The Political Economy of Sprawl in the Developing World
Out of Bounds: The Sprawling Metropolis and Its Discontents
Out of Bounds: The Sprawling Metropolis and Its Discontents
An Interview with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is an architect and town planner who co-founded Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company in 1980. DPZ has distinguished itself by designing traditional towns and retrofitting livable downtowns into existing suburbs. Since 1995, she has been dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture. She is co-author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. Plater-Zyberk is a co-founder and board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that works with architects, developers, planners and others involved in the creation of cities and towns, teaching them how to implement the principles of the New Urbanism. These principles include coherent regional planning, walkable neighborhoods, and attractive, accommodating civic spaces.
Multinational Monitor: What are some of the forces that have contributed to sprawl in the United States?
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk: Of course the most obvious is the growth of the population, but in fact cities have sprawled at a much greater rate than they have grown in population. Although the statistics vary from city to city, in general land area occupied by urban growth is many times that which was being used per capita in 1960.
That geographic extension is due to people leaving the core city. So, although population growth is a contributor, the patterns of building on the land have changed in such a way that there is more land being used per person than ever before in history.
Lower density land use patterns resulted from the proliferation of the automobile and have in turn produced our current automobile dependence.
Other forces that spurred the flight from the city include racism, the white response to the enormous migration from the rural south to the urban north of the African-American population.
And there were a number of government policies which spurred sprawl, including highway funding, and mortgage loans for World War II veterans, which applied to new construction only, excluding renovation.
Also influential were architectural theories of the mid-twentieth century, which promoted large amounts of open space around buildings.
MM: How do the more sprawling layouts diverge from previous land use patterns in urban areas?
Plater-Zyberk: Twentieth century sprawl differs from all previous geographic patterns by not being walkable. Before World War I, the priority in urban building was to establish proximity first, and public amenity second. Streets, plazas and parks provided the framework for private building around them.
In the 1920s, there began an inversion of that pattern. The architect Le Corbusier said in the early 1920s that the street was dead. Frank Lloyd Wright said almost the same thing at almost the same time. Architects began to focus on the building form as object rather than on the form of public space.
There is a famous photomontage by Le Corbusier that shows a large section of Paris wiped clean of its buildings and streets, replaced entirely with high-rises in a landscape setting. This vision was subsequently enacted in many cities.
For instance, some of the public housing in New York City on the east side of Manhattan stands where neighborhoods were scraped clean. High-rises, cross-shaped in plan, just like Le Corbusier's plans, were built surrounded by lawn and parking lots.
This modernist vision was a strong force, not only in the suburban context of buildings freestanding in the landscape, but also in the destruction and rebuilding of large pieces of our cities. These public housing tracts became places of social destruction as well.
MM: What are some of the key characteristics of traditional neighborhoods, or some of the new efforts to have building patterns that contribute to a richer community life?
Plater-Zyberk: The new efforts are emulating the pre-World War I developments of the Progressive Era -- the Garden City and City Beautiful movements. There was great emphasis on the quality of the public realm at that time. They were largely foot- and public transit-dependent (indeed, they were sometimes called street-car suburbs), so generally neighborhoods were organized with a five-minute center-to-edge radius. Buildings were brought close together, there was a mix of uses, the school was sometimes at the heart of a neighborhood (and didn't require 40 acres), and everything was of a dimension and measure related to the pedestrian.
Of course if you travel on foot anywhere repeatedly, you will run across some of the same people repeatedly and pretty soon you know which faces belong to your community and who are the people of your place. And so in the traditional urban neighborhood there was a sense of community that very often extended across income levels, so that a broad spectrum of society interacted daily in a casual way, which is difficult to imagine occurring in suburban subdivisions.
MM: How would you contrast those features to characteristic suburban sprawl now?
Plater-Zyberk: By contrast, we now live in residential isolation and separated by income. Large single-family houses are on one side of town, the garden apartments and townhouses are in their own pods, and the shopping center is somewhere else. There's a high-priced shopping center and a low-priced shopping center. And we're lucky if the kids meet in school. We used to meet at the ballpark if not otherwise, but now even there skyboxes keep us apart.
The early suburbs proffered this separation of uses as a solution to the ills of the industrial city. The separation has become institutionalized, with, for example, banks loaning money only for one type of use or one price point for each subdivision.
MM: To what extent is suburban sprawl planned and intentional and to what extent is it the result of the lack of planning?
Plater-Zyberk: There is no lack of planning and no lack of regulation in American development. There are codes galore that produce suburbs, often in conflict with each other. For instance, traffic engineering standards set out the type and dimension of roads very precisely. For many decades these standards have been set to accommodate the lowest speed at 35 mph. They don't recognize that you might drive slower through a neighborhood street, which could therefore be narrower. Or, the setbacks on buildings, which are intended to make generous front yards, and a generous landscaped public realm, may not be coordinated with the parking requirements. As a result, parking fills the front yard of the store because land is too valuable to waste the setback on landscape.
So it's not accidental, it's highly intentional, but often uncoordinated.
The conventions, the kind of institutionalization that I was talking about, are so deeply embedded that it's very hard to change them. Even setting up alternatives to the existing mode has proven to be extremely difficult. It's still a struggle in many parts of the country to try to make a new neighborhood that is compact, walkable and mixed use. The banks won't fund mixed use, the public works department still thinks it will be sued if you make narrow streets, and so on.
MM: Do developers prefer sprawl?
Plater-Zyberk: Not necessarily. Developers prefer to do things that diminish their risk and increase their profit. What decreases their profits is taking too long to build. So if a developer wants to do something different than what is conventional, then he or she has to take the time to change the regulations, or to go through long public processes for variance, to ill effect on the bottom line.
The New Urbanists advocate for the development of detailed and publicly crafted plans and codes as part of municipal ordinances. Then, because the plan is specific, and because residents and stakeholders participated in producing the plan, there can be an administrative review of the projects, rather than public hearings. Developers love that, because they can follow the rules without additional process to pull the building permits. And there are examples of this already.
MM: So there are some success stories in revising the rules to change the incentives for developers?
Plater-Zyberk: Right here in South Florida there is an area called Downtown Kendall, a significant amount of land surrounding Dadeland Mall, currently mostly parking lots, with some low rise apartments.
The local chamber of commerce sponsored a planning exercise with a great deal of public and stakeholder participation. That produced a highly prescriptive master plan, envisioning a major urban center with buildings in some cases up to 25 stories tall, surrounding two transit stations, which are already in place. There are now a large number of projects that are under construction that were permitted administratively.
MM: How do transit systems affect communities' physical environment?
Plater-Zyberk: When the transportation system is dominated by automobile transit, you tend to get a landscape that discourages walking, in which roads are made for the priority and primary use of automobiles and trucks. The sidewalk ends up being a five-foot strip of pavement attached to the curb, because that is the cheapest way to build it and you've used up the rest of the right of way for the vehicular pavement anyway. That's the kind of sidewalk that nobody wants to be on because it's not safe and there's probably strip centers with parking lots on the other side of the sidewalk anyway, which is not a particularly pleasant or interesting walk.
When you plan for public transportation, you begin to understand that people walk to public transit -- it doesn't pick them up and drop them off at the very door that they're leaving or going to. Therefore, the walking environment must be designed to make that walk safe, comfortable and interesting. This means wide sidewalks that are tree-shaded or, in some cases, arcaded. You need buildings that keep eyes on the street -- shop or business windows looking out, apartment lobbies and townhouse stoops, windows and doors rather than blank walls facing the sidewalk and the street.
This kind of physical environment is very different from one where buildings turn away from the road because it is only high speed traffic that you don't particularly want to be looking at or hearing.
MM: How does car reliance change the way regions are shaped?
Plater-Zyberk: At the regional scale, when there's a good transit system, you will have concentrations of buildings around transit stops, a nodal organization of density. It is easier to organize greenways and environmental continuity in such a system as well, but even if you don't have a lot of that you can still focus both workplaces and residences around the stations.
The sprawl version of the region sets up a network of highways with frequent interconnections, so you don't really have a focus for transit. The car can go anywhere and most likely will, so the roads have to be very wide to accommodate high-traffic patterns of automobile use. If you allow workplaces to locate anywhere at any density, you are missing the opportunity to focus workplaces in a nodal way, which is the best way to support public transit and reduce vehicular usage.
I should add it is rare to reduce vehicular usage, but one can mitigate growth of automobile use.
MM: In your work, you've been trying not to discard the suburbs, but to re-imagine them.
Plater-Zyberk: It is important to imagine an ideal structure: If you could start over, knowing what you now know, how would you do it? An overlay of the ideal on existing conditions will clarify how much of it can happen and how to pick the battles.
Two things that I think are possible because they actually have the potential of significant federal funding are establishing a regional plan for transportation and devising regional plans for environmental restoration. Those are the two big public land uses that structure all the private development in-between.
Another regional issue is geographic equity. If you look at almost any metropolitan area, you'll find a corridor of wealth and a corridor of poverty, usually on opposite sides of the old downtown. These have evolved in most cases from historic environmental or transportation conditions. To change this requires some sort of inclusive zoning at a regional scale that distributes across all communities a fair share of modest housing.
But the first thing that everyone can buy into is a regional transportation picture, including public transit if it does not already exist.
A clear transportation and environmental picture enables rational decision-making about where to densify and where not.
MM: Given that framework, what are the kinds of things that you and other New Urbanists are trying to do in suburban areas?
Plater-Zyberk: In suburbia, one recognizes that there are acres and acres of residential neighborhoods with single-family ownership in which change is not welcome. Suburban residents may gripe about traffic and they may wish they're not driving as far and long as they are, but they like their single-family house. So most of the future adjustment to suburbia that we envision must occur in a way that improves the quality of life for these residents. A major opportunity revolves around single-owner, large properties like malls or large aggregations of commercial property around shopping centers, or the large apartment complex still under one ownership. These places can be transformed into a densified downtown or village center for the suburban housing that surrounds them.
That is what is happening in Downtown Kendall. Residents from surrounding neighborhoods, including adjacent townhouse and apartment complexes, came forward to support the densification of the commercial area. They understood that it would not only make a convenient urban environment for them near by, but it could also preclude commercial encroachment into their residential areas, which they were already beginning to see. That seems to be a very realistic win-win perspective.
MM: What sort of approaches are you pursuing in urban areas?
Plater-Zyberk: It is important to realize that there is a variety of urban conditions that require different approaches. On the one hand, there are the places where there is no affordable housing anymore because the real estate values are high. Usually these places are beautiful, like Washington, D.C. or San Francisco, or Aspen, where the working people have to commute 60 miles every day.
On the other hand, there are still cities in the U.S. that are devolving, losing population, where people are still moving away into the suburbs or to another part of the country. These cities have a different kind of problem, because they need growth and wealth inside the city. Clearly, different conditions require different approaches.
A city or region like Washington needs an inclusive zoning ordinance that applies across the municipalities, that says some small amount of every place needs to have a goal of some percentage of affordability. Montgomery County, Maryland in suburban Washington in fact is a very good example of a place with such an ordinance. Shaker Heights, a wealthy, old community outside of Cleveland, has had a longstanding effort initiated by its own residents to be racially integrated and to provide affordable housing within its own city limits. So we know these things are possible and we have good examples.
In terms of downtowns renewing themselves, we have some good examples where cities succeeded by paying attention to the same kind of things that people do in greenfield situations -- excellent management, great attention to aesthetic detail, cleanliness and safety. Charleston, South Carolina under Mayor Joe Riley's leadership is such a place. Sometimes you just have to bank land and set it aside until the time that it is really usable. Very few cities have done that successfully, coming up with a management strategy for open land, until it becomes useful again.
MM: How can sprawl's impact on farm space be curtailed?
Plater-Zyberk: Sprawl decants the city. As development spreads, it often consumes the farm land adjacent to urban areas.
Real estate speculation makes the business of farming less profitable than the business of land development, so there is a great incentive for turnover of farmland into real estate. In many parts of the country, it seems hopeless to preserve farmland close to the city. The most obvious approach, down-zoning, requiring larger tracts of ownership, is virtually impossible. The only thing you can do is institute programs to cluster or to purchase or transfer development rights -- in both cases farmers are paid for their zoning rights in exchange for perpetual open space.
Someone once said that if you aggregated all the farming subsidies for 10 years in the United States, you could buy up the development rights to all the farmland to forever retain its availability for farming.
It is a problem of enormous scale, but many communities have been working on it. Montgomery County in Maryland has made that effort, as has Washington Township in New Jersey. Lancaster County in Pennsylvania and a number of counties in California offer a good example, too.
MM: In short, the idea is for communities to make a decision that they are not going to permit the transformation of farmland into other uses over time?
Plater-Zyberk: Yes, or some portion of their farmland -- you can never save it all. The farmers will say that their land is their equity, and they have to be able to sell if the business fails. And they rightfully say that national and global forces make the business totally unpredictable. So you have to provide some way for those people to realize their equity, and separating development rights from the land is the best way we know currently.
Those places that have bought down the value of the land in this manner have seen farming change over time. The orchards may go out of business, but potatoes will take over. You have to have the open space there, or you'll never farm again. That much is certain.