Chris Leinberger on Sprawl in the NYT

I got a number of emails about this Op-Ed from Chris Leinberger, and it prompted some discussion as it was passed around on PLANET. I was hoping to ignore it, but it’s been sent to me so many times that it’s probably time to write about it.

There are a whole bunch of problems here, as Joel Kotkin notes in this response in Forbes. There’s a yucky ad you have to sit through, but it’s worth it.

Leinberger’s camp say he’s right; his research shows that real estate in central cities has retained its value better, and of course, there’s always the argument that auto-oriented suburbs increase family’s costs of living, and thus, add too much strain to family’s finances, thereby making it hard for them to be able to stay in their houses.

Chicago’s Census numbers nicely illustrate a bunch of internal tensions with Leinberger’s arguments. There is a chance that Census data haven’t captured a lag in people moving back to central cities, but the city of Chicago lost 200,000 people from 2000 to 2010. Chicago is a New Urbanist dreamland, with a downtown full of walkability and design frills, with copious rail transit, and a robust commercial life downtown. How could it possibly have lost population?

Some other hypotheses/ideas:

1. We had overvaluation in the market, and there was far too much risky borrowing gone on. All apparently true. But keep in mind what exposed the house-of-cards in the tranches in the first place: a surge of unemployment led to a concomitant surge in distressed sales of real estate started the house-of-cards falling. So, yes, the housing bubble contributed, but we also have that surge in unemployment to deal with. Unemployment is a major reason why people may not move at all, let alone to real estate that is relatively more expensive, as Leinberger now says urban land is.

2. If auto-oriented suburbs were the problem, with the strain of car and house, how do we explain the number of countries where a) there is a ton of transit and relatively low levels of car ownership and b) household debt to income ratios are much, much worse now than ever, bubble or no bubble, in the US: Spain, Sweden, Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands (another New Urbanist poster child).