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As it turns out, suburban sprawl actually peaked 20 years ago

The rate of suburban sprawl peaked in the mid-1990s and has declined by two-thirds since then, even through the giant housing boom. Could this quiet change in land use have caused many of the changes that we're seeing today, from recentralizing job growth to the decline in driving?

Sprawl is slowing
Graph from the USDA.

According to the USDA's 2010 National Resources Inventory, which tracks land use with satellite imaging surveys, the inflection point for suburban sprawl peaked in the mid-1990s, just as "smart growth" emerged onto the national scene. That's before the giant housing bubble showered suburbs with seemingly limitless sums of capital.

It's been slowing ever since then, even though metro population growth moderated only slightly (see graphs on page 3). Interestingly, non-metro population growth (including distant exurbs beyond metro area boundaries) in the 2000s fell much faster than metro population growth.

It's interesting that the slowdown in sprawl, like the slowdown in mall construction, predated "peak car" by 10-15 years. The directionality might be backwards: the 1980s cessation of massive freeway construction may have pushed many metro areas into some version of Marchetti's Wall: the theory that people don't want to travel more than one hour a day, and thus that metropolitan growth has geometric limits tied to how far the predominant mode of travel goes.

Edge Cities, which relocated commercial uses into the inner suburbs, could only extend the outward trend so far; with a few notable examples, attempts at building Edge Cities in outer-ring suburbs has largely failed, since there's no meaningful centrality amidst the undifferentiated masses of one-acre lots. Second-generation Edge Cities rarely thrived, because without new beltways there just wasn't the population base to feed them.

To this day, 80% of the office market in metropolitan DC is within three miles of the Beltway, using Cassidy Turley's submarket definitions. Joel Garreau wrote that in the late 1980s, Til Hazel "had major projects at half the exits on Interstate 66 from the Beltway to...Manassas," but ultimately, that future didn't pan out.

Reston and Herndon, located 10 miles from the Beltway and 20 miles from the White House, are the notable exceptions that proves the rule. Fair Oaks and Gaithersburg, located 17 and 19 miles from downtown DC respectively, are doing just fine. But almost 35 years after their shopping malls opened, they're still ultimately peripheral locations relative to the metro area.

Even in metro Boston, which uniquely among Northeast metros actually built an outer beltway, 73% of the office market is within the urban core or inner ring, and the urban core commands per-foot prices more than twice as high.

If you consider that the area of a circle grows with the square of its radius, a slowdown in the areas developed for sprawl would imply a much steeper decrease in the radius of metro expansion. This could imply another overlooked factor in the slowdown in VMT growth, or vehicle miles traveled: since metro areas are no longer getting geometrically wider, thus distances between metro-area destinations are no longer growing as fast.

A majority of the VMT benefits from more-central locations come from the fact that destinations are closer and car trips are shorter; only a minority of the benefits come from a switch to other modes. As growth recentralizes, perhaps VMT can be expected to decline further.

A version of this post appeared on West North.

Payton Chung, LEED AP ND, CNUa, sees the promises and perils of planning every day as a resident of the Southwest Urban Renewal Area. He first addressed a city council about smart growth in 1996, accidentally authored Chicago's inclusionary housing law, and blogs at west north


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Hosuing has become more expensive. Incomes aren't growing. More townhouses and condos, fewer single family homes. Probably more important questions: Is it the end of sprawl or the end of affluence and has the existing sprawl gotten any less pernicious (or at least shown promise of becoming so)?

by Rich on Feb 13, 2014 12:53 pm • linkreport

I'd question that data here.

IF I understand it correctly, they are measuring land use -- presumably by satellite.

I'd agree that in the late 90s to early 05, you arlready saw a lot more townhouse contruction than classic SFH sprawl in this area.

And it seemed like that in the rest of country -- smaller lots in developments even with SFH.

So the acreage dropped or levelled off after 97, but you need to look at actual constructions.

And a huge part of the bubble was existing home sales rising in value.

And a lot of local cherrypicking. Tht 70% office space is more or less Tysons and chunk or Reston. In VA, the office sprawl went up the DTR, and less so on 66.

(and in Maryland, i'd argue that it may be nice place to live, but business choice NoVA)

by charlie on Feb 13, 2014 1:38 pm • linkreport

That's the thing. Apparently people are willing to make the jump to the suburbs/green fields once but after that the enthusiasm lessens considerably. Call it the half-life rate of sprawl.

by Drumz on Feb 13, 2014 2:01 pm • linkreport

Just to split hairs: the report you reference speaks to "developed land," not sprawl.

Granted, a majority of the readers of this website would probably define "developed land" as "sprawl," but I think it's important to point out that the report includes small plots under 10 acres and transportation rights-of-way around the country, which probably fit in the "non-metro" and "small metro" categories referenced in the Brookings report.

Thinking long term, regarding electric cars and driverless vehicles: will sprawl continue unabated, or will there still be good reasons to plan walkable/bikeable central communities?

by Rich 'n Alexandria on Feb 13, 2014 4:47 pm • linkreport

Hm, spreading development slowed "just as 'smart growth' emerged onto the national scene" and just before housing prices rocketed. Which, not coincidentally, made the housing that many people prefer -- single family, with yard space and privacy -- much less affordable. Which, as I understand it, is the aim of "smart growth" -- to coerce people to live not as they would prefer but as so-much-smarter planners feel they ought to prefer.

So, coercive zoning and urban growth boundaries and intentional traffic-be-helling and all the other measures to make new residential land use prohibitively costly all worked more or less as intended. I'm not terribly surprised.

But I am lamenting.

by I Also 95 on Feb 14, 2014 10:25 pm • linkreport

... Or people realized that if they have to make a choice that would allow live in a SFH with a big yard but mean they start living 40-50 miles from the downtown of the region they may realize they'd rather just live closer but maybe on a smaller lot.

by Drumz on Feb 15, 2014 9:20 am • linkreport

The 1990s response to expensive housing, or expensive offices, or inner-ring decline, was simply to build further out. Why did that slow down? Why did the 2000s bubble channel so much new value to existing places, rather than into new suburbs?

Suburban growth was supposed to be limitless: back in the 1970s, my grandfather had a less-than-prescient moment and bought land 50 miles north of Los Angeles fully expecting that the city would spread that far by 2000. (It's still empty desert today.) Certain interest groups today still believe so.

Given this background, it's time for decisionmakers to definitively take a policy stance that new investment should be channeled back to where people want to live and do business -- central cities and inner suburbs -- rather than on subsidizing new outer beltways and exurban industrial parks.

by Payton Chung on Feb 15, 2014 4:48 pm • linkreport

It's time for policymakers to cease arrogating to themselves the power of being decisionmakers. In a moral sense, those most suited to make decisions about where people live and work are those people themselves, making trade-offs that suit their particular circumstances best.

If people really do want to live and do business in central cities, then by all means they may do so. That's far different, though, from people "wanting" to move to more crowded quarters because policymakers have refused to accommodate what people really want -- having made suburban land too costly and convenient transportation too unavailable.

Nothing is limitless, certainly not suburban growth. But neither is there anything natural about artificial urban growth boundaries, utility-extension limits and arbitrarily capped traffic capacity.

by I Also 95 on Feb 15, 2014 5:50 pm • linkreport

That assumes that today's patterns happened as a result of market forces and not decisions made by policy makers.

by Drumz on Feb 15, 2014 6:51 pm • linkreport

*purely market forces, rather

by Drumz on Feb 15, 2014 6:51 pm • linkreport

just as 'smart growth' emerged onto the national scene" and just before housing prices rocketed

It's true that smart growth increases property values. That's why landowners and many home owners love it.

by Falls Church on Feb 15, 2014 10:13 pm • linkreport

The Independent Green Party has worked for Smarter Growth, for More Trains, Less Traffic, for bike share, for walkable communities across the decades. Green Party candidates for local, state, and federal office deserve some praise and credit.

by Carey Campbell on Feb 17, 2014 11:31 am • linkreport

"That's why landowners and many home owners love it."

Of course incumbent landowners like policies that increase the value of their possessions. Much as, say, Kmart would have favored a "smart retail" policy to block pesky interlopers such as Target or Walmart from disturbing things with lower prices and better service. Neither preference is a justifiable basis for public policy.

The upgrading of land to residential use usually involves several parties to the deal: A farmer, for example, looking to sell and retire, a developer looking to turn a wholesale 140 acres into 280 lots at retail, home builders and home buyers. They're the ones trading goods for money. They're the ones who must mutually benefit for the deal to work.

Notice where incumbent homeowners -- hoping to sell to needy buyers at higher prices -- fit in: They do not. They're interlopers. And when they manage to use the power of government to interfere, to steer buyers instead toward their own property for their own gain, then it is a misuse of public policy. It's rent-seeking, as economists call it, and it cheats first-time homeowners or people moving into an area, while benefiting the established and well-situated. It is also the underlying logic of "smart growth."

by I Also 95 on Feb 17, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

It is also the underlying logic of "smart growth."

No it's not and that's not what Falls Church was referring to either.

Smart growth is about design. It's about how to build that community once the land is sold to developer and making sure that the communities are attractive, walkable, and have a mix of uses. It's about shaping the development we have into something that isn't so isolating and auto-dependent.

FC was pointing out that all things equal, people will pay more to live in a community that has those features than one that doesn't, obviously someone already living in a neighborhood like that values it just like they'd value granite countertops or any other value you add to a house. That has nothing to do with you analogy on rent seeking.

Besides, this site is very much against homeowners using zoning to keep their neighborhood exclusive. Read any of the myriad posts about accessory dwelling units we've had on here.

by Drumz on Feb 17, 2014 2:42 pm • linkreport

Plus, in counties like Arlington and fairfax, there simply are no more farms to develop. Smart growth there certainly means going up since they can't easily grow outwards. So they're densifying so that growth won't leapfrog them again. And the demand is apparently there.

So, smart growth is about being deliberate about how you expect people to react to their built environment.

by Drumz on Feb 17, 2014 3:09 pm • linkreport

There's nothing "natural" about government deciding where it will extend its water lines or highways. There's nothing "natural" about suburban sprawl, either.

by Payton Chung on Feb 17, 2014 8:50 pm • linkreport

Your math is wrong regarding radius and area. Area is (proportional to) the square of radius, so radius is (proportional to) the square root of area. So small changes in area don't actually change radius much.

by Alon Levy on Feb 18, 2014 7:16 pm • linkreport

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