New Urban Planners Can’t Define Suburban Sprawl, But They Hate It When They See It: an exclusive interview with Sam Staley

Published November 1, 1998

“Stop suburban sprawl” is fast becoming the rallying cry of central planners, command-and-control regulators and a growing number of elected legislators. What’s remarkable is that “suburban sprawl” has no universally accepted definition. Perhaps that explains why so many different kinds of people can invoke it to justify their own projects.

Environment News Publisher Dan Miller talked to one prominent urban policy analyst to get a better understanding of what’s good and what’s bad about sprawl. Sam Staley, who earned a doctorate in public administration with an urban-planning concentration from The Ohio State University, directs the Urban Futures Program for the Reason Public Policy Institute, and is the former research director for the Buckeye Institute, Ohio.

Staley lives in a genuine suburb, Bellbrook, Ohio, near Dayton, with his wife and two children. He also serves on the Bellbrook Planning Commission.

EN: What’s urban sprawl?

Staley: That’s a good question. It’s rarely defined except in very broad language full of negatives. Its very name sounds ominous: Urban sprawl. Listen to these statements from recent newspaper stories: “Urban sprawl is like a cancer that doesn’t respect city and county boundaries.” “Urban sprawl is swallowing large chucks of prime farm land.” Discussion has become so steeped in this kind of unqualified hyperbole that a debate on the facts is hard to come by.

EN: Okay, it sounds ominous, but what is it?

Staley: It’s usually thought of as uncontrolled growth, a flight from the cities, the transformation of rural land into suburban neighborhoods and shopping malls. In fact, though, a public consensus on urban sprawl doesn’t exist, except a lot of New Urban planner equate suburbanization with urban sprawl.

EN: What is “New Urbanism”?

Staley: It’s a new movement in the planning profession based on concepts known collectively as Neo- Traditional Town Planning. Many planners and policymakers view New Urbanism as a realistic and practical alternative to so-called urban sprawl.

It emphasizes mixed-use development and pedestrian-friendly design so people can walk to homes, offices, shopping and so on. It also emphasizes higher densities than you find in modern cities and suburbs today. The higher densities would result from zoning laws that limit lot sizes and that encourage townhouse developments over single-family residences with private backyards.

Neo-Traditional Town Planning also favors public open space areas over private open spaces, such as backyards big enough so kids can play there. Neo-traditional towns substitute for that by creating formal open spaces such as town greens, squares and formally designed parks.

EN: How did this movement surface?

Staley: It is a reaction to low-density residential development, and to single-use development, like a shopping center without a residential component right nearby. That’s part of suburban sprawl. Architects went back and looked at cities that functioned well in history, like the 19th Century streetcar suburbs, which were close to work and play, had small lots, and mixed uses. The garage was in back, not in front. So the auto took on a less-visible role.

The important thing that struck New Urban planners about modern-day urban sprawl is the apparent lack of “soul” in the suburbs. The suburbs were developed at historically low densities, residential homes sat on half-acre lots and so on. Residents are separated and isolated from each other. They don’t have sense of place or community in the traditional sense of an urban neighborhood.

But the New Urbanists figured that if you put people closer to together, so they could almost shake hands across balconies, you’ve created a sense of place, a soul, and that’s desirable. If homes are built with very shallow set-backs or no setbacks at all, then when you come out of your house, you have to say hello to your neighbor. That’s part of what they are working toward.

EN: That sounds oppressively manipulative.

Staley: There are some advantages to neo-traditional towns. Proponents say neo-traditional planning can generate density and manage congestion through thoughtful planning. And new-urban concepts can break down the rigidity of suburban zoning codes that drive single-use developments, such as strip malls and huge expanses of asphalt called parking lots.

Traditional zoning laws prevent mixed use of land, even when market forces would generate it. So the problem is that the New Urban planners are trying to impose their concepts broadly and generally. The Congress for New Urbanism in San Francisco argues that all development should adhere to new urban principles. Essentially they are promoting neo- traditional planning as a magic bullet that will save the cities. In fact, though, they’re trivializing the very diversity in housing and community they claim to be promoting.

EN: So you see some downside in Neo-Traditional towns?

Staley: Definitely. Their rules and regulations can become even more rigid and inflexible and burdensome than their predecessors.

They also key in on some favorite issues, like a heavy dose of light rail, even though light rail isn’t cost effective, and it doesn’t change commuter behavior. And first and foremost, neo- traditional planning fails to recognize that many people don’t want to live in a community with the kinds of densities that make the prototypical new urban communities cost effective. Often the reason people move from a city to a suburb in the first place is to escape a high-density environment.

EN: The New Urban planners don’t recognize this?

Staley: They trivialize the importance of private space. They want people to go to public parks instead of their back yards. They will allow for yards, but the yards are very small. Also, the neo- traditional planners would like to see a very clear break between urban and rural areas.

New Urbanists want to lay down specific growth boundaries. Literally, they say you can’t have development beyond this line on the map. On one side is development, and on the other is agriculture, open space, etc.

In Portland, Oregon, planners have lines on their maps: This land on the other side of the line is outside the reach of developers. The idea intuitively is appealing. It encourages infill within the city boundaries, which appears to make land use more efficient. The New Urbanists would go even further, creating an order so you have seamless urbanization. The New Urbanists don’t like what they perceive as disorder.

EN: Who supports these ideas politically?

Staley: It’s important to realize that Neo Traditional planning is focused on new development. In order to get these urban-design concepts through a city council, the restrictions have to be on future generations, because people living there today won’t vote for it. But people in their 2,200-square-foot ranch houses would welcome these restrictions on future residents, and they say, “We can’t allow open space to be eaten up by development.”

EN: How did planners gain such influence that they can recommend communities pull up their draw bridges?

Staley: Planners are on a continual search for a better community. The planner’s job is to make communities more liveable. But they completely mis-diagnosed what the notion of community is. What they should do when they look to the 19th Century suburbs is recognize that those suburbs have been in place for generations. Over time, the people who lived there created an identity, and more people moved into those suburbs because they identified with the values already there: the living styles, two incomes or one; schools or the absence of schools, and children or the absence of children.

When you look at a modern suburb, you find that they are very new communities, with only one or two generations of experience. But look at them after three or four generations, and you’ll find more sense of community. The children of those families are staying in those suburbs.

EN: You think the suburbs are a nice place to live?

Staley: The suburbs need help, particularly with their architecture of the 1950’s and 60’s. It’s mundane and routine. But after two or three generations, those standards will change, the architecture will change, landscaping will change, trees will mature. The neighborhoods will have a very different feel to them.

EN: So you see some benefit to what we call suburban sprawl?

Staley: You bet. Sprawl reflects social progress more than decline. Suburbanization has been going on for centuries. People have been building cities for thousands of years, and this development has spilled out into the hinterlands. Most inner-city neighborhoods were once suburbs of a downtown core. It’s just that these outer neighborhoods were annexed into the big cities before modern post- World War II suburbs decided to create their own, independent identities.

More importantly, suburbanization represents a significant improvement in the quality of life for people who settle there. Most people who move out of their older homes do so because their needs have changed. Suburban and rural areas often meet these new needs better than older, more densely populated central cities.

EN: How big a threat are the New Urbanists to an individual’s liberty?

Staley: If the New Urbanist vision is imposed coercively, they are a very real threat. Forcing people to live in an environment they don’t want to live in, telling them how to live, manipulating them to achieve a certain social urban function — that’s the kind of society that most people don’t want.

The interesting thing is that if you recognize neo-traditional planning as an option, and you recognize that it’s one part of a very diverse continuum of urban living, you would see that neo- traditional planning could be a way to help improve freedom. Lots of communities in older, traditional cities would see New Urbanist concepts emerge spontaneously as part of a free market.

The neo-traditional planner’s problem is that he wants to impose his vision on everybody. So rather than looking at neighborhoods case by case, he’s making an attempt to impose his vision on all people.

EN: In resisting the New Urbanists, is it necessary to be anti-city?

Staley: No. From my viewpoint, a market-oriented approach to urban development and planning is very pro-city. Cities have important assets that many (not all) people want: cultural amenities, downtowns, higher density neighborhoods, among others. These features of cities would be enhanced in a free real estate market unencumbered by modern zoning and legislative review of virtually all significant development.

Revitalizing the city will require local policymakers to address five key factors that have little to do with urban design but still push people out of the cities: the quality of public education; public safety; the regulatory and tax climate; local infrastructure, and a competitive housing stock.

Many New Urbanists view their vision as the only concept of a city worth pursuing and attempt to impose that vision of urban form on all types of land development — inner city, suburban, small town, big city, West Coast, East Coast, Midwest, etc. This is where proponents of market-oriented approaches part company with the New Urbanists.