In Support of Urban Sprawl

By: 
Al Jacobs

A remarkably articulate political columnist, who covered government for nearly 60 years, just produced an article opposing suburban sprawl. George Skelton, a contributor to the Los Angeles Times since 1974, and whose column “Capitol Journal” dates back to 1993, criticized the California legislature’s recent rejection of Senate Bill 50, proposed by State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), aimed at forcing cities and counties to permit denser housing as a means of combating the ever disparaging housing crisis.

In particular, Skelton maintains “The status quo is unsustainable. We should be building at least 250,000 housing units a year and we’re producing fewer than 100,000.” He added that “counties and cities long ago allowed untenable sprawl … planting housing tracts. Instead of building upward, they built sideways.”

Senator Weiner’s proposed legislation permitted the inclusion of mid-rise apartments near major transit stops and job centers, thereby overriding local zoning ordinances. In addition, fourplexes could have been built in single-family neighborhoods over the objections of the residents of those areas.

As an added feature, any project over 10 units required the developer to fund affordable housing or be obligated to set aside 25 percent of the units for low-income residents. Understandably, the bill invited opposition by the many groups who envisioned how such rules might decimate the residential neighborhoods we Americans came to favor over our lifetimes.

Perhaps it’s appropriate to formally define “suburban sprawl,” which is a takeoff on the term “urban sprawl,” a highly politicized term that invariably takes on negative connotations. Quite simply, it’s the spreading of developments such as housing and shopping centers into suburban or rural areas. It‘s criticized for causing environmental degradation, intensifying segregation, and undermining the vitality of existing urban areas, all the while attacked on aesthetic grounds. The term is now a rallying cry for managing urban growth.

As I look back over my past, I acknowledge my participation in suburban sprawl for as long as I can recall. In 1956 I purchased my first home in Torrance, California – a two-bedroom, single bath, 825-square-foot structure in a modest little group of 11 near-identical houses. With my salary of about $400 per month, its price of $10,395 seemed to be all I could afford.

And I recall my neighbors well. We all fitted into the same income bracket, and as we struggled to pay our way – as best we could – we maintained our properties as the proud owners we were, and conducted ourselves in a manner befitting our homeowner status. As the years passed and my fortunes improved, my wife and I moved to more select locations and somewhat nicer homes. And with every relocation, we embraced the concept of suburban sprawl.

Before proceeding further, it’s time to review more closely what are currently perceived to be the deleterious effects of suburban sprawl. Perhaps one of the first objections to be raised dates back to the late 1950s, with its linkage to the building of highways. The objection at the time was that as the population spread beyond the central section of the cities, highways must be built, resulting in increased smog into the atmosphere, and correspondingly poorer health. With the average American spending 17,600 minutes annually behind the steering wheel, the argument continues to be raised – with the only change being the substitution of global warming in lieu of smog.

A second concern is that of water overconsumption. Spreading out development seems to result in greater water use, as low-density communities use more water per capita than dense city areas. Quite probably attractive landscaping is the primary culprit.

It’s claimed that people living in suburban areas are likely to be more obese than those living in urban areas. The belief is that suburbanites rely upon their vehicles, rather than walking or cycling, more often than urbanites. This lower activity increases weight gain which can lead to health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

But perhaps the most detrimental aspect of all is the social consequence. When residents relocate outside of the urban regions, they take their tax dollars with them – and it’s the city’s poorest residents that are left behind. This creates economic disparity and stratification based upon location. To further complicate matters, this sprawl invariably involves economic “white flight,” leading to racial segregation as the minorities are left behind in the poorest parts of a region. I harbor little doubt it’s this particular reality which truly infuriates the suburban sprawl opponents … and possibly entices its supporters.

Having described several frequently voiced objections to suburban sprawl, I’ll now list those features which cause me to view it favorably … so much so that after several decades in quasi-cloistered residences, I’ve moved into the suburbs and hope to stay here forever. Above all, one element which thoroughly delights me is space to spread out.

Apparently, the closer you get to a city center, the smaller the living spaces tend to be. But no longer are my suits and sports jackets wedged into the four-foot closet provided in my one-time Washington, D.C. apartment. Nor must I squeeze into the 3’ by 3’ stall shower in my 1,145 square foot house in West Los Angeles. And most importantly, homes get more affordable as you move further out, even though they’re larger.

As a case in point, in August 2018, the median price of a single-family home in Hayes County south of Austin, Texas, was $294,659, whereas in the city the median price is $393,000, even though smaller in size. Very simply, if you want the most home for your money, the suburbs are the place to house hunt.

While we’re discussing space, be aware that although as a suburbanite you’ll commute a little farther, it’s the only time you’ll need to deal with the city crowds. Invariably, suburbs account for fewer people per square mile, which means less congestion. I recall leaving my duty station each day in congested Anacostia, District of Columbia, and fighting my way across both the 17th Street and the Potomac River bridges to return home. By the time I arrived in suburban Arlington, Virginia, I found the driving to be a breeze. How sad my daily activities couldn’t be conducted on leisurely Glebe Road just a few blocks from my residence.

Another benefit of suburban living for families is the school systems. In general, suburbs tend to have higher-rated schools than those in the urban areas. Not only are the students more receptive to the educational process, but they experience far less disciplinary problems. An additional plus is that they typically enjoy a better student-to-teacher ratio.

As a final consideration, one concern cannot be ignored. In comparing the city with the outlying areas, we must not disregard habitability and safety. This is particularly so in this era when many major communities are experiencing degradation from the effects of homelessness, loss of community control, and the blatant effects of poverty and lawlessness. Many cities are far less safe today than at any time in decades, and virtually all of them experience far higher crime rates than their surrounding suburbs.

Most certainly the newspaper and television displays we’ve viewed in recent months of cities with tent encampments, such as Los Angeles, Santa Ana, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Las Cruces, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, are enough to cause persons to avoid these areas like the plague. And most depressing of all, it appears the authorities who are responsible for maintaining some semblance of order and decency in these communities appear incapable of any effective rehabilitative oversight whatever.

A final thought: Those of you who desire to be inner-city dwellers may revel in your sophistication. I, on the other hand, will remain here in suburbia where I choose to enjoy a quieter, less frenzied routine. What I may miss in never-ending involvement will be replaced with the more tranquil lifestyle I prefer. I can only say: To each his own.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al can be contacted at al@abjacobs.com

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