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  • 6 Ways Urban Development Impacts You (and why Suburban Development is Bad)

    by Bryan Steckler

    1) Money: The amount of money you spend on transportation expenses relative to income increases with the number of cars you own. This is due to acquisition costs, fuel, and maintenance. This means that the farther away from your job you live (i.e. the more you spend on fuel and the more necessary multiple cars become) the less money you have to spend on other needs or to save. Mixed use zoning, transit oriented development, and high quality public transportation can reduce these costs. In addition to this, suburban housing is subsidized to an extent by the Federal Housing Administration and the loans it provides and guarantees towards single family homes, thus the true costs of suburban housing are hidden from the homeowners. These loans cannot be used to purchase residencies in multi-unit buildings and similar incentives are not available to renters.



    2) Health: The lifestyles encouraged by different development types vary wildly. Suburban development is based on the car, which means minimal walking and lots of fast food restaurants. Urban development is pedestrian friendly, encouraging walking and transit use. However, the increased consumption of fast food and decrease of physical activity due to primarily suburban development patterns have put strain on our medical system. In addition to this, the long commutes created by automobile centric development have an adverse impact on mental health, as they cause levels of stress to increase, which in turn can cause violent behavior and loss of workplace productivity.



    3) Reenforcing or Breaking Stereotypes: Due to the factors that were in play before and during the beginning of suburban growth, poverty has become unfairly synonymous with race. Ethnic minorities are almost always depicted as being impoverished, while Caucasians are almost always depicted as being wealthy. This has then created another unfair relationship between ethnic minorities and predisposal to criminal behavior, causing public housing projects and mixed income projects to be opposed along racial lines, thinking that they will bring crime. These same projects, if successful, will bring their occupants out of poverty regardless of race, and can be used to break these unfair depictions of ethnic minorities.



    4) Quality of One's Living Environment: In addition to the health and economic effects of automobiles, large quantities of cars can also create low quality living environments. Large roads and freeways create noise and light pollution, and parking lots use land that could be developed or used for parks. In addition to this, pollution from cars creates smog and poor air quality, leading to additional health issues.

    5) Decrease in Quality of Public Services: As the density of development decreases and the amount of land consumed by it increases, applicable services such as police and fire departments, schools, and utilities become more expensive and less efficient because they have to cover more ground. Since the fiscal needs of these organizations are not adequately met, their quality becomes unevenly distributed and overall quality decreases.

    6) Crime: Sound urban development and urban revitalization includes use of tools such as mixed income housing, mixed use development, and transit oriented development. These serve to bring investment and people to the areas they are built in. The high presence of people and mix of uses serves as a deterrent for crime because they provide public surveillance of the street space and property.

    Bryan Steckler is the author of the Thoughts on Urban Development blog, where this article was originally published on August 3, 2011.

    Comments 6 Comments
    1. Linda_D's avatar
      Linda_D -
      "3) Reenforcing or Breaking Stereotypes: Due to the factors that were in play before and during the beginning of suburban growth, poverty has become unfairly synonymous with race. Ethnic minorities are almost always depicted as being impoverished, while Caucasians are almost always depicted as being wealthy. This has then created another unfair relationship between ethnic minorities and predisposal to criminal behavior, causing public housing projects and mixed income projects to be opposed along racial lines, thinking that they will bring crime. These same projects, if successful, will bring their occupants out of poverty regardless of race, and can be used to break these unfair depictions of ethnic minorities."
      This statement is total BS. There is absolutely no proof that building new market rate housing in inner-city areas improves the economic standing of previous neighborhood residents. Mostly what it does is force them to move elsewhere where they can afford to live.

      Moreover, poverty isn't "unfairly synonymous with race". It's a fact that African Americans earn less than European Americans and that they have less wealth. You can slice and dice the economic factors however you want: mean or median, by household or family, by age, whatever, but blacks always come out lower than whites. Hispanics' economic levels tend to be between blacks and whites while by most aggregate measures, Asians' levels tend to at or slightly above whites.

      The same is true of minorities and "predisposal to criminal behavior". The percentages of African Americans and Hispanics in prison populations in most states tend to be far in excess of the percentages of African Americans and Hispanics in the general population. Some of that is because of racism, but part of that is because poverty, drug abuse, gang membership, and all the other ills of living in poor inner-city neighborhoods or housing projects breeds anti-social behavior.

      The growth of suburbia after WW II did NOT cause racism and poverty. Gentrifying inner city neighborhoods either through new construction or through reusing/renovating existing buildings is NOT going to solve racism and poverty, either.
    1. bsteckler's avatar
      bsteckler -
      Linda, I had a very specific example in mind when I wrote that statement. I did not say anything about market rate housing. Gentrification, without the provision for varying income levels, will relocate poverty, not ameliorate it.

      As far as race and poverty, what I had in mind when I said "before and during" suburbia was a) the legacy of segregation and Jim Crow, as well as b) discrimination by suburban homeowners' associations, which in and of itself was nothing new. These all contributed to the lower economic standing of African Americans, and once the main source of tax revenue (whites) shifted to the suburbs, cities decayed. The solution to this was "hey, let's clear-cut this slum and build a public housing project!". These failed due to their location (lots of residential not particularly close to jobs) and the nature of their design (dense, cheap construction, high populations, and no defensible space). To make up for the loss of income opportunities (and possibly the loss of protection) gang violence took hold. While suburbia didn't cause poverty, I feel that it's certainly made it worse.
    1. ColoGI's avatar
      ColoGI -
      Not everyone has the same decision tree. Some don't like all those people. How are you going to force someone to do something they don't want to do, unless the economy continues its downward spiral, making people migrate to dense areas against their will? This is not to say I'm anti-city or anti-density, I'm anti-everyone-has-homogenous-wants.
    1. Linda_D's avatar
      Linda_D -
      Quote Originally posted by bsteckler View post
      Linda, I had a very specific example in mind when I wrote that statement. I did not say anything about market rate housing. Gentrification, without the provision for varying income levels, will relocate poverty, not ameliorate it.

      As far as race and poverty, what I had in mind when I said "before and during" suburbia was a) the legacy of segregation and Jim Crow, as well as b) discrimination by suburban homeowners' associations, which in and of itself was nothing new. These all contributed to the lower economic standing of African Americans, and once the main source of tax revenue (whites) shifted to the suburbs, cities decayed. The solution to this was "hey, let's clear-cut this slum and build a public housing project!". These failed due to their location (lots of residential not particularly close to jobs) and the nature of their design (dense, cheap construction, high populations, and no defensible space). To make up for the loss of income opportunities (and possibly the loss of protection) gang violence took hold. While suburbia didn't cause poverty, I feel that it's certainly made it worse.
      Discrimination by suburban towns had nothing to do with African American poverty -- and still doesn't! Discrimination in education and employment is what kept American Blacks poor.
      • Until WW I, most blacks lived in the rural South where schools, even for whites, were minimally available. For blacks they were abysmal. A number of southern states did not require school attendance, and may still not do so. During the Civil Rights era, some southern counties closed their public schools rather than accept integration. The rural Southern economy was largely agricultural, and in some places, share-cropping and peonage existed until the 1970s. Many African Americans leaving the South were virtually illiterate and totally unskilled.
      • Beginning in WW I, African Americans began the "Great Migration" to the Northeast, Great Lakes, and Far West from the South. Discrimination in employment kept many out of the decent paying blue collar jobs in the big unionized factories from the 1940s through the 1960s. By the time African Americans broke down the walls of discrimination, manufacturing was already on the wane, so they never had the opportunity to establish the kind of prosperous working class existence that European immigrants were able to do. It was the first step on the ladder up, and African Americans were kept off until it was largely too late. Blacks were also largely barred from public employment, especially in the police and fire departments, two other major avenues for ambitious urban newcomers to advance economically.
      • Segregation in housing wasn't just a suburban phenomenon, but an urban one as well. Look up "block busting" and "redlining". There are examples of city governments deliberately forcing blacks to live in housing projects by using urban renewal to wipe out mixed race neighborhoods. The whites could find other housing, but the blacks were forced to either leave the city or move into the "Projects". The City of Buffalo did this in the mid-1950s when it destroyed the old Ellicott District and replaced it with the Ellicott Mall housing project. it also effectively destroyed the city's black middle class, something that economically and socially impoverished the city's African American community for decades.
      • Cities outside the South also frequently forced African American children to attend segregated, substandard schools by allowing white students to transfer out of some schools for specious reasons. That's why so many urban school districts were forced to employ some kind of busing in the 1970s and 1980s: they were found to have deliberately segregated their schools.
      • Yeah, some whites moved out of the cities because they didn't want to live near blacks, but many of the whites who remained in cities used other means to make sure that African Americans didn't live near them, too, and that African American children didn't go to school with their kids. It's definitely NOT a case of cities=good and suburbs=bad on the race issue.
    1. bsteckler's avatar
      bsteckler -
      Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
      Not everyone has the same decision tree. Some don't like all those people. How are you going to force someone to do something they don't want to do, unless the economy continues its downward spiral, making people migrate to dense areas against their will? This is not to say I'm anti-city or anti-density, I'm anti-everyone-has-homogenous-wants.
      It's not about homogeneous wants. While not everyone may like dense living, it's the most efficient form of settlement we have, and should be promoted simply in the name of conserving resources and getting as much return on monetary investment (from both a public and private perspective) as possible. If people want to live in suburbs or rural areas, that's their decision, but they should know the full ramifications of it. Yes, the schools may be better and the community may be more isolated, but that means you will have to spend more money on transportation, pay more money in taxes/utility bills to provide for utility connections, and live a more stressful life because of commuting.

      Just because the phrase "urban living" is used does not mean the average dwelling will be a four room condo/apartment above a bar/restaurant/botique/ice cream parlor/what have you. Streetcar suburbs are possible and do exist, allowing for individual houses in areas that are both easily traversable without cars and close to the rest of the city.

      Even if you live in a suburb, you should support density because it means that municipalities will need to spend less money on police and fire protection, schools, utilities, and roads, allowing both cities to flourish and suburbs to be served more effectively with the money that is saved. Even if you live in a predominantly rural area, such as Linda, you should still support it because it means that developers won't come knocking on your door trying to buy your land, tear your house down, and build a Mcmansions or strip mall on top of it.
    1. ColoGI's avatar
      ColoGI -
      Quote Originally posted by bsteckler View post
      It's not about homogeneous wants. While not everyone may like dense living, it's the most efficient form of settlement we have, and should be promoted simply in the name of conserving resources and getting as much return on monetary investment (from both a public and private perspective) as possible. If people want to live in suburbs or rural areas, that's their decision, but they should know the full ramifications of it. Yes, the schools may be better and the community may be more isolated, but that means you will have to spend more money on transportation, pay more money in taxes/utility bills to provide for utility connections, and live a more stressful life because of commuting.

      Just because the phrase "urban living" is used does not mean the average dwelling will be a four room condo/apartment above a bar/restaurant/botique/ice cream parlor/what have you. Streetcar suburbs are possible and do exist, allowing for individual houses in areas that are both easily traversable without cars and close to the rest of the city.

      Even if you live in a suburb, you should support density because it means that municipalities will need to spend less money on police and fire protection, schools, utilities, and roads, allowing both cities to flourish and suburbs to be served more effectively with the money that is saved. Even if you live in a predominantly rural area, such as Linda, you should still support it because it means that developers won't come knocking on your door trying to buy your land, tear your house down, and build a Mcmansions or strip mall on top of it.
      I know all these things. Not everyone cares about these arguments. The people who are not planners or tree-huggers will be swayed because of other things, not because municipalities find these areas efficient.

      I'm traveling for a conference and staying with a friend who is...erm...highly thrifty. Yet their house needs weatherstripping and new windows and fluorescent lights and the windows can be kept shut while the A/C is running and and and and and and changing their behavior means they will save lots of money. Do they change their behavior to be more efficient? No. Most of the world is this way. It is the human condition. People will move to denser environments either when they can or when they must. The vast majority of Anglo-Saxon society will stop sitting in their car for 15 minutes with the engine running not because cutting their emissions will help slow man-made climate change or because a sign says 'no idling zone', but because gas is 12.00/gal. That is: most won't change their ways until they must.