The Culture of Low Density

Prepared remarks by
C. Kenneth Orski
Innovation Briefs
Before the
Joint NARC/AMPO Washington Policy Conference
March 15-17, 2001

Twenty five years ago, the Council on Environmental Quality issued a report called "The Cost of Sprawl." The report was the first official acknowledgment that sprawl might have some negative implications and that we might want our cities to grow in a more orderly manner. However, during the two decades that followed, the trends documented in that report continued unchecked: housing tracts pushed out, ever deeper into the surrounding areas; urban jobs migrated in growing numbers to the suburbs; our dependence on the automobile became ever more pronounced while the use of transit continued to erode. Now, twenty-five years later, we are hearing the same warnings. Are we going to heed them any more this time than we did a generation ago?

My interviews with planning officials and politicians across the country and across the political spectrum lead me to doubt it. Metropolitan dispersal, I am being told may be largely beyond the power of public policies to influence. A powerful combination of population pressures, rising housing demand, advances in communication technology and personal housing preferences has made continued outward expansion of our urban areas seemingly inevitable.

The Demographics of Housing Demand

A strong economy, low interest rates and liberal mortgage lending policies have made home ownership attainable to an ever- growing proportion of the population. Minorities and low-income families are buying homes like never before. About a third of the new mortgage loans made in 2000 were extended to borrowers with down payments of as little as three percent, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. Partly as a result, minorities are buying homes at a record rate. Most of this demand is focused on housing in the outer suburbs where land is still comparatively cheap and mass production methods keep housing affordable. In suburban Maryland, minority population increased 30 percent (from 29 percent to 36 percent) between 1990 and 2000, according to the latest census data. The District of Columbia's population, by contrast, declined six percent and the population of Baltimore plunged by 80,000. Also contributing to the suburban housing demand is immigration Unlike the early 1900s when immigrants flocked to the cities, many of the new immigrants are settling in the suburbs. Of immigrants who arrived between 1990 and 1998, 45 percent reside in suburbs, according to a HUD study. A good example is Arlington County where immigrant Asian population has more than doubled since the last decennial census. Just as low mortgage policies under the GI Bill of Rights encouraged the first wave of suburban migration in the 1950s, the new policies to promote home ownership among the have-nots are fueling the current wave of suburban expansion. These policies plus a high rate of household formation promise to sustain a robust housing market among minorities in the years ahead. Most of that market will not be in the central cities but on the suburban fringe.

The Lure of Suburban Living A local official told me, " Americans live in low density suburbs because they like it that way, and no amount of preaching by the political elites about the virtues of high density living will change their minds." Indeed, when people are given a choice and have the means to do so they overwhelmingly opt for life in the suburbs. The ease of commuting is no longer a major determinant of residential location. People are willing to give up proximity to jobs in return for the relative safety, privacy, and tranquility of suburban life. In a 1997 Fannie Mae survey only 9% of the respondents expressed a preference for living in a large city. The average American associates livability with low residential density. Indeed, objections to higher residential densities in the close-in suburbs of Montgomery County MD have been so loud that they have prompted the county council to dismantle a policy that was designed to expedite infill development in established neighborhoods. "We haven't been able to stop from making density a four-letter word," Gary Garczynski, a Washington DC developer and incoming president of the National Association of Home Builders remarked at a recent National Green Building Conference in Seattle.


But - you might say - look at the cities of Europe. Aren't they a living proof that urban growth can be contained? Not any more! The forces of urban dispersal are as relentless in Europe as they are in America. Between 1970 and 1990, the share of metropolitan population living in the central city has declined in virtually every European city. [It went down from 31.6 to 23.1 percent in Paris, from 40.7 to 38.1 percent in London, from 38.2 to 29.7 percent in Zurich and from 80 to 66.5 percent in Amsterdam]. This, despite the fact that local governments in Europe have more control over land use, that public transit service is far more extensive, and suburban home ownership is not subsidized by the tax code. A striking example of a suburban exodus has been the former East Germany. According to The Washington Post (Peter Finn, "East Germans Abandoning Their Cities," The Washington Post, March 16, 2001), the East Germans are moving out of central cities in droves, as incomes and auto ownership rise. In Leipzig, a city of 500,0000, about 20 percent of city-based apartments are vacant, their owners having chosen to move to the suburbs, an option that was denied to them during the communist regime.

The fact is that the compact European city with clearly delineated boundaries is an illusion. The charming and vibrant city centers we see as we step out of the hotel are pockets of urbanity inhabited largely by tourists and the very rich. Europe's middle class has moved to the suburbs - where they shop in malls, live in auto-oriented subdivisions and drive on traffic-clogged roads. Most tourists are not aware of this because they tend to stay in the historic city centers where the hotels, museums, and other tourist attractions are located. But anyone who has traveled in Europe by train or auto through miles upon miles of dreary suburbs is under no illusion that urban sprawl is confined to America.

The Politics of Smart Growth

In the final analysis, the success of the smart growth movement depends on whether a political constituency can be mustered to aggressively champion growth controls. Creation of just such a constituency has been the goal of the Sierra Club and other conservation-minded forces. It has been their hope that concern about the effects of sprawl - long commutes, loss of open spaces, daily traffic jams - would eventually energize millions of new activists to form a grassroots anti-sprawl movement. But the likelihood of mobilizing an army of aroused citizens to march against sprawl has always struck me as wishful thinking. The broad public does not regard scattered development as undesirable. As a Montgomery county councilman told me ,"the issue of sprawl does not energize the electorate; quite the contrary, it's the prospect of higher densities that brings out the citizen opposition in my district."

Thus, selling the benefits of denser development may be harder than originally thought. Just how hard it might be is illustrated by the experience of Portland, Oregon. Despite an urban boundary and other Smart Growth techniques aimed at concentrating population growth, Portland could not stop urban decentralization. In its first decade of vigorously applying Smart Growth policies, Portland's intown neighborhoods saw their population erode while the suburbs kept growing, according to the latest census figures. More and more of the housing in established city neighborhoods is occupied by young singles, childless couples and "empty nesters," while families with children are moving out into the suburbs, beyond the urban boundary, where housing is more affordable. "You can keep lot sizes small, wedge in a few more in-fill homes and town houses... But you can't get families to live in the same square footage they would have even 10 or 20 years ago," a Portland city planner was quoted as saying. The Portland experience suggests that even aggressive Smart Growth policies are powerless to stop the suburban exodus in the face of population growth and the public's desire for breathing room and reasonably priced housing.

To be sure, Smart Growth has gained some converts. A series of local growth control measures calling for preservation of open spaces and limits on housing construction were approved in northern California in the November 2000 elections. In New Jersey, voters adopted a statewide open space preservation program. But the smart growth movement also has suffered some stinging defeats recently, notably in Arizona (31-69) and Colorado (30-70). In both states, the referenda were confronted with criticism that they merely would preserve open spaces for the affluent while jeopardizing the future of affordable housing for the middle class. And in La Salle County IL, a proposed county wide zoning ordinance that would have prohibited residential development in rural areas was defeated 82 to 12.


These and other signs suggest that the Smart Growth movement is likely to remain largely a symbolic gesture. To be sure, local growth management policies may succeed in creating new pockets of residential density here and there. But it is doubtful that the Smart Growth movement will have the power to re-shape America's urban landscape in a major way. The demographic and economic forces driving metropolitan expansion are just too powerful to be reined in and directed by government policy. What is more, there is no significant political constituency at any level that will champion the idea of putting breaks on urban decentralization. Households and businesses will continue to follow the dictates of their own self interests rather than prescriptions of smart growth advocates And that means, in the absence of some cataclysmic energy crisis, continued metropolitan dispersal as far into the future as we can see.

(c) 2001 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
Demographia is "pro-choice" with respect to urban development.
People should have the freedom to live and work where and how they like.

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