Connecting The Dots On High Gas Prices

American Dream Or Bust Pundits may not be facing up to the ultimate answer to rising energy costs -- our physical environment -- but the American consumer is already deep into the calculus, says Anthony Flint, author of This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America.

Anthony Flint

A friend of mine switched jobs recently, from a big employer in an office park off Boston's second beltway, to offices downtown. Before, he had a two-hour roundtrip commute driving alone in his car; now he walks to the train station in Boston's Roslindale section and rides 10 minutes, just enough time to read the Wall Street Journal, he says. With the shorter commute he's had more time to be active in the neighborhood, where the storefronts on Washington Street are getting makeovers one after the other, and new restaurants seem to open every few months. He marvels at the prices at the local gas station just like everybody else in Boston - but joyfully, he's not filling the tank once a week anymore. More like once a month, if that.

As oil creeps up to $100 a barrel, news stories dwell on outraged SUV drivers shelling out $70 a tank, police departments cutting back on patrols, and calls for waiving state gas taxes. We've learned all about hybrid cars and the need for alternative energy (solar, wind, and hydrogen), energy independence, and conservation. But the discussion always comes right up to the ultimate reason we use so much energy -- our physical environment and how we live -- and then backs away.

Yes, more people are interested in taking transit or walking more. But millions are in no position to do that. There's no transit to take and there's nothing to walk to. It couldn't be more obvious to planners how big a piece of the picture this is -- development patterns predicated on profligate energy consumption. Yet suburban development remains the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The good news is, new forms of development that require less driving and more efficient use of energy are teed up and ready to go.

American Dream Or Bust
"American Dream Or Bust"

Developers have been aware of a subtle shift in consumer tastes for many years. The real estate industry has picked up on the desire for shorter commutes and a better sense of community. Frustration with long commutes -- and not getting home for the 5:30 Little League game -- has been a big motivation. Now energy prices, whether gasoline or the soaring cost of heating and cooling big homes, are clearly becoming the tipping point for a great redirection away from sprawl.

In Massachusetts, for example, developers are creating mixed-use, walkable, concentrated neighborhoods on closed military bases, failed shopping malls, outmoded industrial parks, and vacant parcels and parking lots right near transit stations. They want to be positioned to meet the new demand, after having exhausted the far-flung suburban market.

Across the country, innovative policymakers are also ready to level the playing field in terms of government regulation and infrastructure investments, which at least since World War II have heavily favored the creation of highways, gas consumption, and sprawling development. What needs to be done is clear, and really isn't even all that controversial: change zoning to allow mixed-use development in town centers, currently prohibited (perversely, in most cities it's illegal to build the kinds of development that more and more people are clamoring for). Cut red tape for urban infill development, which is too often too expensive and time-consuming. Shift investment to transit to make growth functional in urban neighborhoods and older suburbs, just as highways have enabled sprawl.

In researching my book on sprawl and smart growth, I traveled to places that are engaged in classic, dispersed, separated-use development, from Florida to Texas to the Southwest, from Minnesota to Colorado to Idaho. They have their reasons for developing this way. The low home prices have obvious appeal. Americans want safety and elbow room and good schools, and sprawl, ubiquitous, seems to provide all of that.

While Americans are unlikely to abandon sprawl solely because they feel bad about chewing up hundreds of acres per hour, they have begun a personal calculus, examining whether the sprawling lifestyle is really the bargain it's cracked up to be. Factoring in transportation and energy costs adds considerably to those low home prices. Higher taxes to pay for all the far-flung infrastructure and services -- water, sewer, police, fire, schools -- further burden the family budget.

Today, establishing alternative development patterns isn't going to hinge on saving farmland or protecting endangered species or preserving historic sites. It's going to come down to convenience, quality of life, and the pocketbook.

Unlike our recovery after the oil shocks of the 1970s, the current energy situation isn't going to get any better. Historians may look back on today's more permanent crisis as the moment when rampant suburban and exurban development finally lost its luster. Now more than ever, we shouldn't shy away from talking about the physical environment as the single biggest component of our energy woes. Quite the contrary -- this is a moment to be seized by urban planners and policymakers alike. As always, the American consumer is already leading the way.

Anthony Flint, a former reporter for The Boston Globe, is author of This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America, now available by Johns Hopkins University Press. More information is available at



The Failure of Planning

Every day for the past 50-plus years, thousands of planners around the country have sat around and approved the very sprawl that they are so fond of decrying. The planning profession is complicit in suburban sprawl even as it spends most of its time obsessing on cities. Exactly what is the point of this profession? What positive influence can this profession claim on land use? Notably, it is architects and developers who are leading the return to a more traditional town planning.

The planning profession is an utter failure. Most of the most pleasing built environments were built in the era prior to planning.

What a simplistic response!

What a simplistic response. Sure, some architects and developers have been recently espousing and proposing neo-traditional designs. But over the last 50 years (and in most cases STILL) those same two professions have been responsible for much of the modernist disposable crap that visually pollutes our landscape. 'Smart growth' planning has only gained prominence over the last 15 years in my estimation, and it's not as if the 40 years of planning and development history prior to that can simply be bulldozed and erased from history. This isn't China.

In my experience, many municipal planners today are frustrated with land use codes that require the approval of shlock developments and render illegal much of what the current profession would consider desirable. Unfortunately, changing these codes wholesale is a political problem that is beyond the power of most planners to affect.

You haven't walked in the shoes.

misled mrconcrete wrote:

thousands of planners around the country have sat around and approved the very sprawl that they are so fond of decrying.

No, they sat around and approved the very regulations already in place. Electeds often write regs that landowners demand to protect property values. As Glaeser decried recently when decrying land rents.



Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

How exactly is planning an “utter failure”? The history of planning (mistakes, abuses and all) is critical to understanding the profession today, however to entirely de-legitimize it based on this history is no less than extreme. A mature discipline learns from its past, and from what I can tell planning has done this just as well as any other profession. As a student of anthropology I learned about that discipline's racist past as a hand-maiden to colonialism and economic exploitation. In part by studying its own past, anthropology has matured into a discipline much better suited to its goal of understanding the human condition from a holistic and cross-cultural perspective. Now, while planning may have been born in misguided and uninformed assumptions about what is best for the poor, the working class, the immigrant, and even the baby-boomer, it too has matured into an interdisciplinary profession that is more receptive to outsider's input. Sure, there is a lot of planning still going on today that does not really consider the views of all residents (e.g. urban vs. rural vs. suburban, low income vs. financially secure). But then do architects and developers consider anyone aside than their paying customers? And yes, planners should take responsibility for their forbearers’ failed experiments, especially where these have caused more harm than good. But what does this mean outside of the intellectual discourse of the academic world? It means "fixing" their mistakes in the real, built world. Seeing that betterment of society is ultimately “the point of this profession”, I believe that the adoption by many planners of socially progressive ideas like Smart Growth and New Urbanism (whatever these ideas’ “true” affiliation: with developments/architects or with planners) is a sign of the profession’s success, rather than its failure.

Brian Salmons
Chicago, Illinois, USA

Energy Cost vs Sprawl

So what is wrong with sprawl? It's preferable to everyone living in large cities with the anonymity and loss of community that entails. We can adjust to higher gas prices while inventing new ways to a secure future not dependent on foreign oil.

That's a false dichotomy if

That's a false dichotomy if I've ever heard one. Our choices are not limited to Gotham City or Generica. What about small cities? OR Seattle's "Urban Village" concept? Even James Howard "Fire & Brimstone" Kunstler talks about a spectrum of choices ranging from dense urban through village center to rural.

And personally, I think cooky cutter subdivisions have done more to destroy community spirit than pre-war development patterns ever did. Waving at your neighbor as you drive by is not a community. Saying "hello" as you walk to the corner to get coffee and bagels on a weekend morning is.

Why the false dichotomy?

The person who added the earlier comment obviously just doesn't know about the New Urbanist developments that are like the old streetcar suburbs. As these neighborhoods become more and more popular, there will be fewer people who think the only alternatives are central cities or sprawl.

Charles Siegel

re: Energy Cost vs Sprawl (Bill Pound)

As one of the roughly half of all Americans who live in cities I can attest that they are hardly wrought with Mr. Pound's "anonymity and loss of community". Sure, cities have commercial or entertainment or educational districts whose character is certainly not aimed at a small number of users or residents - that is why they are what they are (e.g. Broadway, Fulton Fish Market, the Washington Mall, Market St. in Philly, Portman Center, etc.).

But even those very districts are the neighborhoods of those who do live nearby, who work in them every day, for the cabbies and cops and sidewalk vendors, letter carriers and UPS deliverymen/women for whom those world-class areas are their public realm! These beehives of urban economics or creative arts, or medical research or teaching, of simply sightseeing or athletics are what the world watches for news and advancements in their fields. In them I can be anonymous if I wish, by cause of my non-membership in their culture.

However, when I return home to my rowhouse neighborhood I invariably see my neighbors, letter carrier, corner diner owner or her regular customers, the local handyman at work on someone's home, kids walking home from school, and so on.

Mr. Pound - perhaps your vision of cities came about from some earlier bad experience in them, unfortunately. Give us another chance - we love most of what we have and what we don't love we either put up with & avoid or we work together, in civic union, to improve. Doesn't it work that way where you live, too?


Jane Jacobs b. 1916 - d. 2006 citizen, observer, urbanist, 'The Nature of Economies' 2000 is based on the premise that "human beings exist wholly within nature as part of the natural order in every respect".

First of all, sprawl has

First of all, sprawl has probably been the largest single factor in doing away with both urban and rural communities. When the more affluent desert the cities, things deteriorate for a variety of reasons--one of them being that there's no one left in the cities with the political and economic power to demand services, the maintenance of infrastructure, and good schools, and to support businesses and provide a tax base.

When these more affluent people move to the the suburbs and exurbs, they usually lay waste existing rural communities. Massive suburban development replaces the formerly cohesive rural communities. What's worse, these developments are built on valuable farmland. In my area, some of the best farmland in the world has been covered over and paved over with malls and real estate developments.

The exurbanites do the same thing: They take farmland out of production. Exurbanites tend to to be a snooty bunch who find working farms objectionable neighbors. When these types move into a rural area, they make trouble for working farmers whose establishments aren't picturesque enough to suit them, and whose livestock smells like...livestock--and tends make livestock noises. Suburbs and exurbs are the poorest possible use of land. If these areas were left to grow up in brush and timber, they would at least support wildlife and prevent flooding, though most often their best use is for farming--or at least running cattle.

Also, in my area, the building of vast suburban developments has resulted in serious flood control issues. When you pave over vast areas of former farmland, all that rain water rushes into the storm drains and thence into the creeks and rivers--instead of soaking into the ground. The folks downstream from them have massive flooding problems.

Suburbs and exurbs are notoriously not communities. They are places where people barely know their neighbors, and where people are not bound together by economic interdependencies, as people are in real communities. And they displace former real communities. The suburbs and exurbs are the real centers of anomie.

All this is entirely separate from the energy issues: Oversized houses, estate-size lots (5-10 acres) that exist for no other purpose other than to need mowing and watering, and the driving distances to shopping and jobs.

One thing that stunned me, when I sold real estate was the number of 4-bedroom McMansions that were occupied only by a childless couple.

America's new work-out plan

We can all feel the frustration as part of our American independence is being stricken away by higher gas prices. We all have felt the cringe as we pull into the gas station and hope that the credit card bill won’t be astronomical at the end of the month. It seems as if the only solution is to get a bus pass, or find alternative energy sources.

I am a great advocate for alternative energy sources, I don’t appreciate the idea that America has to depend on anyone but ourselves, we’re free and independent. Thus, I will push and push for hydrogen and fuel cell experiments and hope for a movement that will free us from foreign dependence.

However, I’m not a scientist, so I don’t feel that I have much of a place to ease the energy crisis…until reading articles such as this, and evaluating my future in the professional environment. I am an architecture major, urban planning minor, and I have realized that I will take place as one of the “map makers of society.” Architects and planners have extreme importance in society; we design the buildings and cities that outline the course of action for American’s lifestyles. For a slightly extreme example, if we design a city that has no space for physical activity, American’s get fat.

As the war against obesity continues, people are learning what a difference a lifestyle change can make. Now, let’s relate this issue to gas prices. It is in our lifestyle to drive everywhere, despite the distance, dilemma, and environmental impacts. It is time to “cut the fat” on transit, yet, people cannot do that thus far because there aren’t good alternatives. I am from a small town in Indiana, so I still think it’s exciting to ride a subway or train, like its cutting edge or something.

I believe it’s the duty of the designers to create a work out plan for America’s transit system. We are already aware of where our current situation is heading, and we will not accept the fate that America is just going to shut down because we can’t afford gas any longer. Let’s look for the easier and less costly solutions like walkability, mass-transit, and mixed use developments. I hate riding in cars, they’re unsocialable and damaging…so lets design communities that allow people the opportunity to socialize and walk.

As mentioned in the article “Connecting the Dots” by Anthony Flint, the future of alternative development patterns ultimately relies on “convenience, quality of life, and the pocketbook.” Some measures to turn “bad” developments into “good” ones may seem costly at first, but like most everything (except gasoline), it’s only a matter of time before prices drop and profit is turned.

shopping malls

I was really taken with the idea of converting failed shopping malls into small urban communities. Shopping malls seem to have a limited lifespan and then go belly up.

If they were converted into a combination of housing units and shops, they could be lovely urban spaces. I'm not sure they would be energy efficient urban spaces without quite a bit of modification, but you could take most of the the roof off the middle and turn the central areas into parks and green spaces--maybe including both indoor and outdoor swimming pools and wading pools.

There should be shops, too--the kind of businesses that you would find in a real neighborhood: grocery stores, dollar stores, pharmacies, a post office, dance studios, restaurants. Then the parking lots would need to be mostly ripped out to make spaces for "allotments" for vegetable gardens. That would be a monumental job, involving laying down hundreds of truckloads of topsoil after the pavement was ripped out. But these places could be great communities--even model communities.

They could even be planned to generate a lot of their own power. Perhaps the biggest difficulty would be that the plumbing would have to be redone throughout.

Some developer should pick up on this idea.

Brand new! Urban Grid City Collection

Each city has its own unique story. Commemorate where you came from or where you want to go.
Grids and Guide Red book cover

Grids & Guides

A notebook for visual thinkers. Available in red and black.

Stay thirsty, urbanists

These sturdy water bottles are eco-friendly and perfect for urbanists on the go.

City Coasters

Hand-drawn engraved maps of your favorite neighborhoods are divided up across 4 coasters making each one unique.