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Going down the rabbit hole of sprawl repair

Going down the rabbit hole of sprawl repair

[Note: Grant Henninger kindly responded to my letter to Rob Steuteville on sprawl repair here. Below is my response.]

Dear Grant,

I appreciate your comments, and I also very much appreciate your dedication to your hometown. Would that everyone would have the same sort of long-term view!  I have a tendency to be a bit verbose, not to mention think through so many levels of details, so I apologize for the length of this response. As I got into it more, it sort of got away from me as a response directly to you, and more of an elaboration on my previous correspondence. So here goes-

Allow me to try and shift this conversation a bit more out of the abstract. These types of discussions can tend to quickly sound like political debate – all noise and vagaries, with very little of anything substantive that can affect people’s lives. I suppose that's one reason I find myself enjoying the Granola Shotgun blog so much - Johnny does an excellent job of relating specific situations.

Look, any individual can do what they want. God knows I’ve ignored plenty of advice, and you may completely ignore my thoughts here. That’s fine, and certainly your choice or anyone else’s. But I have learned a few useful things in doing this for two decades, and my desire is to share the lessons I’ve learned in this space. I want people to succeed, not fail, and desperately want us to produce more great walkable places in this country. The current supply is so pitifully small.

To some extent my evolving views are a product of age and experience, and to some extent they’re a product of living for a few years now in Savannah. When you actually get to experience a first-rate walkable city (at least a US version) day-in and day-out, it can't help but impact how you see the challenges and the opportunities.

As I reflect back on my own work over the years, a very high percentage has been on what some might call sprawl retrofit projects. Some of those have been with my favorite clients and people. The folks I’ve worked with in suburban municipalities are people in the profession that I have tremendous admiration for. The ones who bothered to hire someone like me are the ones trying really hard to make the world a better place. It's simply not part of my DNA to denigrate or mock them, or their work. Rather, I want them to find reward instead of frustration.

So, you'll not hear me say that anybody is wrong for pursuing their own idealistic goals of retrofitting sprawl. I am however saying that if you were a municipal client, I would point you towards where, in my opinion, you have the best chances for success. Or, if you were working for me, I would not let you do certain things. I would focus you in areas that I believe to be productive. All of that obviously leads to the next questions: what areas, and to what ends? That’s what I’d like to focus on today.

One of my key points from before is a simple declaration: let urbanism be urbanism, and let sprawl be sprawl.

First, can we please engage in some language clarification? Most people think of suburban and sprawl as synonyms. Clearly, they are not. Many suburbs were their own towns before the car era, and were simply absorbed by post-war growth. That’s entirely different from places built from the mid-60’s on, which were purpose-built for cars, and thus are correctly labeled as sprawl. That sprawl takes several different forms, which I previously outlined here.

Location is irrelevant; it’s pattern of development that matters. This may sound very basic to you, but many, many people get this wrong. As a simple example: Marietta is a suburb of Atlanta, but is also a county seat that’s existed for 200 years. It has a downtown that looks like this:

It also has a sea of development built later that looks like this.

The former is urban, the latter is sprawl – it matters not that it’s all today a “suburb” of Atlanta.

Once you understand this basic fact, you can dive deeper into the different types of sprawl. That’s why I wrote the piece on the four types – to get into more nuance about what people often perceive of as just one big “thing” out there. And it’s in that nuance where we can discover what deserves the attention of well-intentioned people and what does not.

Now, intentions are one thing, but return on investment is also critical. For an individual, there's a "return on investment" that is very personal in nature. If you're someone advocating big changes in anything, you likely have a set of measures that is above and beyond the financial. Where you invest your own time is related to a sense of personal satisfaction, or perhaps a sense of moral duty. I won't minimize that at all, especially since I've been know to suffer from that affliction throughout much of my own life.

But for communities there’s a real, tangible financial side. The Strong Towns blog often gets into this issue, and does it well. Given our understanding of the different types of development patterns, then, here’s what I’d like to do: draw a graph. Sometimes for me it helps to draw these things out, since I’m a visual person. I begin this process by listing all of the different types of patterns, both urban and sprawl. Then, based on my experience and understanding, I rated each of them relative to the level of investment risk and the probable financial return for a municipality. Investment risk in this case really means how much public investment is needed in order to make a type of pattern into a high-quality, successful walkable neighborhood. So, for example, big-city urban requires a fair amount more investment than small-town urban, but the returns are also much higher. Standard suburbia requires a correspondingly very large investment, but the return is more on the level of small-town urban in most cases. So then, if we’re looking to discuss what is a good investment for a community relative to the likelihood of making a real difference in our communities and in people’s lives, it shakes out this way in my opinion:

The area I circled correlates to lowest risk and highest return. It's my humble opinion that every community (and frankly every individual) should logically look for that combination. And this is not to say: don’t ever work in the various other types of settlements. It’s simply a reflection that it’s increasingly risky, depending on the pattern, and the return doesn’t necessarily correspond to the risk. Again, that doesn’t mean – don’t ever do this. It means we need to go into the discussion and problem with eyes wide open.

So then, what “to do?” That’s the logical question, for much of sprawl. And while I generally loathe generic rules (since so much of planning and development is specific to a place and a market), I’ll lay a few suggestions out here as starting points. Keep in mind that this advice is directed mostly at people who either are, or desire to be, leaders in their community. This is not really me telling an individual, “go do this and don’t do that,” although I’m happy to have that conversation on a personal basis.

For cities and towns, then, I’d suggest these priorities for your “suburban” areas, which all come a priority level down from the "urban" areas circled in yellow in the chart:

1st Order:

  • If you have a downtown, work to make it successful as its own walkable neighborhood. Whatever pre-1940’s bones you have are the most logical place to begin. Master plan it in detail, code it correctly, and start implementing immediately. In many suburban communities, this essentially takes the form of "small-town urban."
  • Reform your own greenfield development processes and rules, if you have such land available. The future can always be changed much more easily than the recent past, and let’s face it – in most US markets we’re going to continue to expand outward regardless of what many planners might desire. Let’s at least get the new stuff right. The logical place to start is by planning and platting as "small-town urban" and allowing for growth and change.
  • Build a network of bike paths, either on or off-street. In suburban areas, I’m far less dogmatic about the importance of on-street bike routes. But, in any situation, this is an inexpensive, simple way to provide transportation options for your residents. Biking pairs very well with urbanism, but it also enhances the lifestyle of suburban residents. And, over time, a really good network can transform how a place is experienced.

2nd Order:

  • Carefully consider areas of Pre-Interstate suburbia that are capable of urbanizing. Work closely with the public to show how such neighborhoods can evolve successfully into something more diverse and walkable. As you study these early post-war suburbs, you'll quickly notice differences between some that can successfully make the transition and others that may never be able to. Keep in mind that for the general public, this is going to be a tough sell, and you'd better approach this with honesty, transparency and good data.
  • If you have large office parks or regional malls, work with the owners (usually a single entity) to help transform them into town centers. These sites generally are large enough to give some sense of critical mass for walkability. Just don’t expect them to be more than isolated islands of walkability, and also don’t expect this to be easy. Some owners may want to pursue this route, but many simply don’t believe it’s viable. Even the successful examples will still require copious amounts of structured parking, due to their location in car-centric sprawl.
  • Work with the owners of small retail centers, especially at major intersections, to inject some housing and public space. Be prepared for opposition from the public and owners to take these steps, but if you find a couple, it’s a worthy endeavor. Again – just don’t expect nirvana from these, since it’s entirely likely that at least one side will be a terrible stroad.

3rd Order: (in other words, WAY down the list)

  • Reform your stroads into something else, such as a transit-oriented corridor.

In my own personal opinion, I hold out very little hope for some of the fantasies that I see drawn for standard suburbia. This is not meant to be a Debbie Downer; it's just been the reality after going through the wars for a fair amount of time. Concepts such as turning cul-de-sac, disconnected subdivisions into mixed-use or even mixed-residence neighborhoods; making long stretches of pad-site retail stroads into transit-oriented urbanism; or connecting together broken street networks - I just see very, very little of that actually happening in the future. The examples that do happen will struggle to be anything better than C+ urbanism, as I noted before, and will be far more car-dependent than even the lowest density small-town urbanism. I take it as more likely that some of those types of places will simply collapse of their own accord over time, rather than be repairable.

When it comes to thinking positively about the future (as I’m generally inclined to do, despite the paragraph above), it’s very easy to get caught up in beautiful renderings and compelling personalities. We look at drawings of sprawl repair and think -  wow, something really can be done for this crap! But even when drawn by the best, it’s a very different task than balancing the time and money investment relative to the reward.

In general, that really is the theme that I take away from much of the Strong Towns movement, and how I see today and the future. We need to focus talk of planning and development on more realistic cost/benefit scenarios. I’m not optimistic that most places are going to have a deluge of public money available to create place, and I’m also concerned about what sort of private financing will be available as interest rates begin to rise again. The short version: we’re all going to have do more with much less, and so our investments need to be strategic. We won’t have as much luxury to make expensive mistakes.

This is all also not to mention the sheer hubris that we SHOULD try to change it all, for whatever reason. The environmental arguments have never really convinced me, to be perfectly honest, and it’s increasingly obvious that technology will in fact change our perceptions of this realm. More on that another time. But the idea that every place should be walkable, well, I’m sorry, but no. It’s a big world full of choices, and who are we to say every choice should be urban just because (insert your reason)? Many people really do like their sprawl. As Chris Leinberger astutely notes, we only need 5% of the land area to accommodate the demand for walkable urbanism, anyway. We should focus on those areas where we can do it really, really well. We can’t possibly fix it all; the math (and the politics) just doesn’t work.

So to summarize a long-winded note: changing a 4 acre parcel off the stroad into an attractive, walking-ish development is not a bad thing. If that's important to you and your world, go for it. Make it beautiful and pleasurable. Just don’t expect it to be much more than that, ever. Don’t expect it to fundamentally change the DNA of the sprawl that encircles it. The only route to that kind of change is to fundamentally alter the pattern, and in most places that’s just not going to be worth the expense or the time. Since that is the sad reality of so much of what is built on the ground, my advice is to come to a Buddhist acceptance of what is, and focus your energy in the upper left-hand quadrant of my highly-scientific graph.

Look, I know reasonable people will disagree with me. These are my opinions and thoughts after working in the field for many years, and spending plenty of my own time tilting at windmills. I hope everyone keeps trying to make their own towns, no matter where they fall on the urban to suburban scale, into better, more livable places. In my own view, I still think the winning formula for urbanists is to let urbanism be urbanism and let sprawl be sprawl. It's the shortest route to success, politically an easy sell and oh by the way, it will work. If you are committed to living or working in a place that is sprawl, then my suggestions are to start with what I outlined above. Just, please, be strategic. Think very hard about the return on investment, and the real-world impact on people's lives. 

All the best,

Kevin

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