Is suburban sprawl a positive feature we should embrace?

Suburban sprawl doesn’t create affordability. Instead, it’s a sign of community policies that encourage production of all kinds of housing. Affordability is a function of the quantity of housing, not housing type.


Most urban planners and landscape architects dislike suburban sprawl. Admittedly, much of suburbia is a bland, placeless morass of cookie-cutter houses, underserved by poorly designed transportation systems. Well-designed suburbs like Irvine are more the exception than the rule.

The uninspired past of suburbia warrants criticism, but communities like Irvine prove that nothing about suburbia is intrinsically negative. Urban areas can be just as poorly executed as suburban ones, and favoring high-density development near transit hubs does nothing to guarantee the quality of life will be any better for residents than unchecked suburban sprawl.

Despite the opinions of many urban planners, suburban sprawl is not universally bad, and it shouldn’t be considered an evil to be avoided at all times and at all costs. Suburbia is a Mecca for families who covet clean, safe neighborhoods unfettered by junkies, homeless people, and the assortment of unseemly characters most often found in urban areas. The less suburban development communities provide, the more valuable these enclaves become.

What If Urban Sprawl Is the Only Realistic Way to Create Affordable Cities?

Building suburbs makes cities more affordable than building towers, according to research released Wednesday

By LAURA KUSISTO, Sep 14, 2016 10:42 am ETmarquee_park_place

Building sprawling suburbs is better at making cities affordable than building tall towers, according to research released Wednesday.

Environmentalists, urban planners and economists are pushing cities such as New York and San Francisco to build more housing to help combat rapidly rising rents and home prices that are crowding out the middle class. But trying to build upward in order to keep cities accessible to average families may be a losing battle, according to findings to be released Wednesday by BuildZoom, a website for contractors.

The conclusions of this study are wrong. Suburbs do not create affordability. Instead, unchecked suburban sprawl is a sign of policies that do not restrict housing development of all kinds, and that is what creates affordable cities.

Suburban sprawl does not create affordability because suburbs simply aren’t dense enough. The costs of roads and infrastructure and the services that support housing is far more expensive in suburban areas than it is in more densely developed urban areas. While the cost of houses may be lower than the cost of high-density condos, the infrastructure costs are much higher for houses, and when the two are considered together, suburban development is not a bargain.implode

I recently noted that The recent apartment boom is great for California because high-density development by definition puts more housing units on an acre of land, and in markets like Coastal California with a chronic shortage of housing, the more units the better. Once a market is underserved, they type of housing matters much less than the quantity of it.

In other words, we can build our way back to affordability, but that won’t occur by promoting suburban sprawl over high-density infill development.

Even cities that were able to increase the pace of housing construction without sprawling, such as Portland and Seattle, were unable to keep pace with demand nearly as well as their counterparts that spread outward. Portland saw inflation-adjusted home values increase 78% from 1980 to 2010 and Seattle saw home prices jump 119%, according to BuildZoom. Meanwhile, Las Vegas saw real home values increase just 4.7% and Atlanta saw a mere 14% jump.

great-condosIt wasn’t the sprawl that made Las Vegas and Atlanta more affordable than Portland or Seattle. Both Las Vegas and Atlanta have few barriers to residential development, and Portland and Seattle do. Portland in particularly was much more affordable before passing slow-growth legislation that inhibits the ability of developers to provide enough houses to accommodate a strong economy.

There are a variety of reasons why building up has proven less effective at keeping housing costs down. For one, tall buildings are more expensive to build than single-family homes, so the apartments and condos in them tend to be pricier.

Costs do not drive prices. When prices get high enough to warrant more expensive construction, then that construction occurs. Further, as I pointed out above, this glib analysis completely ignores the infrastructure costs, which are much higher for suburban sprawl.

If American cities were willing to level single-family homes and build apartment towers, they could likely keep up with demand without sprawl, but that is unlikely given the political power given to local community groups and the radical changes that would mean to virtually any American city outside of Manhattan.

And who would want to live in places like that? Suburbs have their place.realtor_nonsense

“The big takeaway is that if expensive cities like New York and San Francisco want to do something about affordability they have to do so at a scale that is unprecedented in this country,” said Issi Romem, chief economist at BuildZoom. “Realistically the odds of that happening are slim to none.”

Unfortunately, he’s probably right.

“What you’ll get there is an exacerbation of the problems we already have in expensive cities. The distinction between homeowners and renters will become less and less a stage of life and more and more if your parents can help you. That’s not a future that seems very welcoming to me,” Mr. Romem said.

This is already a sad reality in most of Coastal California, particularly since much of our entry-level housing stock is priced above the conforming loan limit. At this point, only people with Daddy Warbucks helping them have the supersized down payments necessary to buy a home. While that may be great for silver spooners, what about those who aren’t so fortunate? Why should they be excluded from homeownership?

What we need isn’t more suburban sprawl. We need policies that allow us to build enough of all types of housing to meet the demands of our growing population.

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