Before the real estate boom popped, environmentalists were fighting a multi-front and largely losing battle against sprawl.
Now, $4-a-gallon gas might have done the job for them.
The argument against sprawl has always been sound: Carving up farms and forests for McMansions on cul-de-sacs an hour away from the nearest city destroys habitat, degrades water quality, causes air pollution and traffic and ultimately is unsustainable.
Just how unsustainable that pattern of sprawl, which saw a whole new category of land defined the exurbs, just beyond the suburbs is now becoming clear, thanks to gas that costs 50% to 100% more than it did when many of those homes were built.
The Los Angeles Times reports today about the faltering real estate market in Southern California, where home prices have dipped 27% overall, and "falling even more precipitously in distant suburbs."
Not to mention that the homes built in recent years tended to be much larger than homes built even 10 years earlier, let alone a generation ago. In other words, they cost more to heat and cool, more to keep the electricity on. They are expensive to maintain. Period.
This confluence of economic factors led Christopher B. Leinberger, a Brookings Institution fellow, to ask recently in The Atlantic whether McMansions on cul-de-sacs would become the next slums.
"A structural change is under way in the housing marketa major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn, steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes," he wrote. "And its effects will be felt more strongly, and more broadly, as the years pass. Its ultimate impact on the suburbs, and the cities, will be profound."
Environmentalists not to mention urban planners, architects and legions of public servants now have some breathing room to plan for the next wave of building, should the real estate market turn around in defiance of Leinberger's prediction. The time to plan is now.
Local laws can be set to encourage development that is clustered around existing public transportation lines, near to grocery stores and other shopping, near to schools and employment, and connected via pedestrian trails or sidewalks. In other words, we can build sustainable communities, instead of ephemeral fiefdoms.
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