Monday, November 10, 2008

Sub Prime Time, Part 2

Could the mortgage crisis cause us to reconsider the logic of suburban sprawl?

I was thinking about this over the weekend as I drove out to Mariposa county, near Yosemite, with my girlfriend. It was my first time heading out that way, and I was looking forward to a scenic drive down Route 99.

Imagine my heartbreak upon seeing mile after mile of generic subdivisions, strip malls, and big-box stores. Livermore, Tracy, Modesto, Turlock--the sprawl doesn't let up until you get through Merced, two-thirds of the way to Yosemite. I felt like I was driving through ground zero of America's housing and financial crisis. But not only that: I was driving through the center of our moral crisis, our identity crisis, even our spiritual crisis. The ugliness, the environmental disregard, the bland sameness, the haste and greed with which new developments have sprouted up--we've been on quite a binge. As we come to terms with what we have wrought, I suspect that it's going to be a long hangover.

I'm surprised the link between the housing bubble and suburban sprawl hasn't been covered more. The connection is summed up well in The Urban Oasis:
Home ownership and single-family housing, most typically located in outlying areas, have been encouraged through tax deductions and mortgage guarantees that have not been available to the renters of apartments (located primarily in cities). Additionally, the tax codes that govern capital gains and mortgage interest provide strong incentives to homebuyers to purchase the most expensive homes they can afford, which, because of the geographic patterns of home values in the United States, foster outward movement from the urban centers.
At some point along the way, Americans decided that the suburbs were not only preferable to cities, but that they were morally superior. This valuation has been enshrined in our laws and tax codes and zoning regulations. And this is what has to change in order for us to start sorting out the mess we've made of our landscape.

By the way, we drove back from Yosemite via Route 120 and were delighted to find open space, scenic views, and no strip malls in sight.

(Pictures of sprawl taken from here.)

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