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Study: Upward Mobility Much Higher in Regions With Less Sprawl

Living in a sprawling area, like Atlanta, or a compact one, like Boston, doesn’t just affect how you get around. A new study published in the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning suggests it may also have a significant impact on your chances to escape poverty.

Children in a sprawling area like Atlanta are less likely to escape poverty than children living in compact regions, according to a new study. Image: ATL Urbanist

Children in a sprawling area like Atlanta are less likely to escape poverty than children living in compact regions, according to a new study. Image: ATL Urbanist

The study by Reid Ewing at the University of Utah compared upward mobility across 122 U.S. metro areas ranked from the most sprawling to the most compact. The researchers found a “strong, directional relationship” between compact built environments and upward mobility.

The study used previous research that measured the chances a child born in the bottom fifth of the national income distribution will reach the top fifth by age 30. There are huge differences between metro areas. For example, in Memphis Tennessee, the upward mobility rate was just 2.4 percent while in Provo, Utah, it was 14 percent.

The research team found that as compactness doubles, the chances of a child going from the bottom fifth to the top fifth increase 41 percent.

Ewing looked at how sprawl may affect children’s life chances by influencing factors like racial segregation, which previous research has shown to be negatively correlated to upward mobility, and income growth, which is positively correlated. The direct effect of sprawl itself, the authors found, was stronger than these indirect effects. They attribute the connection between compactness and upward mobility to “better job accessibility in more compact commuting zones.”

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Real Estate Giant: Suburban Office Parks Increasingly Obsolete

What tenants want in an office building is changing, and the old model of the isolated suburban office park is going the way of the fax machine. That’s according to a new report from Newmark, Grubb, Knight and Frank [PDF], one of the largest commercial real estate firms in the world.

Suburban office parks are losing their luster, industry analysts say. Photo: Wikipedia

Suburban office parks are losing their luster, industry analysts say. Photo: Wikipedia

The old-school office park does “not offer the experience most of today’s tenants are seeking,” according to NGKF. As a result, the suburban office market is confronting “obsolescence” on a “massive scale.” More than 1,150 U.S. office properties — or 95 million square feet — may no longer pencil out, the authors estimate, though a number of those can be salvaged with some changes.

“Walkability and activated environments are at the top of many tenants’ list of must haves,” the report states. Office parks in isolated pockets without a mix of uses around them must have “in-building amenities” — including a conference center, a fitness center, and food service — to remain competitive, according to NGKF: “If tenants are not going to be able to walk to nearby retail or a nearby office property to get lunch, they had better be able to get it at their own building.”

The study took a close look at suburban office submarkets in and around Denver, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. In the “southeast suburban” Denver office district, for example, office buildings within a quarter-mile of the new light rail line had a 1.7 percent vacancy rate. For those outside a quarter-mile, vacancy rates were nine percentage points higher.

NGKF’s findings don’t mean that office tenant preferences are in perfect alignment with walkability, however.

Parking was also important to the marketability of buildings in suburban Denver. The report notes that a lot of older management personnel prefer to drive, while younger workers want transit access. So buildings that offered both were in the highest demand.

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Study: Sprawling Areas Require 3 Times as Much Pavement Per Person

How much pavement area is required to service the population of an area is pretty closely related to population density, a Smart Growth America study found.

How much pavement area is required to service the population of an area is pretty closely related to population density, a Smart Growth America study found.

One of the big downsides to sprawl is the public cost of maintaining infrastructure that is extended over wide areas. A new study of New Jersey by Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future [PDF] attempts to quantify this relationship by looking at the amount of space devoted to roads in communities of varying densities.

Turns out there’s a very strong correlation: The most sprawling parts of the Garden State require more than three times the road space per resident and employee than the most urban areas.

The study divided New Jersey into 100-acre “cells” of a uniform size, then compared the number of people that live and work in each cell — “activity density” — to the ratio of land devoted to roads.

In the state’s most densely populated areas, with about 50 people per acre — places like Hoboken and Jersey City — about 130 square feet of pavement was allocated for each employee and resident. However, in some of the more sprawling areas — places with five residents per acre — the amount of pavement per person was more than three times higher: 423 square feet.

The two groups stress that the relationship was not linear. As municipalities became increasingly urban, the efficiency benefits from increasing density became less and less dramatic. The biggest efficiency gains were found when comparing sprawling areas to other sprawling areas that were slightly more dense, the study found.

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Braves Stadium Relocation Shaping Up to Be a Disaster

When the Braves announced they were leaving Atlanta for suburban Cobb County in 2013, logistically it seemed to make some sense. After all, the new stadium site is more centrally located in relation to the highest concentration of fans who attend games.

How will Cobb County fund the "magic bridge?" Image: AJC

Cobb County needs to build a foot bridge over a highway so people can reach the new Braves stadium, but it won’t be ready by opening day. Image: AJC

But it turns out that relocating a sports stadium to a sprawling, car-dependent area is really tough — because of the enormous infrastructure outlays necessary to transport thousands of people to the same place by car.

After putting $400 million in public money into attracting the Braves, Cobb County officials are having an embarrassingly hard time getting the site ready for opening day.

The location for the new field is right by the nexus of two enormous highways, I-75 and I-285, and it is bound to the southwest by the Cobb Parkway — another giant, high-speed road.

Somehow, “neither the Braves nor the county has released any information about its plans for traffic control, pedestrian safety, or parking,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports.

Problem is, there’s not enough room for everyone to park right near the stadium. There are, however, about 2,000 parking spaces and a bus hub just across I-285.

Walking can’t be completely eliminated from the stadium planning — all those people still have to cross the highway on foot. So Cobb County will construct a foot bridge over I-285 for $9 million.

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Marohn vs. O’Toole: Sizing Up The Great Debate

Last week, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns went head to head with “antiplanner” Randall O’Toole in Lafayette, Louisiana. The debate was billed as an event to help the city with its regional planning process and was broadcast over local radio.

Watching O’Toole make up arguments out of whole cloth, however, you have to wonder if giving him a platform to spew nonsense is ever helpful, even if someone like Marohn is there to counter him with reason and facts. O’Toole’s presentation was all about scaring people into thinking that any sort of planning that’s not all about cars and single-family housing is a misbegotten conspiracy to impoverish them.

Marohn, for his part, really starts to hit his stride about an hour in, arguing that local people can come together and develop consensus about how to solve community problems — like how to get more public value out of infrastructure investments.

Marohn said in a blog post following the debate that he came away disappointed and didn’t think the discussion was very productive for the people of Lafayette. He said of O’Toole:

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Calculating the Big Impact of Sprawl on Cities’ Bottom Line

A Smart Growth America fiscal impact analysis found that high-density development produced way better returns for local political jurisdictions.

The fiscal impact of different development scenarios for a 1,400-acre parcel in Madison, Wisconsin, on government’s bottom line. The sprawliest scenarios provide the smallest public returns. Chart: Smart Growth America

When someone builds a new home, does it make the city stronger and more fiscally sound? Or does it drain public resources? The answer depends a lot on where it’s sited and, more specifically, where it lies in relation to other homes and businesses.

Smart Growth America has developed a fiscal impact model that helps predict how developments will help or hurt the municipal bottom line. The tool they developed [PDF] takes into account how density affects the cost of delivering city services, from streets and sewers to fire protection, school busing, and garbage collection.

SGA applied its model to a proposed 1,400-acre development in Madison, Wisconsin, called Pioneer Square. Researchers varied the density and number of units across five development scenarios, ranging from “low density” (about two housing units per acre) to “Compact Plus 50” (about 7 units per acre).

According to SGA’s model, the higher density development scenarios would have a far better effect on the city’s budget [PDF]. Compared to the “low density” scenario, “Compact Plus 50” would generate 233 percent more revenue per acre for the city.

SGA says the results are actually conservative because the tool assumes higher-density properties will have lower taxable value, due to smaller lot sizes.

Unfortunately, most cities don’t use very sophisticated methods to estimate the impacts of new housing developments. Instead, reports SGA, they assume each new home in the city will impose the same costs as the average home. That ignores all the variability in types of housing — and could leave cities with big financial liabilities down the road.

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Study: Annual Cost of Sprawl in America Adds Up to $4,500 Per Person

Those living in sprawling areas require more road infrastructure, helping account for the increased total costs. Image: New Climate Economy.

Those living in sprawling areas require more road infrastructure, which is just one aspect of the cost of sprawl. Graph: New Climate Economy

A new study confirms what we already know too well: Sprawl is expensive. The New Climate Economy’s latest report [PDF] attempts to put a figure on it and it’s pretty staggering: more than $1 trillion a year nationwide.

That figure accounts for higher costs to individuals and communities associated with sprawling development patterns, including transportation infrastructure, less efficient city services, increased pollution, greater vehicle expenses, more traffic collisions, and reduced health outcomes.

In order to arrive at those figures, researchers separated U.S. communities into five groups, based on how relatively sprawling they were. At one end of the spectrum, where development was most dense, there were about 9.5 residents per acre. The third quintile represented average U.S. housing density, while the fifth was the most sprawling, at less than two residents per acre.

Researchers compared the costs borne by those in the most sprawling communities to those in the least sprawling. Existing studies estimating the increased costs of sprawl were used as the basis for the economic comparisons. For example, they found that infrastructure costs per capita were $502 in the smart growth quintile but $750 per capita in the most sprawling. The report also estimates that those living in the most sprawling areas spend an additional $5,000 per year on vehicle costs compared to those in the most compact.

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Miami Mayor’s Economic Fix: Build America’s Biggest, Tackiest Mall

"The American Dream Miami" mall and retail complex would include an indoor ski slope, a Legoland and sea lions. Image: Miami Herald

“The American Dream Miami” mall and retail complex would include an indoor ski slope, a Legoland, and sea lions. Image: Miami Herald

Forget what you’ve heard about the death of American shopping malls. Yesterday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez unveiled plans for a 200-acre megamall complete with “submarines, a Legoland, sea lions and an artificial ski slope.”

“American Dream Miami,” as they call it, would be the largest mall in America, according to the Miami Herald. The corporation behind the plan is Triple Five, owners of the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Triple Five estimates that the enormous development would cost as much as $4 billion to construct and would eventually employ 25,000 people.

This behemoth would rise on undeveloped land between two major highways not far from the urban growth boundary, and Triple Five is currently negotiating with local officials on the purchase. The exact dimensions of the proposal haven’t been released, but developers claim it would be larger than the Mall of America, which is 4.2 million square feet.

Mayor Gimenez has become a major booster, apparently intrigued by the economic prospects. He told the Miami Herald, “there’s going to be a huge spin-off.”

But there are plenty of red flags. Marta Viciedo of the Miami non-profit Urban Impact Lab said that environmental analyses have shown the project site is in the “most flood prone and sea level-rise prone areas of Miami-Dade County” — lowland areas by the Everglades.

The area is already notorious for traffic congestion and completely inaccessible by transit, she said.

“All these jobs are going to be low paid,” she said. “How are people going to get there?”

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Sprawl Costs the Public More Than Twice as Much as Compact Development

This graphic compars the cost of servicing suburban development versus urban in Halifax, Canada (in Canadia dollars) Image: Sustainable Prosperity

Public services for suburban development cost more than double the services for urban areas in Halifax, Nova Scotia (figures are in Canadian dollars). Click to enlarge. Image: Sustainable Prosperity

How much more does it cost the public to build infrastructure and provide services for sprawling development compared to more compact neighborhoods? A lot more, according to this handy summary from the Canadian environmental think tank Sustainable Prosperity.

To create this graphic, the organization synthesized a study by the Halifax Regional Municipality [PDF] in Nova Scotia, and the research is worth a closer look.

Halifax found the cost of administering services varied directly in proportion to how far apart homes were spaced. On the rural end, each house sat on a 2.5 acre lot. On the very urban end, there were 92 people dwelling on each acre. Between those two extremes were several development patterns of varying density.

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Two Graphs That Illustrate America’s Dysfunctional Housing Market

Jed Kolko, chief economist at real estate information giant Trulia, recently shared these two graphs that give us an interesting glimpse into what’s happening in the American housing market.

This first graph shows that housing development is growing fastest in the suburbs. To be precise, the most sprawling, suburban of suburbs.

But that’s only part of the story. If you look at where housing prices are rising fastest, the pattern flips. The most urban neighborhoods are where prices are heating up the most.

What does this tell us? A few things.

As Kolko put it in a follow-up tweet, “limited supply” is “constraining urban growth.” It’s much, much easier to build new homes in undeveloped greenfields than in central cities, where zoning and NIMBYism prevent housing construction. If we’re going to reduce sprawl and make city living affordable, we’re going to need to ratchet up housing construction in urban areas.