Exurban Wasteland

Is the exurban era over? For the last sixty years, American urban development has been characterized by a relentless, outward surge of population to the edge. While the reasons are complex, the top two are easy loans courtesy of Federal programs like Fannie Mae and cheap gas. With housing stalled and gas prices soaring, the peculiar American invention of sprawl may be approaching a crisis. The car culture that supports sprawl made sense at $1.50 a gallon. But now that prices are rising, there is a very real possibility that today's exurbs could be tomorrow's wasteland.

Paul Krugman addresses this question today in an oped that finds the future of urban development, not in India or China but in old Europe. Why? Europe embodies precisely the high density, transportation-oriented-development that may be the answer to sprawl. Krugman points out that Berlin has about as many people as Atlanta but they get around by bus or train, not by car. German families own cars; they just get higher mileage and drive less. The result is a sustainable-and not too shabby--style of living that is less harmful to the planet and a lot easier on the family budget.

Smart growth, as it is known in America, has been around for a while but it has yet to get real traction. Besides cheap gas and plentiful cheap land at the edge, the ideal of high density, eco-friendly development has repeatedly run into the US preference for highways instead of rail, the suburban homestead as opposed to apartments and our system of federalism that has wrought a patchwork of tiny, competing jurisdictions. With low gas prices no longer supporting sprawl, however, the other supports may not sustain it.

What could save the exurbs? High mileage cars will help, but they are not enough. America needs to make a massive investment in rail and other forms of public transporation to link exurban centers which still tend to radiate outward from cities together. To do that, a reform in infrastructure finance is needed. In turn, zoning codes need to change as well to promote higher density development and open space preservation. Currently the very definition of sprawl-separation of residential housing form commercial stores-is baked into tens of thousands of zoning codes around the country. Model zoning codes that promote smart growth should be enacted nationally.

It's a big challenge. But America should start now if it has any chance to forestall what may be major dislocation down the road.