Winter 2000 — Volume 2 Issue 4

Fair Growth 2020: A Tale of Four Futures

By Lance Freeman

At the dawn of the 21st century, sprawl is one of the most pressing problems confronting urban America. Traffic congestion, environmental degradation, and the draining of life from our cities are but a few of the tribulations for which the blame has been laid at sprawl's doorstep. Spurred by efforts to improve the urban environment, a variety of planning strategies labeled "smart growth" have emerged. Whatever its prospects for successfully containing sprawl, there is the possibility that smart growth may prove to be a double-edged sword by limiting housing opportunities for the poor.

This article uses scenario planning to starkly illustrate the careful balance between choosing to grow smart and choosing to grow equitably. Scenario planning creates multiple scenarios that markedly diverge from one another so that the large-scale trends of the future are made visible. The objective is not to pinpoint the future.

By exaggerating key aspects of the future in question, the scenario planning exercise makes apparent the nature of the trends that are driving the future. In this article, scenario planning is used to depict the American metropolis in 2020 after one of four possible courses of action is followed: 1) continuation of current practices and policies regarding both sprawl and social equity, 2) adoption of smart growth initiatives to combat sprawl without any consideration of the equity implications, 3) an equity-driven approach without any attempt to combat sprawl through smart growth, and 4) smart growth initiatives that are tempered by a concern for social equity.

It is 2020 and you are there, viewing the results of the paths chosen by four hypothetical metropolitan areas to address (or not address) smart growth and social equity. The first, Sprawlville, has adopted little in the way of smart growth initiatives to combat sprawl, and its inhabitants have not been particularly concerned about social equity either. Smart Town, the second area, was eager to curb sprawl and implemented an urban growth boundary for that purpose, but little thought was given to how that strategy might affect the metropolis's poorer citizens. The third metropolitan area, Equitopia, had a genuine concern for social equity that manifested itself in an ambitious metropolitanwide affordable housing program. Unfortunately, smart growth was not on the table, and the continued sprawling of the metropolis proved to be an unforeseen barrier to achieving Equitopia's dreams of social equity. Finally, the fair growth model?Millenniumburg?is where smart growth and social equity come together as part of the same goal: building a livable and sustainable environment.

Scenario 1: In Sprawlville, Urban Sprawl Persists
By 2020, the moniker "Sprawlville" has been bestowed on this spreading metropolis whose city and surrounding regions epitomize the worst features of urban sprawl. Perhaps worst of all is the disjunction between where people live and where they work?or where jobs are available for those hoping for work. Despite population growth in the city of barely 5 percent from 2000 to 2020, the size of Sprawlville's metropolitan area increased by approximately 50 percent during that same time span. Virtually all of the growth took place on the edges of the metropolis on sites that are far away from transit lines and only accessible by car.

At first, the suburban office campuses drew a number of relocating and startup businesses. But total reliance on automobiles has created nightmarish traffic jams for commutes to and from attractive, but inaccessible, office campuses. Employers are finding it difficult to attract workers for all but the highest-paying jobs. Twenty years ago this factor made jobs inaccessible for only a small minority of the area's residents, but now the bulk of the population has a major accessibility problem.

Ironically, a vast underutilized labor pool consisting largely of minorities and recent immigrants resides in the central city and inner suburban rings of Sprawlville. For most residents of those areas, the cost of commuting to the faraway jobs is prohibitive; those who cannot afford a car cannot even consider it. Some companies use vans to ferry workers from the inner city, but the commute by van typically takes two hours from workers' homes. Smaller companies and those with thin profit margins cannot even afford to provide van service. Sprawlville does have a mass transit system, but the new employment centers are so spread out that there is virtually nothing within walking distance to any of the transit stops.

Many poor central-city residents have tried to obtain housing in suburbia to be close to job opportunities, but with little luck. Low-income households can obtain housing assistance vouchers, but they are of little use in the suburbs because little affordable housing exists there. Sprawlville residents have, for a number of years, used zoning restrictions to exclude the poor, preferring to attract high-end housing that will contribute substantially to the local treasury. Even progressive towns and developers in Sprawlville have found it difficult to maintain affordable housing because the cost of providing infrastructure to far-flung housing developments invariably drives prices beyond the affordable range, requiring even deeper subsidies.

The lack of accessible employment opportunities and the dearth of affordable housing in suburbia has concentrated poverty in the central city and spawned associated social problems. As a result, all of the stereotypes and social stigmas attached to the inner-city poor have increased in Sprawlville and become the norm. Not surprisingly, suburban towns have become even more resistant to building affordable housing or accepting housing vouchers.

Exacerbating this trend is the disparity in fiscal resources that results from the poor being confined to the central city. With a withering tax base, Sprawlville's central city and poorer municipalities can offer little in the way of public goods or services to attract business or retain middle-class residents. The most glaring disparities in terms of equality of opportunity are in the area of education. Most suburban children attend schools with experienced staff, excellent facilities, and a challenging and extensive curriculum, while central-city students attend "warehouses" where little is taught and even less learned. The most important determinant of the type of school one attends is where one lives. A lucky few of the poor who have managed to secure affordable housing outside the central-city school districts send their children to good schools. For the rest, second-class schools are the only option.

Sprawlville of 2020 is a divided city. Affluent suburbanites have access to the portals of economic mobility while citizens of the poorer central city and inner-ring suburbs have access only to poor schools, inferior services, limited employment opportunities, and neighbors whose opportunities are just as limited. The paradox is that, whereas new communication technologies have made place increasingly irrelevant for the majority, for a significant minority?the inner-city residents?place has become ever more important.

Scenario 2: Smart Town Practices Smart Growth With No Equity
The residents of Smart Town have taken the preachings of smart growth and New Urbanist advocates to heart. Smart Towners point with great pride to the urban growth boundary (UGB) that rings Smart Town. On one side are undeveloped woodlands, and on another there is farmland. The citizens of Smart Town approved a smart growth initiative in 2001 to create a metropolitan authority, one of the chief purposes of which was to establish and manage the UGB. In recent years, development has crept up to the UGB so that now some residents literally have virgin forests in their backyards.

Smart Town planners have successfully directed development to infill areas throughout the metropolis, including formerly poor areas. The Metropolitan Development Authority has persuaded local governments, including the central city, to streamline their permitting processes. Those actions, in conjunction with the steadily dwindling supply of land on the urban periphery, have made formerly unattractive infill sites enticing to developers. The development of commercial and residential projects and the refurbishing of aging buildings in the central city and older neighborhoods have accelerated. It is now common to see upscale shops and restaurants throughout the metropolis, not just in a few tony neighborhoods.

Smart Town has also developed a transit system with its stops surrounded by higher-density and mixed-use developments that are highly sought after. With transit that offers feasible alternatives to driving and its UGB providing readily accessible, pristine open space, Smart Town is a nationwide magnet for upwardly mobile professionals.

One group does not feel welcome in Smart Town, however: the poor. Prior to the smart growth initiative, Smart Town had a mix of housing types?from luxurious "McMansions" and restored Victorian homes to subsidized housing and worn but sound row houses. Pickings were slim for the poor and working class, but rentals could be found. In 2020, however, that is no longer the case. A number of unintended consequences of Smart Town's initiatives begun 20 years earlier have made affordable housing especially scarce. For starters, Smart Town's attractiveness to yuppies spurred gentrification in many neighborhoods. At first, gentrifiers zeroed in on worn but architecturally distinguished row houses. As the metropolis began pressing against the walls of the UGB, however, development pressures stimulated gentrification in virtually all of the formerly poor parts of town, depleting the stock of affordable housing.

A second way that Smart Town's smart growth initiative inadvertently exacerbated the housing problems of the poor was that, aside from attracting upwardly mobile professionals, the initiative had the paradoxical effect of attracting more poor as well. The boom associated with smart growth policies has increased the demand for service workers. The high-tech information workers need to be fed, clothed, and nannied for, but these jobs don't pay much.

Unable to afford the skyrocketing rents in Smart Town, the unskilled workers and other nonaffluent have only a few choices. Theoretically, subsidized housing is available. But, with a wait of several years for a unit or voucher, that is not a solution for most people. Some give up and move out of town, which means either a long and expensive commute back into the city or forgoing the job opportunities in Smart Town and working somewhere else. Most commonly, poor families disappear into Smart Town's invisible housing market. That market consists of garages that house families, attics that serve as rooming housing to recent immigrants, and one-family units that house two or three families. Landlords?anxious to maximize profits?are only too willing to look the other way to allow overcrowding, or in what's left of the seedier sections of town, subdivide buildings into apartments so that spaces hardly bigger than walk-in closets are rented as studios.

Smart Town successfully re-created some of the best and the worst types of urban form from America's past. Reminiscent of yesteryear, many of Smart Town's neighborhoods have a quaint, small-town feel. Shops are accessible by walking, driving is optional, and the streets are lively. But Smart Town has overcrowded conditions not seen since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although they attempted to tackle sprawl head-on, the residents of Smart Town have wound up living in a place as divided as ever.

Scenario 3: Equitopia Has Equity, but No Smart Growth
The Equitopia metropolitan area has been a trailblazer in affordable housing policy. The economic boom of the 1990s fattened the coffers of Equitopia's local governments. More important, Equitopia had strong political leadership and the luck to have one county government that encompassed the entire metropolitan area. At the turn of the century, Equitopia's political leaders thus had the will and the authority to implement their vision of providing sound, decent, and affordable housing for all.

Equitopia employed a number of tactics to meet its goal. The Equitopia Public Housing Authority was well managed and obtained increasing federal funds even in a time when they were scarce. Equitopia also funded its own affordable housing program and established a housing trust fund financed by a hugely successful lottery. With a dedicated revenue stream, affordable housing has been protected somewhat from the vagaries of politics. Equitopia subsidizes private development of affordable housing and supplements the supply of housing vouchers provided by the federal government. As a percentage of the local government budget, Equitopia is spending more in 2020 on affordable housing than any other locality in the nation. Equitopia's planners also congratulate themselves for their enlightened siting policies for affordable housing. Rather than concentrating affordable units in the central city or a few inner-ring suburbs?as has typically been the practice?developments are scattered throughout the metropolis in central city and suburb alike.

But in 2020, support for the affordable housing initiative is beginning to wane. For one thing, Equitopia's unabated sprawl creates trenchant demands for infrastructure to service far-flung developments on the county's formerly undeveloped edges. Although the population has only been growing linearly, infrastructure costs have been growing geometrically as more and more development occurs on the urban fringe, which has caught Equitopia's fiscal planners off guard and left them scrambling to find funding. Not surprisingly, a hungry eye has been cast on funds that traditionally have been allocated for affordable housing. Moreover, sprawl-induced traffic congestion has become the number-one local issue, crowding out concerns for equity and social justice that provided support for the affordable housing program in the first place. Today, the typical resident of Equitopia knows his property taxes are skyrocketing, supposedly to pay for new infrastructure, but he's still stuck in traffic and the situation is getting worse.

Furthermore, the poor are not benefiting as expected from Equitopia's largesse. As originally conceived, Equitopia's affordable housing strategy would provide a stable environment that, coupled with job training and readiness programs, would provide a way up and out of poverty by making the poor more marketable to employers. But the planners' notions of distributing affordable housing evenly bumped up against Equitopia's lack of an efficient transportation system and the decentralized nature of employment and commerce in the metropolis.

Few of the poor have completed the job training or readiness programs. Like the affordable housing, job centers are scattered throughout the metropolis, not very far from anyone, but not close to anyone either. Without an effective transit system, the area's jobs are difficult to reach without a car, which a majority of the affordable housing residents lack. As a result, the employment situation for many low-income residents has scarcely improved in the 20 years since Equitopia implemented its ambitious affordable housing program.

Besides building affordable housing throughout the metropolis, Equitopia provided vouchers that were intended to allow recipients the freedom to move wherever they wanted. But little of the land in suburban Equitopia was zoned for multifamily housing; consequently, even those fortunate enough to have vouchers found their choices constrained as they searched for apartments in the same few central-city neighborhoods. Whatever opportunities may lie in suburbia, vouchers seldom provide recipients the opportunity to take advantage of them.

In 2020, those looking back at the history of Equitopia's affordable housing initiative must be impressed by the commitment to equity manifested in its boldness. But mostly, there is disappointment. Equitopia's planners hoped to avoid some of the worst mistakes of housing planners from the past by trying to avoid concentrations in any one area. But the affordable housing strategy was not linked to a coherent plan for how the entire metropolis should grow. As a result, Equitopia ended up building housing for a city that did not exist. Equitopia's affordable housing developments are like an archipelago scattered throughout the metropolis?virtual islands of poverty without a means to reach the mainland of economic prosperity.

Scenario 4: Millenniumburg Boasts Smart Growth with Equity
In 2000, Millenniumburg had many of the same problems plaguing other metropolitan areas. Rush hour traffic crawled. Ridership on Millenniumburg's recently completed and extensive mass transit system fell well below projections, hardly justifying the billion-dollar price tag. The pollution from cars made the air unhealthy on an increasing number of days. The bulk of the poor and working-class residents were concentrated in the central city and inner-ring suburbs. Most problematic to some, there seemed to be no coherence to the way Millenniumburg was growing. Jobs were created in places where there was little transit, and transit lines stopped close to nothing in particular.

Facing a multitude of problems stemming from uncontrolled urban growth, Millenniumburg's citizens viewed sprawl as an integrated set of problems that could best be addressed by a comprehensive strategy, which they adopted. Although local jurisdictions in Millenniumburg had the usual incentives to pursue their own narrow self-interests, many residents realized that, to achieve a better quality of life, Millenniumburg needed to address problems on a metropolitanwide basis. They established a regional authority with the power and perspective to act on behalf of the interests of the entire region. The organization of metropolitan governance was careful to include not local governments, but also community-based organizations, especially those from poor and minority communities that have historically felt excluded from the decision-making process.

Like most other metropolitan areas, Millenniumburg was losing farmlands and wilderness to development at an alarming pace. Rather than establishing an arbitrary growth boundary around the fringes of the metropolis, Millenniumburg's planners focused on the most ecologically sensitive lands. In those areas, planners established greenbelts where development could not occur. Fortunately, preserved wooded areas already extended deep into the central city of Millenniumburg, dating back to the late 19th century when the city's earliest planners set aside land for natural parks. In all cases, ecological and topographical concerns guided the development of greenbelts. As a result, greenbelts are sprinkled throughout the Millenniumburg metropolis?some like rivers that snake through the city and suburbs, others like oases that break up the desert of concrete and asphalt.

Another major problem in need of a metropolitanwide solution was traffic congestion and the related lack of accessibility for those without cars. Although traffic was as bad as anywhere else in 2000, now, in 2020, Millenniumburg has a relative dearth of traffic congestion, and 20 percent of all commuting trips are by public transportation. Millenniumburg was able to get people out of their cars because its three-tiered transit system serves a variety of needs. Heavy mass transit goes along major regional routes and along the medians of interstate highways. Light rail transverses many of the major boulevards that criss-cross the metropolis, and bus routes serve localized but major streets. But perhaps most important, Millenniumburg began coordinating its development patterns with mass transit using transit-oriented development: The areas immediately surrounding transit stops are for only high-density mixed commercial and residential development; in the next concentric circle going out from the transit stop is a mixture of medium-density housing and localized retail; and single-family homes are allowed in the outer rings farthest from transit lines, just beyond a quarter of a mile.

Even with an extensive transit system that was well coordinated with the area's land use planning, most people still do not live or work near a transit stop. But enough people have found that at least some of their day-to-day activities occur near transit stops, especially shopping and recreation, that using transit has become a viable option for many of them. Consequently, Millenniumburg has made significant progress in addressing one of the most pressing problems of early 21st century America: traffic congestion. A further benefit of the transit-oriented development is the lively street life that has grown up around transit stops, which encourages people to use public transportation to get to transit-accessible neighborhoods that are increasingly destinations of choice.

Millenniumburg's superb transit system and the development that sprang up around it also proved to be a boon to the economic fortunes of poorer citizens by giving them access to jobs throughout the metropolitan area. In addition to bringing people to the jobs through better transit, Millenniumburg worked to bring jobs to the people. Bureaucratic red tape and the uncertainty surrounding it had long been a major obstacle to development in the central city, making suburban and exurban sites more attractive to potential employers. Moreover, zoning regulations in the center city were a relic from the past when manufacturing and commercial developments were more likely to be noxious than they are today, and consequently many sites suitable for manufacturing and commercial development lay fallow. To address these issues, Millenniumburg streamlined the development process. Land was zoned based on performance standards so more land was available for the type of development that would produce jobs. Brownfields were catalogued and readied for development.

As a result of these efforts, development in the inner city is no longer a hit-or-miss game. Gone is the risk of not knowing how long a project will take that scared away both developers and potential financiers. Central-city sites are still often at a disadvantage compared with suburban sites, but there are always uses for which the central city has an advantage, such as services to downtown firms or companies that can take advantage of the dense transportation networks in the city. And there is always demand for housing in the more centralized locations, but now it could be built more quickly, thus lowering prices. Consequently, the central city began attracting more jobs and housing development than at any time since the 1950s.

The city's boom made affordability an issue, however, for lower-income residents. The scattered greenbelts improve the city's attractiveness, but by taking land off the market they potentially drive up prices. And although the transit stops are convenient for those without cars, their very accessibility makes the land around them more expensive. Spurred by affordable housing advocates and representatives of the poor, who participated in the initial formation of a metropolitanwide governing body around the turn of the century, Millenniumburg's planners took a number of steps to ensure smart but equitable growth. For one, they recognized that their smart growth initiatives strongly appealed to many who were fed up with the long commutes and bland landscapes that characterized much of urban America in the late 20th century. Thus, developers were sure to want in on Millenniumburg's growth, and that demand provided an opportunity to nurture the kind of growth the community wanted. These conditions allowed inclusionary zoning to be a major prong in the effort to provide affordable housing. The inclusionary zoning program requires all new developments to set aside 10 percent of their units as affordable housing. The 10 percent figure is low enough to ease the fears of middle-class neighbors but, with the substantial amount of new construction occurring, high enough to produce a sizable number of affordable units. The affordable housing units are required to be architecturally and spatially indistinguishable from market-rate units, which further calms fears typically associated with siting of affordable housing.

Millenniumburg's transit-oriented development strategy also promoted development and preservation of moderately priced housing. By 2020, many people and financial institutions have recognized the financial savings associated with living in a less auto-dependent community. A household with only one car can afford more housing than one with multiple vehicles. Thus, many households have traded multiple cars for more housing or homeownership.

In 2020, Millenniumburg is a livable and sustainable city with less traffic congestion, a wider variety of housing options for all classes, more open space, less economic segregation, and more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods than many other places. Millenniumburg still has poor people, but the community's public realm is shared equally by all. This means that the schools, parks, and other public services used by Millenniumburg's poor are on par with those used by their more affluent brethren. Millenniumburg is also a place where the poor have easy access to jobs, both in their own neighborhoods and throughout the metropolis via Millenniumburg's far-reaching transportation network. Millenniumburg illustrates what can be accomplished if a citizenry works for the collective good and learns from mistakes made building the 20th century city.

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Lance Freeman is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University.