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).

5 thoughts on “Chris Leinberger on Sprawl in the NYT

  1. Looking at

    I don’t see a surge of unemployment leading the disaster. I see an uptick in unemployment uncovering an underlying financial industry house of cards built during a time when aggregate US household debt level had reached a moderately too high level. The uncertainty this unraveling created -then- led to a self-fulfilling surge in everything, including unemployment.

    I agree in broad outline with the goals of the author and the need to head towards those goals. But 1) his buried-late-in-the-piece disclaimer, 2) his listing the financial industry as facilitator rather than financial industry either chief or at least equal partner role in creating present economic problems, 3) his calling bikelanes vital…. makes me a little wary of buying every part of this particular messenger’s message.

  2. I probably am missing your point, then. It appeared to me you were saying that the major problem we need to address – regardless the suburb sprawl versus urban downtown question – was the reasons unemployment ‘surged’ first. That felt to me like you were agreeing with folks who are saying we are in this economic trough because major structural issues finally caught up with us. I’m not denying there are various long term structural things out there. I just don’t buy that this economic trough and this unraveling – and its depth – had much or anything to do with that. Most of this trough is explained by an international financial system meltdown occurring simultaneous with aggregate US household debt level reaching a marginally too high level.

    I’m unsure how the fringe-suburban versus core-urban issues happen to lay down over this acute economic situation. But that was one of my big problems with the Leinberger article. It seemed to blame too much of this present big honking economic trough on fringe-suburban behavior. I despise fringe-suburban behavior as much as the next fringe-suburban hating guy. It’s just I didn’t like the sound of the argument he was using against it. Didn’t make sense and potentially steals attention away from addressing the things that DID cause the acute economic problem we are in.

  3. I was saying that even if Leinberger is right–that suburbs were the driving force behind the housing crash–we still have the lingering issue of unemployment. It’s not clear to me that the geographic mechanism Leinberger wants to use would work in reverse even if his forsenics are right.

  4. Yes. Agreed. He did seem to be another example of someone trying to ride the pain and fear of our present acute problems to push their favorite long-long term concern.

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