Sprawl Update

By Stern, Emily | Nation's Cities Weekly, March 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

Sprawl Update


Stern, Emily, Nation's Cities Weekly


The Other Side of Sprawl

When conversations turn to sprawl, the focus is often on the ill effects of rapid, uncontrolled growth on newer suburbs and outlying areas: traffic congestion, loss of open space, air pollution, and strains on public services--from roads to schools. Now new research by Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution takes a closer look at the other side of sprawl--the places and the people left behind in the wake of this runaway development train.

Downs' research finds that there is growing political momentum toward addressing the suburban effects of sprawl. However, one of the biggest social dilemmas of our time--the concentration of poor people in inner city neighborhoods, isolated from jobs, educational and other opportunities in the larger region--is also part and parcel of broader development-related decisions and policies. But the plight of the inner cities and their residents is often ignored in sprawl debates, notes Downs.

Currently, much of the resources and political will in the sprawl arena is dedicated to alleviating mainly suburban, development-related problems like traffic congestion, Downs argues. While these are important goals, there is also a bigger political challenge and potential payoff, he says, in harnessing the current anti-sprawl fervor to (1) invest more in redeveloping core areas and (2) open up more affordable housing opportunities in the suburbs.

This two-part strategy is needed because of the dynamics of urban land and real estate markets, he notes. Slowing growth at the metropolitan fringe and redirecting it into core, built-up areas through higher-density in-fill, renovation, and revitalization efforts could spur gentrification as more middle- and upper-income families move into these closer-in neighborhoods. Rising housing prices could in turn push many lower income households out of these core-city neighborhoods, leaving them with few affordable alternatives.

Consequently, expanding affordable housing opportunities for lower income households in the broader region is an important part of any central city revitalization effort. Such an approach may require some level of regional coordination, such as providing region-wide incentives to build more low-cost housing. Some communities have already made strong commitments to providing housing that is affordable to a broad cross-section of their workers and residents, such as Montgomery County, Maryland, which requires developers to build affordable housing as a specific percentage of all new units.

Details: "Some Realities about Sprawl and Urban Decline," by Anthony Downs, in Housing Policy Debate, Vol.

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