Skip to main content

Street Smarts

An interview with smart-growth expert and author Anthony Flint.

Debates over suburban sprawl are notoriously contentious. On one side are environmentalists, social-justice advocates, and small farmers, deploring the effects of sprawl on family and community. On the other, suburban families in search of safety, good schools, and a piece of land to call their own. Into this fray steps Anthony Flint, who keeps a level head as he writes about the growth of, er, smart growth and the need to provide families with good choices. He spoke with's David Roberts about the historical roots of sprawl, the demand for better-designed communities, and the "Sprawl Inc." that defends the status quo.

Few debates in the U.S. are more emotionally charged than the one over sprawl -- the exodus, since World War II, of America's middle class from cities to far-flung residential areas. Environmentalists, small farmers, and social-justice activists deplore sprawl for its unhealthy effects on land and communities. Suburbanites bristle at the attacks on their personal choices -- the desire for safety, good schools, and a piece of land.

Into this contentious debate steps unusually cool-headed Anthony Flint, whose book This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America is a chronicle of the fledgling smart-growth movement and the challenges it faces from entrenched interests. For 20 years, Flint was a journalist covering urban development, planning, and transportation, primarily for The Boston Globe. Recently he left behind the daily beat: at the end of July, he will move to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank devoted to land issues.

I chatted with Flint in a coffee shop in Seattle. Like his book, he is even-keeled and congenial, utterly devoid of the strident ideological fervor so often characteristic of both sides in the land-use wars. But real passion entered his voice when he talked about offering choices to Americans seeking better lives and better communities.

David Roberts: Do you consider yourself anti-sprawl, or is that too simplistic?

Anthony Flint:
I want to focus on making sure that there are alternatives to sprawl available to people who are rethinking how they live, primarily because of energy and transportation costs. Urgent action is needed to make sure we're ready to accommodate those people, and that means changing zoning, working on urban infill and redevelopment, and investing in transit infrastructure. That is plenty to keep us all very busy without worrying about whether we should restrict sprawl, or whether sprawl is an actual thing, or a good thing.

I consider myself more pro-smart growth. That's really my message. I'm almost tired of talking about sprawl.

DR: You just eliminated half my questions. [Laughs.] Why has single-use development [which keeps residential, commercial, and industrial areas separate from each other -- i.e., suburbia] come to be so dominant that most people don't even really realize there's anything else?

Dispersed suburban development, particularly housing, was encouraged by government policies: low-cost mortgages, the interstate highway system, and road-building practices generally. And zoning in this country, the rules that govern development, is geared toward promoting dispersed patterns.

DR: Why, though? Is there some reason the government would want to encourage that?

It's part of the pendulum that swings back and forth between town and country. The government saw suburban areas as a great hope for housing and organizing settlement. Energy was cheap, and the car was seen as a terrific mode of transportation (and it is in many ways). Zoning actually guarantees separated use and dispersal, because it came into being at a time when cities were messy, unhealthy, crowded places. Social reformers came in and said, hey, we need to make sure this slaughterhouse isn't near this tenement house. That encouraged this process of separating all the functions.

DR: So it was a progressive impetus?

It was in part, which is a little bit of an irony now. You mostly see progressives aligned against sprawl, because of its environmental impact and the way it's created inequity, socioeconomic fragmentation. But yeah, back then that's what led to the separated-use zoning, and that is the foundation for all this dispersed pattern that you see today.

It was a combination of policies and a quest for wide open spaces, elbow room, that goes back to the days of Jefferson, who believed that each one of us should have a piece of land to cultivate and call our own. This zoning code lived on well beyond its relevance, because now we want the functions of life to be jumbled together much more.

DR: Sprawl seems to have such inertia, despite so many people inveighing against it. Are there vested interests that don't want it to change?

There are. I fancifully call it Sprawl Inc.

Of course there is no such thing as Sprawl Inc. There isn't a building you can go protest in front of. But there are homebuilders and road builders and others who have an obvious vested interest in the status quo. It's a very automated system. It's automatically financed; it's automatically ushered through because of the zoning in place around the country. It's a very easy thing to defend and maintain as the status quo, because it's very difficult to develop in any other way. You have lobbyists and the big homebuilders and others aligned with libertarian think tanks and critics of smart growth who are making sure, with op-ed essays and letters to the editor and blogs and the like, that this smart-growth stuff doesn't take hold and start to eat away at the bread and butter of the conventional development industry.

But I should say that even that is changing, and it's part of the reason I see a real tipping point right now. Even some of the big homebuilders whose bread and butter has been single-family subdivisions are establishing high-density units: KB Homes, Pulte, Toll Brothers in Manhattan. Lennar is doing urban infill and redevelopment. All of these homebuilders see the writing on the wall, that there's going to be demand for something other than single-family-home subdivisions.

DR: There's an argument that people throughout history, even in ancient times, when they became financially capable of leaving the city, left the city. Human nature pushes people to disperse, and only hardship or privation can pull them back in. Do you buy that?

I think that's a somewhat simplistic view. It is true that both affluence and affordability are factors here. If you can afford a big house on a big piece of land, well, chances are you'll head out to get yourself that kind of property. What's driving sprawl, of course, is affordability -- the way home prices, at least at first, seem within reach. So you have people moving to West Virginia to live and commuting into the Washington, D.C., area. People doing the same thing in the Central Valley in California, commuting into San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco now. Folks in Pasco County, Fla., miles from anywhere, driving to their workplaces off beltways. It's certainly true that we have sprawled because we can, because there are a wide range of financial enticements to do so.

But I'm convinced that there are an equal number of enticements to come back in: a better sense of community, more convenience, better quality of life, and perhaps most importantly now, lower cost in terms of not having to fill up the tank of the car all the time.

DR: It's said that the apparently cheap cost of energy is an illusion, since many of the costs are externalities, pushed into the public sphere, paid for in other ways. Do you think that's also true of suburban housing, that the low cost is a bit false?

It is. Americans are discovering that sprawl is a false bargain. These costs and inconveniences reveal themselves only over time, so there's a kind of bait-and-switch quality to sprawl that leads people to see the sticker price and buy the home -- but then, a year later, it's costing an awful lot to heat or cool that 2,500-square-foot home. A year later the taxes are higher because the county or the local government has had to extend infrastructure to such far-flung areas. A year later, filling up the tank is costing $70, $80, $90 a week. That adds up to some real money for the family budget.

DR: But people have been sprawling for 50, 60 years now. If these costs are revealing themselves, why is there no movement away? Do people not know there are alternatives?

As a snapshot you do see people continuing to move into sprawl, but there has been a demonstrated revival of interest in living in cities. Now, a good part of that is retiring baby boomers selling the big house in the suburbs, moving into the city for the cultural amenities and convenience. Young professionals, certainly. But also families that are rediscovering older suburbs, moving into new urbanist projects that are more like the neighborhoods we used to build in this country before World War II. But it's early. Gas prices in particular need some time to really sink in.

DR: A lot of the resistance to density and infill comes from current residents of those areas. They fear bigger taxes, crowded schools, crime. How do you get past that?

Well, one of the things about smart growth is that it's harder. It's harder to do than sprawl. You have to deal with existing neighborhoods, and you have to make it a participatory process. Otherwise it doesn't work and you're clashing all the time. You have to make it really well designed, to show that these kinds of developments and redevelopments are pleasant and vibrant places. And, by the way, they add value. Density and mixed-use and development around transit are good for the individual homeowner who's already there, because all of these trends add value.

DR: What political or cultural circumstances are needed for smart-growth policies to succeed?

In terms of statewide initiatives to address growth, things are changing rapidly. About 40 states have one form or another of smart-growth policies and initiatives. The most successful are those that emphasize incentives rather than focusing on restrictions on bad development.

It is also changing politically. Now you have both Democrats and Republicans interested in addressing growth creatively. [Massachusetts Gov.] Mitt Romney is a Republican; [Gov.] Jennifer Granholm in Michigan, [Gov.] Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania, both Democrats. The victory of [Gov.] Tim Kaine [D] in Virginia was an important one. He ran on a platform of getting a handle on growth and he won in heavily Republican Loudoun County. So I think you'll see Republicans putting together a suburban strategy that addresses this need to plan for future growth.

DR: What is the Republican argument for it?

I argue that smart growth is actually a conservative notion, because it saves money. It saves money because cities and towns don't have to extend infrastructure so far. You're taking advantage of existing infrastructure with redevelopment, and you're also leveling the playing field. Those who believe in the free market shouldn't like government picking winners and losers, and that's exactly what government has done over the last half century in terms of favoring sprawl. What smart growth does is level the playing field -- make it as easy to build in the city or in older suburbs as it is out in the countryside.

DR: Short of abandoning them, are there ways to improve sprawling suburbs and make them more like the kind of communities people want?

This is particularly true in the older suburbs, so-called mature or first-ring suburbs. These places are getting rediscovered because they have good bones; they have reasonably human-scaled street blocks and grids, and the infrastructure is all there. With those kinds of places, it's a matter of working on the transportation systems, making sure there's a town center that allows mixed use, making sure that you maintain a good open-space and parks network, because the great value of living this way is that you should be able to walk with your kid to a park.

Now, for the real sprawling places, particularly the places we're building now, exurban and completely beyond the suburban periphery, those are awfully hard if not impossible to retrofit. I'm not sure what to say about those places -- we've built enough of them, and we should probably knock it off about now.

For the closer-in suburban areas, you're already seeing a lot of reinventing going on. Example: Plano and Richardson, Texas, north of Dallas. These are becoming hotbeds for transit-oriented development and town-center living, as folks take advantage of a commuter rail network. I wouldn't necessarily have said 10 years ago that Plano would be a hotbed for smart growth, but it's being reinvented. It's possible.

DR: Do you have any sense of the relationship between the environmental community and the smart-growth community?

There is an incredible sea change under way in terms of environmentalists embracing the basic principles of smart growth. Sierra Club is coming out now with the 12 best redevelopment sites in the country. That's really noteworthy.

Environmentalists -- and anybody who's concerned about global warming -- recognize that cities are, per capita, the most energy-efficient human settlements. Manhattan is one of the greenest places on Earth. They're working hand in hand with people concerned about affordable housing, planners, architects, labor, communities of faith -- there's a big coalition behind smart growth and new urbanism.

We're all realizing we put tons of carbon into the atmosphere, all of us, every year. It's primarily because of driving. Why do we drive so much? Well, it's the physical environment and the way it's dispersed. So let's address our physical environment. I see a new generation of environmentalists focused on how we've arranged our landscape for ourselves.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of It was first published on July 7, 2006.

More on this topic