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Will Rescue Plan Simply Serve Sprawl?

Peter Katz / Oct 09 2008

For Release Sunday, October 12, 2008

Peter Katz

There’s a critical “place” story beyond the carelessness and/or chicanery of subprime mortgage lenders and resellers who precipitated the crisis that’s triggered a $700 billion federal bailout and global financial jitters.

It’s the brutal geographic sorting out of winners and losers among the residential properties we call home. It has to do with the “intrinsic value” of a dwelling. Which, in turn, has to do with where it’s located and the convenience and amenities of the surrounding community.

In his study Driven to the Brink, researcher Joe Cortright identifies an emerging pattern of home price fluctuations spanning many U.S. regions. “Distant suburbs,” he writes, “have seen the biggest declines, while values in close-in neighborhoods have held up better, and in some cases continued to increase.”

The picture’s not without exceptions, including the despair of already troubled neighborhoods in such “rustbelt” cities as Cleveland and Detroit. But the pattern across the continent is fairly consistent: Dwellings within walkable neighborhoods, close to transit, shopping and places of entertainment, are holding their own in terms of price and value.

By contrast, the future appears far bleaker for the endless rows of foreclosed homes out on the urban fringes — the “drive ’til you qualify” subdivisions located half a gas tank away from most everywhere. Christopher Leinberger, in his Atlantic article “The Next Slum,” says there are clear signals that such places “will become magnets for poverty, crime and social dysfunction.”

We were sowing the seeds of this for decades. And at first, it seemed like a good idea. In the new suburbia that developed after World War II, tract subdivisions were churned out by “production builders” providing affordable housing for the masses. Accompanying strip shopping centers offered convenience. Commutes into town (often on federal interstate highways) were easy enough.

But by the early ’90s, the cracks in the Suburban Dream were starting to show. Roads surrounded by partially completed developments were going into gridlock. Millions of Americans found they had to spend most of their non-working hours behind the wheel commuting longer and longer distances, or ferrying kids to the playgrounds and other activities that in earlier times had been a hop, skip and a jump from home.

In 1993 I was attracted to (and helped represent) the rebellious group of architects and town planners called “New Urbanists.” We wanted a return to the kind of compact, walkable neighborhoods where many of our parents grew up. Such places, built mostly prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s, featured main streets and town squares, corner stores and small schools easily accessed by neighborhood children on foot or bicycle.

The critics snickered at our bid to reinvent historic town form. Americans’ love affair with the automobile, they said, would never end. Though now, in an era of $4 gallon gas and traffic congestion horrors, the latter-20th century model is clearly running on fiscal fumes.

Today the New Urbanist model is now being constructed in hundreds of successful neighborhoods nationwide. It rejects the formula of cul-de-sacked McMansions, instead offering a range of housing choices: Single-family homes sit cheek by jowl with duplexes, triplexes and apartment buildings. Seniors can “age in place” because shopping, parks, libraries, clinics are close at hand, obviating the need to drive for every errand. True community is being planned, and implemented. And the evidence is in: this works!

Maybe it’s time, even as the billions of bailout dollars flow, for official Washington to get tough. It’s emerging as lender of last resort, asset manager for the wounded American taxpayer, assuming the responsibility for thousands of toxic mortgages on property that more diligent local planners might never have allowed to be built. So why could Washington not advocate — maybe even require as a price for the potential subsidies and loan insurance it may offer — compliance with planning rules aimed at promoting more economically robust, resource-efficient communities?

Indeed, with solid place-based, home price data like Cortright’s, we now have information one could “take to the bank” in the form of “smart growth” underwriting standards to push qualified projects to the front of the line for speedy loan approval.

Experience in the recent boom/bust cycle, and others before it, suggests that local realtors, bank loan officers, city council members, the folks who wittingly or unwittingly built the unsustainable sprawl development we have today, could benefit from the discipline of a strongly recommended—or even mandatory — checklist of more rational, community planning rules. And so too, in the long run, would federal taxpayers if the smart rules became the norm, not — as today they often still are — the exception.

New Urbanism, “smart growth,” aren’t idealistic throwbacks to a lost time, or straws of wishful thinking about the future. They represent economy, affordability, creation of a viable human habitat that can truly serve the needs of 21st century housing markets.

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  1. […] Katz refers to Leingberger’s research in his recent article on, where Katz argues that the current system of subsidized sprawl should be reversed, and the […]

  2. […] says founding executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Peter Katz, in an op-ed on “…local realtors, bank loan officers, city council members, the folks who wittingly or […]