Best of 2009: Does 'smart growth' also create more sprawl?

Urban density, a Seattle and Portland mantra, is supposed to constrain sprawl, but a new analysis suggests that vital, dense cities produce bigger suburbs too.
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The Bellevue skyline.

Urban density, a Seattle and Portland mantra, is supposed to constrain sprawl, but a new analysis suggests that vital, dense cities produce bigger suburbs too.

Editor's note: Continuing our series of Best Crosscuts of 2009, here's an essay originally posted on May 21, 2009.

Okay, this is really interesting because it turns some conventional wisdom on its head. It turns out that the suburbs are not populated with urban refugees. Writing at NewGeography, Wendell Cox comes across what he calls an "unexpected truth:"

Much has been written about how suburbs have taken people away from the city and that now suburbanites need to return back to where they came. But in reality most suburbs of large cities have grown not from the migration of local city-dwellers but from migration from small towns and the countryside.

In looking at data from modern, "first world" countries, including the United States, Cox finds that while the suburbs are growing, most of the newcomers are migrating from smaller cities and rural areas, even in cities like St. Louis that have rapidly depopulated over the last 50 years. And this strong suburban growth is occurring even in the most mass-transit-friendly cities:

This [suburban growth] is true in both auto-oriented and transit-oriented environments. Suburbs have accounted for more than 90 percent of growth in Japan'ꀙs metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 residents, both those with high transit market shares and those with high auto market shares, The same is true in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

In Western Europe, where vaunted transit systems carry a far smaller share of travel than cars, all growth and then some has been in the suburbs, as overall core city populations have declined.

What's attracting people to cities? Jobs and economic opportunity. But as cities grow, and even as they densify, the outer rings of suburbs and exurbs grow too with people attracted from smaller markets. "Larger metropolitan areas have more lucrative employment opportunities and generally have higher incomes than smaller metropolitan areas," writes Cox."

Cox argues that suburbs need to be seen differently, not as the hostile "other" to core cities:

[S]uburbs have to be seen not as the enemies of the city, as just a modern expression of urbanization. They are neither the enemies of the city, nor are their residents likely to move "back" there. You cannot move back to someplace you did not come from.

In other words, the idea that suburbanites can be enticed back into dense urban cores is unlikely. In fact, the bigger cores grow and flourish, the more likely they will generate new sprawl.

Richard Florida, blogging about Cox's analysis at Andrew Sullivan's website, agrees that the 'burbs need to be seen in a new light:

While it's common to think of suburbs as draining off city assets, today's metropolitan areas with their urban cores and suburban and ex-urban rings, are really expanded cities. Up until the early-to-mid 20th century, cities were able to capture peripheral growth by annexing new development, until suburbs figured out they could prosper by becoming independent municipal entities — thus the now-famous concentric-ring or, in some cases, the hole-in-the-donut pattern of our metro regions. The growth of gargantuan mega-regions like the Boston-New York-Washington corridor is essentially the next phase of this process of geographic development.

It's important to understand how these two interrelated geographic processes &mdash outward geographic expansion and the more intensive use of existing urban space &mdash combine to shape economic progress.

Florida quotes Jane Jacobs in his analysis but it also reminds me of Jean Gottman's profile of the city of the future in described as Megalopolis (what Florida calls the Boston-New York-Washington "gargantuan mega-region.") It was Gottman's Megalopolis, published in 1961, that gave rise to the talk about the rise of other regional mega-cities, including our own Pugetopolis. The idea was that these super cities would be multi-headed hydras and widely dispersed economic regions, and that the old model of city was too limited to understand them.

But much of our debate about urban growth in Seattle is reduced to very simplistic notions about city and suburb, one good (dense, walkable, and full of the "creative class") and the other bad (SUV-friendly, sprawling, full of folks scared of urban edge). The reality, for anyone who has lived in both or thought about it much, is more complex.

It's interesting that Florida sees the urban/suburban divide as one that is largely jurisdictional, and that's interesting when applied to Seattle. Much of the city of Seattle is composed of annexed suburbs (Columbia City, Green Lake, Ballard). What makes Eastside communities like Kirkland and Mercer Island (once called East Seattle) suburbs is that we didn't absorb them and they are independently governed, not their form. The lifestyles we live in many neighborhoods on either side of the lake are hardly worlds apart for most people, and in many parts of King County, these places are even more diverse and edgy than within the city limits.

It is also accepted wisdom that absorbing growth in downtown Seattle will somehow restraint sprawl, but this has not happened. (As Dick Morrill has pointed out, 90 percent of the population growth in our region has happened outside the city of Seattle in the last 20 years, despite new residential towers and the Growth Management Act). If Cox's analysis is correct, growth in Seattle is in fact driving more suburban growth. Second, mass transit might improve our carbon footprint (in itself a good thing) but it won't restrain sprawl either. You can claim that it's "smart sprawl," though if the dynamic outlined here is correct, even with buses and rail it will simply generate more development. So from a landscape-gobbling perspective, it's not much help. You'll still get new Snoqualmie Ridges, even if residents ride the commuter train.

Worldwide, the areas losing population are rural regions, and some failing cities. If you want to reduce sprawl, re-populating previously populated areas &mdash in effect creating economic opportunities and incentives in rural areas that have and can support larger populations, is one way to go. Repopulating declining industrial cities could be another, if they aren't turned into wildlands.

But making Seattle bigger and denser looks like its throwing gas on the sprawl fire.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.