Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Is infill "vertial sprawl" like suburban "sprawl"?

   Opponents of high-density infill in their metro neighborhoods have a catchy new name for their reasons: "vertical sprawl."  In an article comparing opposition to infill with traditional greenfields development, the New York Times' Nicholas Confessore asserts that the "general issues are remarkably consistent: traffic, parking and the cost of supporting new projects with schools, water and other municipal services."  The new usage reveals that the word "sprawl" is now almost meaningless, as it becomes a catch-all for just about any land use that one doesn't like. 

   Let's consider the first "issue" that the Times mentions: "traffic."  It is a truism that any new development anywhere would create more traffic in its proximity.  But the traffic problems of infill are, on closer analysis, quite different from the traffic problems of exurban development.  In low-density greenfields development, a leading concern is that residents must travel long distances, use scarce natural resources, and alienate those without vehicles.  With infill, the dominant concern is of course "parking" -- something that usually is in abundance in the exurbs, of course. 

   As for public services, it should be apparent that infill, which takes advantage of at least some economies of scale from existing services -- public transportation routes, city streets, existing schools, and existing fire stations -- is likely to be far more efficient in its demands than are green fields developments.  As for the assertion that the social costs of high-cost urban infill housing resembles the social costs of McMansions that overwhelm a once-small town, I concede that there is some similarity. 

   But the real "cause" (as with most of the issues) of this social chafing is the simple fact that there are nearly 300 million people in the United States -- nearly twice the number in 1950.   Rural residents may oppose green fields construction by calling it "suburban sprawl" and urban dwellers might oppose infill by calling it "vertical sprawl," but both are simply saying, "There are too many people (and too many with a lot of money)."  But these 300 million people have to live someplace, and one's opposition to their living in your community can't be justified simply by tarring it with epithet of "sprawl."

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