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The End of Sprawl?

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Eduardo M. Penalver, an associate professor at Cornell Law School, where he teaches property and land-use law, makes the argument that rising gas prices will mean that even after the housing market bounces back, the days of sprawl may be over. He predicts development will continue in cities and less on the outskirts. That fits into the pattern of development in recent years where there has been less action in new suburbs and more development taking place on brownfields as part of urban revitalization efforts. But Penalver is suggesting that this isn't just a cyclical thing.

Increasing gas prices may not be enough to cause people to move, which is why demand for gas proves so inelastic in the short term, but it can influence where people choose to live when they are forced to relocate for other reasons. The evidence that this is already occurring is, at this point, still somewhat anecdotal, but it is very suggestive. As the New Urbanist News reported this fall, during the present downturn, accompanied as it has been by high gas prices, homes close to urban centers or that have convenient access to transit seem to be holding their value better than houses in car-dependent communities at the urban edge. A recent story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune blamed flagging growth in the Twin Cities' outer suburbs on rising gas prices. If prices at the pump continue to increase, as many analysts expect, the eventual recovery of demand for new housing may not be accompanied by a resumption of America's relentless march into the cornfields.

The death of sprawl will present enormous challenges, chief among them the need to provide affordable middle-class housing in areas that are already built up. Accommodating a growing population in the era of high gas prices will mean increasing density and mixing land uses to enhance walkability and public transit. And this must happen not just in urban centers but in existing suburbs, where growth is stymied by parochial and exclusionary zoning laws. Overcoming low-density, single-use zoning mandates so as to fairly allocate the costs of increased density will require coordination at regional levels. This in turn will require overcoming the balkanization of America's metropolitan areas. This shift toward a more regional outlook will force broad rethinking of how we fund and deliver services provided by local governments, most obviously (and explosively) public education.

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Elaine Misonzhnik

Senior associate editor Elaine Misonzhnik has been writing for National Real Estate Investor since June 2006 and has covered commercial real estate for more than 12 years. She first became...
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