Politics There’s No Such Thing As “Vertical Sprawl”
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.