THEY PAVED PARADISE AND PUT UP A PARKING LOT: Urban Sprawl

with Jim Blumquist, Gary Garzinski, Lynn Scarlett
Wednesday, May 26, 1999

Cities and towns across the nation are struggling with problems of future growth and the legacies of past development. Is it time to wake up from the American Dream? Has the post-World War II model of suburban development let us down? What does "smart growth" mean? Should the federal government mandate changes on a national level or only offer guidance to local governments?

Recorded on Wednesday, May 26, 1999

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I’m Peter Robinson. Our show today, Suburban Sprawl. Here we have a little chunk of the American dream, a single family home in a manicured neighborhood, a faithful hound, a pool and a side yard, the burgers in the kitchen waiting to be brought and set on the grill. You think that coming home to this every evening I’d be the happiest man in the world. But suppose I told you that to get here tonight I had to fight my way through an hour and a half traffic, breathing fumes the whole way. I got home the kids aren’t here. They wouldn’t be here, they’re latch-key kids. My wife is depressed because she spent the whole day without any neighbors around, nobody to talk to because the neighbors are working as hard as we are. That’s the show today.

In a speech not long ago Vice-President Al Gore cried suburban sprawl and suggested a set of initiatives that would replace it with what he calls smart growth. With us today to discuss these initiatives, three guests. Lynn Scarlett of the Reason Public Policy Institute believes that any solutions to sprawl should be local, not mandated from Washington. Jim Blumquist of the Sierra Club believes on the contrary that Washington does indeed have a very large role to play and Gary Garzinski, a builder representing the National Association of Homebuilders, who stresses the role of the free market.

The question in brief is this, if this is the American dream, is it time for Americans to wake up? Is there too much development? Or is that not a problem? Lynn?

Lynn Scarlett: The issue of sprawl is not that we have vast paved areas. The issue really is more specific issues like traffic congestions, concern within living areas of open space but we’re not paving over the world, that’s--

Peter Robinson: So you’re not concerned about chewing up too much of the United States?

Lynn Scarlett: I don’t think that’s the fundamental question.

Gary Garzinski: We certainly would like to see development that doesn’t consume as much resources, doesn’t consume as much land. It makes for a future that has less traffic and makes more livable communities rather than the sprawling messes we have.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so it’s land. You don’t want to use up as much land. You want less traffic and more livable communities.

Gary Garzinski: Right.

Peter Robinson: Okay, we’re trying to tease out the themes here.

Jim Blumquist: But livable communities, that’s choice in housing. The people have made that choice and that’s a part of the components and growth. It’s not, are we going to grow, it’s how are we going to grow, I think is the challenge.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Listen to Vice-President Gore giving a speech on sprawl earlier this year. I quote, "In many older communities walkable streets have emptied out leaving a night-time filled with crime and disorder. Sprawl has transformed easy suburbs into lonely cul-de-sacs, so distant that a commuting parent often gets home too late to read a child a bedtime story. And after all those hours stuck in traffic the freedom of the open road can explode into road rage."

Now, Jim, that is the grimmest picture of middle-class American life outside the short stories of Raymond Carver. Come one, he’s overdoing it, isn’t he?

Jim Blumquist: Well that’s what people really say. I was in a meeting last June in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles and a woman told me that her biggest fear was that she was going to die of road rage. I mean it is something that’s really out there. It’s become--

Peter Robinson: Lonely cul-de-sacs, daytime filled with crime. You’re going to go for all that?

Lynn Scarlett: Can we jump in here?

Jim Blumquist: I would just think that that is a vision that people have. I think what’s important here is not to just focus on the areas where people have sprawled to, but to see where they came from. What we have created are cities that are centrifugal force machines that move people to the suburbs.

Peter Robinson: You sir are responsible for building suburban sprawl. Are you building lonely cul-de-sacs.

Gary Garzinski: I hope not. Because a recent survey that we completed at the National Association of Homebuilders still indicates that peoples overwhelming preference is for that American dream. So we’re responding to that demand. We don’t create it.

Peter Robinson: Lynn.

Lynn Scarlett: You know what we have here really is push factors and pull factors. It is true that in our inner cities, poor schools, crime and so forth are pushing people out to the suburbs to some extent, absolutely correct. On the other hand, I think we have to remember there are pull factors. People do like that idea of the picket fence, the yard, the home and they’re voting with their feet partly out of an aspiration not simply out of rejection of something.

Gary Garzinski: There’s no question there is a frustration out there amongst the public, but I think--

Peter Robinson: Oh, you sense that? And your surveys--[cross talk]

Gary Garzinski: But it’s born of traffic congestion, over-crowding the schools. Not necessarily dissatisfaction with the suburban lifestyle but some of those components and that goes back to addressing infrastructure--

Peter Robinson: The failure of the government to provide services so maybe what the vice president--

Jim Blumquist: Or the developers to provide services.

Peter Robinson: But are the developers responsible for building adequate highways and enough schools?

Jim Blumquist: Certainly. Many places they are. Schools are the responsibility of the developer and there are many other factors that make a community livable. They really need to be included in a masterplan when a developer builds some new community. They need to build one that will work for a long period of time and create an integrated life for the people that are going to be there.

Peter Robinson: Let’s look at some specific issues starting with population density. Vice-President Gore praised the city of Portland for its plan to increase population density. Portland among other things has surrounded itself by a green-belt, it’s shrinking lot sizes, it’s encouraging townhouses that is to say more vertical building rather than horizontal building and the whole aim here is to increase the density of the population. Get people closer to each other. Closer to where they work. Closer to where they live. Sounds pretty good. Now, it occurs to me however, that I who spent one year living in New York City didn’t like anything at all about the density. Lynn? Density good? Density bad?

Lynn Scarlett: The interesting this that is happening is that Portland created a growth boundary. The idea is let’s keep the development inside that boundary not outside the boundary. For many years that was not a problem because the boundary was relatively large so people could still build the periphery. What’s happening now is in fact that that periphery is sort of built out and now they’re going to densification and what’s happening is many of the communities who are seeing there are areas that were single family homes the sort that you talk about, all of a sudden going to multiple family dwellings. They’re saying, "What a minute. Is this what metro was about? I’m not sure I like this."

Jim Blumquist: But in many places we’re not dealing with the question of greatly increasing density. In the city of San Diego, for example, the existing plans for the communities within San Diego would call for a decrease in density. Just keeping the density like it is now would save a lot of open space, bring neighbors a lot closer to each other, make mass transit more effective.

Peter Robinson: Now, Jim you live in Los Angles and would I be correct in guessing that Los Angeles to you is an example of what ought never to happen again in America?

Jim Blumquist: Los Angeles was an example of an attempted lifestyle that we built starting after World War II. It really hasn’t worked very well. It was designed for the automobile. It was designed to supply what we call the great American dream. The single family home, the detached home. That didn’t really work very well. It isn’t a future which we think will work very well for the next 50 years.

Peter Robinson: Well let me press you just a little bit. You’ve got Jim and the members of the Sierra Club all well-educated dutiful liberal people saying, "Eh, what a horrible mess!" but at the same time you’ve got people moving in from Asia, from the interior of the United States moving up from Mexico. There are a lot of people to whom that is really a step up in life.

Jim Blumquist: Many of those people live in very dense, very poorly served communities. Places where rapid rail transit would be a wonderful addition to their lives. Reducing air pollution. Providing more urban parks. All those sorts of things need to be done. We can’t fund those sorts of making Los Angeles livable if we spend all of our financial resources building huge home developments on the periphery of Los Angeles.

Gary Garzinski: That’s really what’s happening right now.

Jim Blumquist: But you did hit on one thing, affordability and household creation. Those people are coming to Los Angeles or other growth areas. And right now in this country, we’re creating 1.3 million households per year that have to be housed.

Peter Robinson: New regulations to increase density. Aren’t we really just driving up the cost of housing for all of those new households? Housing costs in Portland are going up a lot faster than in less regulated more sprawling cities of Las Vegas, Salt Lake, Albuquerque.

Jim Blumquist: In 20 years Portland has grown from one of the most affordable cities in the country to the second least affordable, I think, right after San Francisco.

Peter Robinson: Isn’t what the Sierra Club and Al Gore are talking about really higher housing costs for ordinary Americans?

Gary Garzinski: I don’t believe that’s what will occur. I think what we need to do is to create an affordable dense housing structure in America too. We need to be able to build units for all different groups in the already urbanized areas. We also need to increase the quality of life within the urbanized areas so that people don’t feel like they need to flee. We need to make affordable housing. The only place you can have that is in the periphery of the urban area where you might have to spend an hour, an hour and a half driving and spend a tremendous amount of your time and money on that commute. That’s not affordable either. We’re looking for mix of housing and I want to side with Jim here, you may find that hard to believe. But the urban commitment, for instance, with Al Gore right now in the joint council of mayors, the home-builders are joining with those two entities, the vice presidency and the council to create a million homes within the inner cities. It’s going to be a pilot program. So that is definitely a component of this smart growth movement that we are in favor of. I think we want to get back to core service and the way--

Peter Robinson: Now is that going to be profitable for you guys or are you just responding to political pressures, that which is an honorable tradition in American life.

Gary Garzinski: We’re not talking about non-profits. We’re talking about a program that will present a true mix of housing in those cities. And I, as somebody who does in-fill building in the Washington area--

Peter Robinson: In-fill building is what?

Gary Garzinski: In-fill would mean going back into the city or first to your suburbs into parcels that were either undeveloped or have been blighted and coming back and redeveloping and renewing those. I’m in it for the profit.

Lynn Scarlett: A lot of folks don’t recognize that actually it’s the planning process itself over many of the past decades that actually force some of this separation. We have zoning that says okay, all the houses are going to be here and okay, all the jobs are going to be over here. That has essentially separated folks. I would argue that we need a reintroduction of mixed use kinds of houses. People go to Paris. Why do they love it. They love it because there’s houses and little restaurants and places to shop in the same location.

Peter Robinson: How did the zoning laws come about? This is the best thinking after World War II that jobs should be put in one place and homes the other place?

Lynn Scarlett: Zoning actually goes back to the early part of this century. But real explosion in the post-War period, and yes, that was the best thinking of planners at the time.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so the vice president actually may be on to something. If he sets up the commission to re-think zoning laws, have people study these issues and make models available to local zoning commissions, good idea right?

Lynn Scarlett: It seems to me that what we really need to ask is, is this a federal issue or is a local issue?

Peter Robinson: Very good.

Lynn Scarlett: And I would argue that, look, many communities are right now as we speak grappling with this. We get communities like Ft. Collins that experimented with what they call flexible zoning. Let’s allow a little mixture. Let’s let this happen on a local basis. We don’t want a sort of federal top-down one-size fits all--[cross talk]

Peter Robinson: Next issue. Cars. Americans like their cars. They like them a lot. Can we expect that to change? Suburban life is impossible without the automobile. Pretty good cars and pretty cheap gasoline. Here’s what Al Gore has to say about automobiles in his book Earth and the Balance. I quote, "The internal combustion engine is "posing a mortal threat that is more deadly than that of any military enemy that we are ever likely to confront…." isn’t it the case that liberals just don’t like cars? They want us all in monorails driving around, or they want us all taking the city bus, and Americans just don’t like to do that.

Gary Garzinski: I don’t think we’re going to see rapid transition away from the automobile. But the automobile was really the perfect way of traveling around in the suburbanization we built after World War II. If we start having smart growth. If we move towards a more compact living communities, that is going to be an area where rapid transit will be more cost-effective. It will be more effective. More people will be able to use it. And so what we’re likely to see is that investments in those sorts of other ways of traveling are more effective than they were in the past. We need to move federal funding that direction.

Peter Robinson: You’ve got to have people living like rabbits in a warren in order to achieve the density that makes mass transit affordable. New York City mass transit works. Washington DC loses jillions on its metro. Down in Los Angeles that subway line that was built is just a huge sink hole for money--

Gary Garzinski: But what you’re looking at is you’re taking a technology that is designed for a more dense development and you’re trying to make that pay its own way in a world competing with subsidized automobiles. And competing in a--

Peter Robinson: Subsidized how?

Gary Garzinski: The automobiles, the highways, were incredibly subsidized by the United States Government.

Jim Blumquist: We go back to choice.

Peter Robinson: Go ahead. [cross talk]

Jim Blumquist: People make that choice.

Peter Robinson: Yeah, people like driving cars.

Jim Blumquist: And they have a love affair with the car. [cross talk]

Gary Garzinski: These are not choices--

Peter Robinson: We’ve fallen into a strumpet, the automobile is not good for us. No?

Gary Garzinski: Industry has marketed the single family house and the automobile. These are not just choices. They are market driven demands.

Peter Robinson: Lynn.

Lynn Scarlett: Let’s look at Europe. Much denser development in many European cities and yet guess what, rising automobile use single occupant ridership is going up higher faster than it is in the United States despite dense development. So dense development does not necessarily de-link people from their cars, because people like that freedom to get in their automobile when they want and go where they want--

Peter Robinson: And they pay $3 for a gallon of gas.

Lynn Scarlett: The challenge--and then let’s talk for subsidies a minute. It is true that certainly governments at all levels did fund the road infrastructure of the United States in a big way. By the way partly paid through user fees since our gas taxes helped out. The last decade we’ve had millions, billions of dollars actually going to rail. And guess what? Not a single post-World War built system has yielded a net increase in transit ridership. Not a one. Not even Portland, Oregon. And it’s not just because we don’t have density. It’s because people don’t like to go from their home to a depot, to the next place, and then have to go somewhere else. It’s very cumbersome.

Gary Garzinski: Well, we’re trying to impose a technology that works better in a different sort of community on a suburbanized America.

Peter Robinson: On to a broader question. What role should be played by a government? Especially the Federal Government? I come into this thinking that Jim has one notion in his mind of what an ideal American community is whereas the two of you have a different notion. But it’s sounding to me as though even you as a developer are willing to go a good distance toward Jim’s view. You do want somewhat more density?

Lynn Scarlett: Not so. Not necessarily.

Peter Robinson: Not necessarily.

Lynn Scarlett: Not necessarily.

Peter Robinson: In other words I’m trying to draw a distinction between what your vision is of an ideal community and the instruments you would use in achieving. And you are so open-ended as a liberation that you don’t even have an idea--your ideal is just let people sort it out for themselves?

Lynn Scarlett: No. Look, what I would argue is that each of us around this table, as we’ve even expressed in describing where we live, have different ideas of what makes up quality of life. I happen to live in a beautiful community, Santa Barbara, on a creek-bed. I like that open space right around me. But other folks, one of my colleagues at work loves to live in a condo in downtown Los Angeles. So I would say if I have a vision, it is for diversity. But you don’t want someone to come in and say, "Aha! Dense development. That is the answer." Let’s not get the Federal Government into specifying what are livable communities. Let’s let local communities specify that.

And the second part is, in that process, as local communities work that out, yes, let’s have some diversity. I think mixed use development has much promise because people do like that jobs housing balance.

Jim Blumquist: It’s think nationally and act locally. I mean we want to put in a perspective on a national basis but the answers are at the local level. That’s where we want to keep them.

Gary Garzinski: The vice president is not suggesting that the Federal Government is going to come in to every community in America and describe a certain style of living and then demanding that everyone meet that proposal the vice president came forward with in the president’s budget. They are much more trying to help communities do what communities would like to do to implement an idea--

Peter Robinson: And help the communities out.

Gary Garzinski: Help them with planning assistance. Help them with mass transit assistance--

Peter Robinson: Money. Federal money--

Gary Garzinski: Money to buy open space. I mean the vice president’s proposals are ones that assist local communities to do their job. Not one that is closed from Washington.

Peter Robinson: You’re going to go with that?

Jim Blumquist: No I’m not going to go with that because I think the locality should dictate what they want to be taxed for, and then spend the money where they want it as opposed to it being the top down situation.

Lynn Scarlett: One of the problems with the Gore proposals, and I have heard him speak in the flesh live, is that while he’s purporting to provide assistance, there’s actually very prescribed sort of ornaments on the tree that you can use. You can use it for mass transit, you can use it for this, you can use it for that. I would argue that if one uses Federal funds at all, and I’m not really a proponent of that, but if you do, you want something more like a block grant, kind of open-ended program saying here it is, use it for what you want.

Peter Robinson: She makes sense? No?

Jim Blumquist: Well I think we’re in the early stages of promoting smart growth and the vice-president, the Federal government don’t have that many handles into the issue. I think the vice president is using the sense of bully pulpit to take what he hears, concerns by Americans about traffic in crime and the nature of their communities and trying to provide some solution, some help from the Federal level.

Peter Robinson: Is Lynn arguing that each community should find its own way out of these problems without any Federal support?

I’ve been pushing Jim on this pretty hard, but on the other hand, he and Al Gore do have a point. It is a national problem. If you say nothing other than let communities figure it out for themselves and maybe, what would you do, put up a little website with suggestions? I mean, what handles do you have for even urging the communities themselves to take action.

Lynn Scarlett: One of the problems with this debate in fact is precisely that Gore has made it a bully pulpit and therefore muddied up a lot of distinct issues. Farmland preservation is sort of blended into this thing called sprawl. What I would argue on farmland preservation is yes, there’s a national law and you know what it is, it’s changing that tax structure which penalizes farmers upon their death, the estate taxes, and essentially drives them to putting their land on the development market--

Jim Blumquist: So the Federal Government does have a ruling--

Lynn Scarlett: Exactly. Exactly.

Peter Robinson: Hold on. Wait a minute. This could be a rare moment of agreement reached on television. Everybody is in favor of eliminating the estate tax on farmers?

Jim Blumquist: For the transfer of-- [cross talk]

Gary Garzinski: We’re eliminating the estate tax.

Peter Robinson: A robust position from Gary over there. Okay, good, what else?

Lynn Scarlett: Okay. So we take the farmland preservation piece. Of course there’s a national role, but when you’re talking about land use decisions and zoning, that I would argue is a much more local decision. No, Albuquerque’s decisions on just exactly how they structure their land use is not a national issue. They should decide. Do they want flexible zoning to have mixed use. Do they want dense areas here and perhaps--let them decide. Let us have some diversity and by the way, people sort of vote with feet on what in these communities seem most livable.

[cross talk]

Jim Blumquist: …there’s a problem here. Yesterday I heard on the radio and I was driving to work. Statements--

Peter Robinson: How long?

Jim Blumquist: from the Chamber of Commerce--40 minutes.

Peter Robinson: 40 minutes.

Jim Blumquist: The Chamber of Commerce of Atlanta saying that people are not wanting to move to Atlanta. New businesses are trouble getting employees because Atlanta is thought to be among livable city--

Lynn Scarlett: And guess what--

Jim Blumquist: It’s certainly something that Los Angeles has had problems with--

Lynn Scarlett: And guess what--

Jim Blumquist: over the years. We are creating cities where investment doesn’t want to incur--

Peter Robinson: So let the city fathers and mothers of Atlanta change the zoning in Atlanta.

Lynn Scarlett: That’s exactly what I would argue. So people aren’t coming? It’s a wake-up call. The folks in Atlanta say, "Whoa! We better start making this a little bit more livable." Just as we had begun to do in Los Angeles in many ways. We are not in a static world. We’re in a dynamic world. We adjust to signals. And that’s what we want happening. But we don’t want one signal from Washington saying everybody adjust the same way.

Jim Blumquist: Well you know again, I think that what we’re doing is creating a straw man of the vice president. He is not giving one signal. It is not--his comments are not that everyone must march to a certain order. He is saying here is an idea. It has grown up in communities all across America. It seems like an idea that should be debated nationally and we could use the Federal government’s resources to assist communities moving that direction. And I think that’s an appropriate role. I think that’s the role we’re going to have in development in the future. We have a failed type of development coming out of World War II. It’s produced cities that don’t work. Places that people think are not what they want to live in.

Peter Robinson: What do you guys do to promote your own views? Are you a lobbying organization in part?

Jim Blumquist: We are a lobbying organization but on the smart growth initiative espoused by our association, we’re trying to get our members engaged in a dialogue on a local level. We’re sponsoring conferences internally--

Peter Robinson: Your members are builders?

Jim Blumquist: Yes. Builders and developers.

Peter Robinson: Don’t you want to stick up? He just said that since World War II we’ve built a suburban sprawl that it’s just a terrible place to live. Don’t you want to stick up for the suburbs?

Gary Garzinski: I go back to what I said at the beginning of the show and that is the American consumer dictates what the demand is going to be. We respond to it. He has voted with his pocketbook. He wants to live in the suburb. We respond to that, and that’s still the overwhelming choice. Now, to grow smart, I think it’s an education process. Can the Federal Government in educating about the challenges? Sure they can. But it comes back to locality. The one saying American people are against two things, sprawl and density. We have to solve that problem.

Peter Robinson: The vice president, not the straw man, but he has listed about half a dozen proposals now targeted grants, or targeted spending to local communities. Let me just ask this much. A year from now will any of that have been enacted? Jim.

Jim Blumquist: Well I think with the fact that the Congress is Republican and the president is a Democrat, I think it’s going to be hard, at least be hard-pressed to pass his package.

Peter Robinson: Okay, let me ask a follow on question. Is this a winner of issue for Al Gore going into the presidential campaign? Is he going to stay with this issue?

Jim Blumquist: I think that this is what people are talking about.

Peter Robinson: You really believe that people think of their suburbs as lonely cul-de-sacs?

Jim Blumquist: I know they do it for at least two hours every day as they’re stuck in traffic.

Peter Robinson: Gary, are the initiatives going to pass?

Gary Garzinski: The initiatives?

Peter Robinson: That’s right.

Gary Garzinski: No.

Peter Robinson: Is Gore going to stick with the issue?

Gary Garzinski: I think he’ll stick with the issue and I think you’ll see Republican candidates as well putting it on the platform.

Peter Robinson: You’re a builder and you believe that there’s residence in this issue.

Gary Garzinski: Because I hear the grass roots and people right now are concerned about how we grow as we as builders are.

Peter Robinson: Lynn is any of this stuff going to pass?

Lynn Scarlett: It’s not going to pass.

Peter Robinson: And is Gore going to stick with the issue?

Lynn Scarlett: He’s going to stick with the issue but he’s back peddling. In Detroit, he again and again opened his speech by saying, "I’m not for national zoning. This is not a national zoning land use agenda."

Peter Robinson: Okay. Lynn, Jim and Gary, thank you very much. All our guests agree that 50 years of rapid suburban growth have left us with problems. Should the Federal Government try to solve those problems. Should the solution be local instead? Or should it all be left to the workings of the free market? Is there any way to keep the American dream from becoming an American nightmare. I’m Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.

More from Uncommon Knowledge