can actually benefit builders by driving down the costs of land). Since the early 90s most builders have actively tried to not own any land (they use options), and those that forgot the rule were wiped out in 2006... so the home production machine can easily just keep rolling along.

Recent News On Housing Starts

Okay, I exaggerated by saying "absolutely no incentive," but here is some recent news about a trend that we are all familiar with:

Compared to April last year, residential construction was down 23.9%, the largest decline since October 2009. "We're still struggling to find the bottom here for the housing market. It does not bode well for construction in the near term, and there's a good deal of overhang in terms of inventory,"

I also stand by my statement that Wodehouse's studies all were done during a time of rising prices, and we are now in a time of falling prices.

Charles Siegel

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