Thad Williamson is assistant professor of leadership studies at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. His latest book, Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of Life will be published in 2009-10 by Oxford University Press. The book combines the use of both normative political theory and empirical investigation to assess the benefits and costs of sprawling development patterns in the United States. He used Census Data and the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey to assess the impact of sprawling neighborhoods on quality of life, social trust, political ideology and political participation, and he compares how utilitarian, liberal egalitarian and civic republican groups see sprawl as a policy issue.
Cul-de-sacs are the iconic image of American suburbia. For millions of suburbanites, residence on a cul-de-sac street offers both peace and peace of mind. Parents can rest content knowing that cars will not zip through the neighborhood at high speed, and it's easier for residents to identify outsiders — if they happen into the neighborhood at all.
But cul-de-sacs come at a cost — a cost Virginia has decided it can no longer pay. This spring, the Commonwealth Transportation Board announced new guidelines as to what kinds of roads will be eligible for state maintenance.
Specifically, beginning July 1, "The developer must build streets that connect with the surrounding transportation network in a manner that enhances the capacity of the overall transportation network and accommodates pedestrians, while also minimizing the environmental impacts of storm water runoff by reducing the street widths and allowing the use of low-impact development techniques."
This means in practice that new cul-de-sac streets that fail to provide multiple connections to other locations (as a traditional urban grid does) will no longer be supported by the government.
The argument against cul-de-sac developments is that they force traffic to collect on over-burdened connecting streets, and that they make biking or walking from place to place nearly impossible, even when destinations are nearby in geographic terms. Studies also indicate that fire services are more expensive in less-connected streets, and that urban grids, because they slow traffic, are actually safer for pedestrians than cul-de-sac-style development, despite what many parents may assume.
Nonetheless, the new rules will not be popular with everyone. Mike Toalson of the Home Builders Association of America was quoted in the Washington Post in March stating that cul-de-sac neighborhoods are safe and that urban grids promote crime, while other cul-de-sac residents praised the quiet in their neighborhoods.
This tension between the current lifestyles of suburban residents and changes in the American metropolis that are almost certain to take place over the next generation will not go away anytime soon. Survey data consistently report that suburbanites are happier with their communities than urban residents, but overwhelming ecological imperatives, demographic shifts, as well as plain economics suggest that the era of uncontained sprawl is coming to an end.
A case in point is the failed Magnolia Green development, a golf-course resort community planned for Chesterfield County. This month, a lender foreclosed on the uncompleted development, which is to be sold at auction. This story is not uncommon: Golf Digest brims with stories about struggling golf-course communities. Meanwhile, Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the architecture program at Georgia Tech and co-author of the new book Retrofitting Suburbia, estimates that at least 400 shopping malls nationwide are struggling. Construction of new enclosed malls has ground almost to a complete halt since 2005.
Part of this reversal is simply the recession, but there is good reason to think that when the economy comes back, the older development patterns will take on a new form. More expensive gas over the long term will reduce the appetite for sprawling development. Some observers believe that significant numbers of soon-to-retire baby boomers will seek less car-dependent lifestyles and move back into cities, closer to top medical facilities, high-quality cultural offerings, restaurants and green spaces.
Even more important, however, are the ecological imperatives. If the United States is to meet the widely stated goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50 percent (or more) over the next 20 years, significant changes in our transportation habits will be required. Shifting from the car to alternative forms of transportation will not be practical unless accompanied by increases in population density in neighborhoods. That can take place two ways — more people can come back to cities, or suburban places can be "retrofitted" to accommodate higher densities and greater transit. Over the next few years, federal transportation policy will almost certainly aim at encouraging states and localities to shift from cars to other forms of transit.
The changes ahead represent both an enormous leadership challenge and an enormous opportunity, especially for places like Richmond. The leadership challenge consists of helping suburban residents understand why changes in the metropolitan landscape are needed and desirable.
Any attractive vision of the metropolis must offer a menu of options to residents — not everyone will or should live in the same kind of neighborhood. But that menu is not unlimited, and may not have the same offerings as in the past. All residential developments with public streets rely on state infrastructure funding to remain viable, and it doesn't make sense for government to, in effect, subsidize neighborhoods that generate high social costs in the form of suburban congestion, higher service costs and greater reliance on the automobile. This does not mean the suburbs will or should disappear, but their character will gradually change over the next generation to accommodate the new realities.
The opportunities these changes will bring are twofold. First, cities like Richmond stand to benefit over the long term as more residents respond to changing price and policy incentives by starting to come back to the city. Second, the ecological imperative means that at some point, the various jurisdictions in the Richmond metropolitan area must come together and develop a workable regional transportation plan that is not built around the car. A transportation system that makes the entire region and its jobs easily accessible for one-car families and carless residents would be a huge boon to the city and an important landmark for social justice in the region.
Such regional cooperation is not yet at hand, but there is a good chance that new federal policies and incentives aimed at promoting this kind of collaboration will finally compel the Richmond region to overcome the old suspicions and take the steps necessary to put our metropolitan area on the path to sustainability. Far-sighted leadership at the state level, from the city and, perhaps most importantly, from the counties is needed to make sure that moment comes sooner rather than later.