Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A world without sprawl?

By Jason Reece, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

Studying and working as a city planner, urban sprawl has always been the source of the many challenges in my academic and professional life. Working as a planner is a constant exercise in attempting to influence and deal with the impacts of new development. Even as a child, growing up in an urban area that was continually losing its assets to the suburbs, I could feel the impact of urban sprawl. While my neighborhood declined, large homes and new businesses flourished in the suburbs next door.

Working at the Kirwan Institute, I focus daily on the challenges facing inner city communities and residents whose opportunities are limited as resources spread to inaccessible suburbs and exurbs.

Sprawling growth on the fringe of our cities has always been the “villain” in this narrative. We often forget the cities and our urban form are always changing. I felt that this narrative would always exist, but recent factors in the international and national economy may alter this scenario.

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post questions if “sprawl” as we now it will soon disappear.

“The End of Sprawl” by Professor Eduardo M. Penalver (Cornel Law School) published on December 30th posits that rising gas prices and the recent “crisis” in the housing market will significantly curtail our nation’s unbridled suburban growth. Increased commuting costs, deflated housing markets, and a tightened lending environment makes the new subdivision on the exurban fringe becomes less appealing and more difficult to finance.

At first glance the “end of sprawl” appears to be a great thing for producing more equitable and sustainable neighborhoods or regions. Investments, resources, and people may begin to trickle back into inner city communities. I hope this is the case, but the scenario also raises many questions about what the future of our cities will look like. Instead of fighting exclusionary zoning, will gentrification become the primary challenge for advocates of regional equity? Will today’s suburbs begin to face the isolation from opportunity or deprivation facing our inner city communities? The answers to these questions are unanswered at this time and unexpected consequences always accompany societal change. As always, the future remains uncertain, but advocates need to think about these potential future challenges and be responsive to change when it occurs.

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