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Tuesday, August 8, 2006

There’s No Such Thing As “Vertical Sprawl”

Posted by on August 8 at 13:42 PM

The New York Times’s recent story on so-called “vertical sprawl” relies on a massive conflation of two unrelated issues (of which the very phrase “vertical sprawl” is a perfect example): Sprawl, in which too many people move to an area with too little infrastructure to support them, and gentrification, in which wealthy people displace the working class from center-city neighborhoods.

The Times bounces back and forth between gentrification and sprawl, misleadingly presenting the two issues as the exact same phenomenon and criticizing both in a sweeping indictment of Smart Growth policies. But the phenomenon the Times calls “vertical sprawl” is really two separate issues, and a fair treatment of those issues would have taken them each individually.

First, gentrification: As condos are built in existing neighborhoods, property values frequently go up, a situation that can drive out working-class property owners whose property taxes become too high. (On the other hand, an increase in the overall housing stock can also benefit residents, particularly renters, when supply exceeds demand—the definition of a renter’s market.) I don’t disagree that there are problems with gentrification that are real and should be addressed. But gentrification does not mean the same thing as sprawl; historically, in fact, it has meant the opposite.

Which brings us to the second topic the Times could have explored: Sprawl, which is when people move further and further away from urban centers, requiring more infrastructure. That means freeways, new electrical grids, and, too frequently, massive yards, a situation that leads to traffic congestion, environmental issues (runoff, groundwater overuse, strains on infrastructure) and parking woes (as all those exurban workers drive to jobs downtown). Using the actual definition of sprawl, “vertical sprawl” isn’t sprawl at all. It’s the opposite: When people live in dense urban centers, they need less infrastructure (roads, pipes, wires, etc.) to support them. And most of the necessary infrastructure already exists.

But what about cars? The Times cites parking and traffic problems as two of the costs of densification, but those issues are only issues in the absense of Smart-Growth policies. If new inner-city development includes the infrastructure needed to support them (transit systems, incentives to get people out of their cars, parking where it’s needed) then traffic and parking won’t be a problem. The only way traffic and parking will be problems is if developments are built with no supporting infrastructure—which isn’t Smart at all.

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Nice arguments. Too bad they go against all your pro-nimby anti-Mayor writing!!

Pro-NIMBY? I don't think you're a regular Stranger reader, StrangerDanger. As far as I can tell, the Stranger is go-go development and hates NIMBYs.

Density, density, density. Development is progress in a city. The Columbia Center is Seattle's gem, we need ten more like it and more people downtown. Vibrant nightlife, great restaurants, and real urban living come with density.

sheesh, what's with these lying trolls all of a sudden ...

Seattle needs a ton more people living here to make it a great city. I'd like to see the downtown sidewalks packed. When I had to move here for my software job, I expected more people. Good to hear a million more are coming in the next decade.

So, is sprawl "too many people mov[ing] to an area with too little infrastructure to support them", or is it "people mov[ing] further and further away from urban centers, requiring more infrastructure"?

Sprawl happens with or without infrastructure. I-933 will make it easier, so make sure you own the most upstream property.

Anyone else remember the oxymoronic term "in-city sprawl" which Greg Hill used in his P-I op-ed on the otherwise-trivial "DADU" concept? Now we see this term "vertical sprawl." I guess this is evidence that "great" minds think alike.

Nice to see the NIMBY's and anti-urbanists are jumping all over each other to come up with ever more Orwellian language.

OK, I'll bite.

If you encourage a bunch of upscale new construction that displaces affordable housing now occupied by people who work in the City to the suburbs - ta da - you've just exacerbated sprawl.

That's not so hard to understand now, is it?

Conversely - if you build a bunch of new commercial skyscrapers in the city, and only 25% of the people recruited from throughout or outside of the region to be employed in them live in the city - you also exacerbate sprawl (unless they all live on mass transit lines, which, with current ST planning, they won't for at least the next 20+ years).

Inversely, if you pack a bunch of new development into what are now fairly quiet in-city neighborhoods, many of the people who live there now for the quality of life they offer may well move further afield to find that same quality of life (or they'll move after the City piles another $400+ onto their existing $4000+ property tax bill, which rises as their assessment does, but also when their income doesn't).

The problem with New Urbanism is that it doesn't deal with the complexity of existing areas, or account for the fact that not everyone wants to (or can afford to) live the way "smart growth" types think they should.

Welcome to the real world, armchair urban planners.

They're not the same thing, but gentrification and sprawl often happen simultaneously. Sprawl happens because there is demand for living in a particular city... which leads to gentrification, because the demand allows developers and property owners to jack prices, since there are enough people willing to pay them.

Oh wow. I think I coined the term "vertical sprawl" last summer to account for a crazy developer's attempt to raze Baltimore's main historic neighborhood, Mt. Vernon. Cool. In the name of the neighborhood organization (no, we're not NIMBYs) i issued a whole bunch of press releases on the issue, gave speeches before the planning commission, historical review commission, and city council here in Baltimore.

The issue is this. Ensuring lively neighborhoods depends on a lot of things. Density of infrastructure, availability of ground-floor retail and restaurants, property prices, the availability of housing options, proximity to transportation. We argued that the construction of 250-300 apartment towers in a eighborhod that is primarily three and four storey rowhouses from the 1850s through 1890, constituted vertical sprawl. Sprawl because the developer was not going to be required to include necessary infrastructure (increased public transportation and parking, increased consumption of city services for his buildings, etc.) and would bring at absolute most 5% more density to the neighborhood. Moreover the prices of the new housing would push established families further from the center of Baltimore. So. Sprawl. Caused. By. Tall. Buildings. Vertical Sprawl.

Classic Mr. X: If you encourage a bunch of upscale new construction that displaces affordable housing now occupied by people who work in the City to the suburbs - ta da - you've just exacerbated sprawl.

This may not make sense, so let me try to explain. See, all that upscale housing causes the upscale people to breed more than they otherwise would have. If we can limit the supply of upscale housing, we can control upscale population.

Y'know, as Orwellian as phrases like "vertical sprawl" are, what really gets Orwellian is when these people actually try to explain themselves.

Jonathan: Oh wow. I think I coined the term "vertical sprawl" last summer to account for a crazy developer's attempt to raze Baltimore's main historic neighborhood, Mt. Vernon.

Well, you must be proud of yourself. Have you ever considered getting a job with the Bush adminstration? They could always use folks to come up with phrases like "Clear Skies Initiative."

Anyway, I think I see your logic, Jonathan. A logical person might pose the question, "What happens to all those people who would move into those tall buildings if the buildings weren't actually built? Where will they live instead?" Well, believe it or not, they would not actually exist if not those tall building don't get built. Those people are not actually real, living human beings but rather Matrix-like figments of our imaginations.

I suppose that was an attempt at humor. You might want to tell it to the thousands (probably tens of thousands, actually) of working class people who used to live in Seattle who've been forced to move to Kent (or Lynnwood, or Sumner, or Tacoma, or...) by the deliberate policies and actions of our city government - I'm sure they'll think you're a laugh riot.

Were you even here when a series of conscious decisions were made to turn over our working waterfront to cruise ships, to replace low-income SRO hotels with highrise office buildings, or to put light rail down the middle of MLK Way - among the many other policy choices that are pushing working class people out of the City?

Do you have any historical context at all?

Can someone fill in my memory here? There's some novel or film or some other cultural touchstone with a famous list of four oxymoronic phrases. Like "sweet is sour." But of a political nature.

Along these lines I believe I have a new slogan for the NIMBY's: "Density is sprawl." Feel free to run with it, folks.

Anyway, I was trying to come up with an analogy for this bizarre logic that promoting density produces sprawl. And I think I finally found it: supply-side economics with the principle, "The more government cuts taxes, the more revenue government brings in." Of course, that thinking was always more of a slogan than an actual economic principle, and in that sense it proved quite effective.

Mr. X: I suppose that was an attempt at humor.

Actually, I was making an attempt at a strange thing called logic.

I think the reason the NIMBY's and sprawl supporters use this kind of tortured logic that says "density causes sprawl" is that they're ultimately motivated by selfishness and greed. But they can't use selfishness and greed as an argument, so they have to invent something.

It's a bit like supply-side economics actually. The figures who first espoused it didn't actually believe it themselves, but it served their purpose quite well.

BTW, Cressona, the Stranger and you do a real disservice to lots of your fellow Democrats when you accuse them of being Republicans because they question your blind adherence to smart growth dogma.

You can't win an election in King County, let alone statewide, without suburban Democrats (of course, the Stranger illustrated the perils of a Capitol Hill-centric worldview when they called West Seattle - which is in the Seattle city limits - the suburbs, but that's another story...)

If anyone here is spouting supply side economics, Cressona, it's you.

Your argument apparently seems to be that if you just increase density rents will go down. However, if you have to tear down all of the older lowrise apartments that now rent for well under $800/month and replace them with apartments that rent for $1200/mo and up or with $225,000 condos - that whole portion of the market that serves poor and working class folks in this City disappears.

This is what is happening in the real world - and it is neither "selfish" nor "greedy" to point it out.

To me, MSM articles, such as this Times article, seem to point out (subtextually as least, unless they are written from a overtly partisan perspective) that "cars are a fact of life, have been, and will be", the author then metaphorically pats-on-the-head those who would rather remove car pollution (if not automobiles themselves) as a fact of American life, as being, well, naive fools at best and anyone who agrees, as a fool by association. The attitude is, it is something not even worth talking about, much less trying to act on, so everyone just shut up already.

A similar line of argument seems to be behind GW BUSH's argument for not enacting pollution standards which will control green house gas emissions. That line is "pollution is a fact of life everywhere, has been, and will be" then he goes on to say how most controls against pollution would not work, would invite "justifiable" defiance (due to *sniff* economic hardship) of any regulations, would end in failure, and are only seriously talked about by naive fools (at best) anyways. So shut up already.

I offer no way to rectify the situation, or a deeper explanation; it just seems to me that there is a curious similarity in the conclusions that everything is just fine and dandy with America and as Americans we should “preserve” and keep intact the car culture and industrial culture as it stands today for future generations of Americans.

I will never live in Marysville or Auburn, etc. (Unless I become the sheriff). I will also never subject myself to the moron parade up and down I-5, etc., twice daily, 5 days a week. Santa needs me to pull the sleigh, and the stable is in Seattle, period.

What follows from much of the arguments here is that these exurb sprawl places will be filled with you and people like you (or -- lucky for you Gentry -- those you manage) in the next ten to twenty years. And sprawlsville is hicksville, no? Through being cool already...Tudwell? I doubt 'forced exurbanization' happens without a fight for urban verticality.

I can't believe how much everyone is freaking out about the terminology ("vertical sprawl") instead talking about the more substantial underlying issue. You write "Using the actual definition of sprawl, “vertical sprawl” isn’t sprawl at all. It’s the opposite: When people live in dense urban centers, they need less infrastructure (roads, pipes, wires, etc.) to support them." which seems to be exactly the point of the NYT article. People might do well to worry about the other parts of the smart growth equation. Density is great, but it relies on more than just living space in downtown cores. For instance, what does the mass transit from downtown to big job centers on the Eastside look like? Does it make sense for Microsoft employees to live downtown without owning cars? If not, there are still very real issues w/r/t to parking, traffic, and other infrastructure issues. It's unfortunate that the use of a hotbutton word seems to have obscured an otherwise interesting topic.

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