Leadership Challenges

Reflections on real-world solutions and ideas to end civic costs of sprawl

August 24, 2010

Political scientist and civic activist Thad Williamson is interested in a number of urban and political issues and is now working on a book about Richmond politics. Williamson holds a doctorate in political science from Harvard University. In spring 2010, one of his classes worked on a community development project on Richmond's North Side.

His 2010 book, “Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of Life,” explores the benefits and costs of development patterns in the United States. He used Census Data and the 30,000 person Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey to assess how urban and suburban residents viewed their quality of life, level of social trust, political ideology, and political participation. The dissertation on which the book is based was the co-winner of the American Political Science Association’s 2005 Harold D. Lasswell Award for best doctoral thesis in the field of public policy.

Your new book is full of data and meaningful, heretofore unpublished information about suburban life and sprawl. If you were an elected official — in either the county or the city — charged with making the best long-term decisions for the community, what are some of the facts and figures that you would think are most important to know and consider?

Well, on the one hand I doubt that many public officials will be highly shocked by any particular finding I present. It makes sense both intuitively and experientially that lower-density communities people are more trusting of one another, and that in higher-density communities a protest is more likely to be organized. It’s important to be able to test these intuitions systematically, and to take account of other demographic factors at both the individual and community level before concluding that there is an association between any one kind of land use and any particular outcome. This book tries to do just that. But probably the greatest value from my data analysis is the fact that I was able to look at the impact of sprawling neighborhood characteristics on many different kinds of outcomes, and show that “not all good things go together.” 

Because that is the case, we have to make value choices. Is our goal to make each neighborhood as safe and comfortable as it possibly can be, or is our goal to have a diverse community in which people of different backgrounds, income levels, and political viewpoints all share in the same public space, the same public institutions? 

I think that some of the findings could serve as a reminder to planners and practitioners to be mindful of the downsides that any particular kind of community might, by its very nature, tend to generate. If you are trying to increase downtown densities that are going to be more walkable and that will be racially and economically diversity, that’s great, but at the same time be thinking of ways to counter the distrust, tension, and suspicion that may arise when you put many different kinds of people together in a shared space. If you are building a lower-density community, think about ways to provide non-commercial public spaces governed by the logic of free speech and an ethic of inclusion rather than by the logic of shopping. Going forward, we are going to need both high-density cities that are safer and more pleasant and suburban communities that are less privatized.

In the book you’ve made it clear that unless urban school systems improve greatly, the migration out of cities by financially able families will not stop. Let’s assume that turning the school system around — within 20 years is next to impossible. We can make inroads, make some individual schools better and so forth, but we cannot achieve systematic positive change fast. Given that harsh assumption, what leadership tactics and approaches might help keep residents in the cities or encourage those who have left to raise children in the suburbs, to return to the city?

Cities have long been attractive to younger people, which is great for the vitality of the city. Emphasizing even more what is particularly interesting and wonderful about urban life in planning decisions — for instance, doing more in our downtowns to accommodate pedestrians and bikers, and to provide a genuine alternative to the big-box suburbs — can only help in this regard.

The next demographic group that some planners believe could make a real impact on urban revitalization are retiring boomers, who want to be close to cultural offerings and don’t want to spend so much time in the car. How dramatic an impact this might make is difficult to tell at this point and will likely vary from city to city. But an obvious strategy is to try to capitalize on the existing strengths of the city. In most cities, these are going to include colleges and universities, medical facilities, and often government itself. What I would recommend is figuring out ways to leverage those existing strengths towards both a) making the city attractive to young and old and b) attacking poverty directly. Hospitals and universities have enormous purchasing power, for instance, and some of that could be leveraged into supporting local businesses operating in poor neighborhoods.

I don’t think you can really solve the school problem long-term without solving the poverty problem, so really this is exactly the right question. Some liberals perhaps still dream that the federal government will come in with a magic wand and force regional integration of the public schools, or provide more school funding not tied to local property taxes. The reality is that that is not going to happen, at least any time soon.

To be sure, I am a strong supporter of increased federal aid for community development, school improvement, infrastructure investments, and other things that could improve city life. But correcting the fundamental inequalities in the public schools would require institutional changes that there is not likely to be serious political support for any time soon. So cities need to figure out how to make the most of what they have and try to make the case to their suburban neighbors that everyone benefits when the central city is stronger, and hence we have a shared interest in combating the city’s long-term problems.

You indicate that the ecological arguments/concerns regarding sprawl are probably the most pointed and salient today. What could you advise community leaders either elected or activists, business or government workersto do? What actions could be taken now to reduce the environmental costs of sprawl?

The answer to this one is much the same as the answer to the previous question: the ecological imperative is to make cities as livable as possible, so people will want to live there and not in newly built suburbs. I think environmentalists are fighting a losing battle if they believe that you can build an ecologically sustainable metropolis without addressing the social arrangements and social problems that have degraded cities and made sprawl seem appealing. Raising the gas tax is a sound idea on ecological grounds, and also I believe economic and national security grounds — but I am skeptical that that in itself will produce a more dense pattern of future development going forward. Pricing carbon correctly will raise the costs of suburban living, but you also need to look at increasing the relative benefits of city living.

There are things that can be done in the short-term and medium-term however. Weatherizing older homes in urban neighborhoods is a slam dunk win-win, providing new opportunities to workers in the green economy while also making urban residential neighborhoods more efficient ecologically and more affordable over the long run. Gas taxes that are then used to finance alternatives to automobile-oriented transportation — in short, to finance bus rapid transit, light rail, and the like — would also be a good start.

But what we really need to do is think big. There are going to be 130 million new Americans over the next 40 years, and if everyone of them is driving a car to work — or even most of them — we are going to be in big, big trouble. We are going to rebuild our transportation infrastructure with the goal of providing the same convenience and mobility that cars provide via a more ecologically sustainable transportation network. In short, we will have to, as some authors put it, “retrofit suburbia” — and also many central cities. Where things get exciting is when we consider the possibility that we might be able to use the massive public and private investments that will entail to leverage job creation in urban areas and facilitate the rehabilitation of our abandoned of substandard urban neighborhoods. If we are going to be building new rail cars, for instance, we should build them in facilities located in our existing urban areas, employing people who have been displaced by deindustrialization and the most recent downturn.

Are there communities nationwide that are models we can learn from?

In terms of full-blown alternatives to sprawl, the best examples are overseas, particularly in Europe. Obvious in places like the Netherlands, land is scarcer, so American-style sprawl was largely out of the question. But good policies have helped as well. Germans drive much less than Americans, in part because it’s much more expensive to own and operate a car there. Great Britain in the 20th century built a network of “new towns” — planned decentralization — that provided an alternative to sprawl; the new towns were suburbs, but they were designed to be socially inclusive and to protect the surrounding land from endless growth. In many European countries the national government pays for a much larger share of the costs of local government and of public education than we do in the U.S., which helps limit inequalities between jurisdictions.

What are some of the broad leadership questions at work when we consider sprawl and suburban life?

If you care about social justice and believe in the idea that everyone in America should have an equal chance to get ahead no matter where they were born, you should be concerned about sprawl and the American pattern of suburbanization. That pattern has created a reality in which relatively privileged neighborhoods are able to escape in considerable measure being part of the same political community with poorer neighborhoods, and to enjoy the benefits of being in a metropolitan area while leaving cities to fend for themselves in dealing with our most serious social problems. Perpetuating this pattern is the fact that suburban voters (in general) are reluctant to pay more taxes to help urban areas, or to embrace other policy changes that might threaten their own relatively privileged positions; and the fact that suburban voters are the largest bloc of voters in the country. I often think back to the campaign commercial Barack Obama ran on network TV just before the election in 2008. Obama is often regarded as this very liberal, pro-city president, and there is some truth to that, but for his commercial he picked the story of a working class mother who had moved to the suburbs to find better schools for her kids as the example of the kind of American he wanted to help. Obama did well in suburban communities by embracing, not challenging, the narrative that suburbs are where successful people end up.

If it were simply a question of social justice, I don’t think the fundamental dynamic of most American metropolitan areas that has produced sprawl would have much realistic prospect of changing in more than a marginal way. But the ecological question potentially changes things in a profound way. Human communities have lived with social injustices for thousands of years, but the threat of rapid climate change is new and unprecedented. In my opinion, climate change represents the most complex and demanding leadership challenge in human history. One reason it’s a leadership challenge is because facing up to it would require confronting and probably altering the way we, those of us in the world’s richest and most powerful country, live. Americans don’t like to be told what to do as individuals, and don’t like our “way of life” being criticized by anyone. That is why, at bottom, many Americans remain skeptical about climate change science and suspicious or scornful or people like Al Gore who have tried to sound the alarm bell.

The leadership challenge then is to both convey the urgency of change and to communicate that it can be change for the better. Wouldn’t it be a better society if we weren’t scared of living in some urban neighborhoods, and we weren’t worried that if we lived within the city limits we were compromising our kids’ future? Wouldn’t it be a better society if I didn’t have to endure long daily commutes or traffic jams just to get around day-to-day? Leaders are not going to be able to scare the American people into adopting substantial changes in our growth and development patterns — they are going to have to persuade them with a positive vision of a more just and ecologically sustainable future.