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The Downturn's Upside: The End of Sprawl

Richard Florida, best known for arguing that America's true economic engine is its "creative class", just dropped a cover story for the Atlantic. If you care about carbon, you should be popping champagne and kissing strangers.The article explores how our present sputtering economy might remake the country, how suburbs might collapse as cities thrive. So far on the blogs, the response has often been political-lefties are trumpeting the idea that the country will become bluer. That's not the real news though: Until now, there's never been a real mechanism that anyone could see for how suburbs might end. But Florida has finally laid out an alternative, for anyone who has ever crossed their fingers then crossed themselves, after thinking hard about the problem of sprawl.The argument takes a while to get going, so I'll summarize: Florida points out that "easy expansion"-that is, sprawl-was enabled by housing appreciation and real-estate speculation. That's all gone now, and as Florida argues, the only way to replace that lost economic activity will be to reinvest in cities-where sociologists have shown that density yields to innovation and economic growth. (Check out the Atlantic's nifty interactive map or read some of the studies here.)Now, this might not sound new, and to some extent it's merely an urbanist's synthesis of the news from the past year. But it's worth remembering that a year ago, no one could really imagine anyone gaining the political clout to fight sprawl in any meaningful way. The economics just seemed too impossible: Given a choice, people would always spend less on a bigger house, if it was just an additional 15-minute drive away. Having spoken to a number of urban planners, I heard the resignation as recently as two years ago. Ending sprawl came down to a Pollyanna's hope that people eventually might enjoy walking more in mixed-use developments, or prefer a small house in-town. It was hard to imagine.By contrast, Florida suggests that the economic incentives to change the way we approach growth are finally in place. The end of easy credit will eliminate sprawl's main financial catalyst. Moreover, what Florida doesn't say is that once the economy gets going once again, gas prices will inevitably rise precipitously (thus disincentivizing sprawl). In the meantime, politicians finally have political cover for raising gas taxes-something that hasn't been the case for 30 years.It's a bright, new day for America's urban planning. Granted, the path out of our present urban planning disaster isn't yet assured, while the withering of the suburbs will coincide with economic pain. But the future looks brighter than it has in decades.(Image from Flickr user dno1967.)

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