Even in many of the capitals of sprawl, the free market is clearly demonstrating that sprawl has fallen from favor. These regions may not be seeing a turning point, where suburban growth plateaus (not shrinks, since their overall regions continue to grow) and where urbanism begins to account for most growth, but they have reached their inflection point: when sprawl’s gallop slows down, and when cities stopped shrinking as quickly. This seems like a small point, but humans feel such changes. A roller coaster is always moving forward, but at vastly different speeds; the thrill comes from the G-forces applied when the acceleration increases or decreases.
What’s most interesting about these examples is that they’re not locations where transit accounts for a substantial share of local trips. Even in an era of flat energy prices and even in the absence of good alternatives, the market is choosing car-light locations (where people at least have the choice to drive less) over car-dependent locations.
- Phoenix: “In this down cycle, we were really trying to find some unique opportunities,” [David Kitnick, Rosewood Homes president] said. “After the collapse, you had to have a compelling reason to buy a new home. It didn’t make sense for us to just build more homes in suburbia. Those weren’t selling.” – Catherine Reagor and Kara G. Morrison writing in the Arizona Republic
- New Jersey: Suburban office space has been ailing for some time as companies downsize, more employees work from home and much of the Millennial generation opts to live and work in urban cores with access to public transportation. New Jersey, where Mack-Cali has a strong focus, has been especially hurt by corporate downsizing, particularly in pharmaceuticals and telecommunications. “Companies are doing more with less, putting more people in lesser amounts of space,” Mr. Hersh said. “There’s still a need for office space. It’s just not what it was.” Analysts are more blunt. “Suburban office is probably one of the worst real-estate businesses there is,” said Michael Knott, a managing director with Green Street Advisors, a real-estate research firm. “We think apartments are a better market.” – Dawn Wotapka writing in the Wall Street Journal. On the other end of New Jersey, suburban Philadelphia’s largest publicly traded landlord is now also Center City’s largest: Brandywine Realty Trust’s 2013 growth strategy (from the 2012 annual report) is to “Increase urban, multimodal town center exposure; reduce commodity, suburban product.” Not only does that mean building office towers downtown (and largely exiting New Jersey), it also means retrofitting retail to make its existing suburban office compound in Radnor slightly more walkable.
- Houston: The [Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research]’s annual survey of Houston-area residents last year found that half the residents of Harris County, of which Houston is part, would prefer to live “in an area with a mix of development, including homes, shops and restaurants” as opposed to a “single-family residential area.” Even if you look at the farthest parts of the metro region—the nine counties surrounding Harris County—more than 40 percent of residents prefer the mixed-use option… “the challenge today is not in finding residents who want to live in more compact, urbanized communities, but in building places across the region that can accommodate them.” – Ryan Holeywell writing in Governing
- Atlanta: Metropolitan Atlanta, long a symbol of car-dependent American sprawl, has recently passed a threshold where a majority of its new construction spending is now focused in high-density, “walkable” parts of town… “[I]t’s a pretty significant sea change in how we build the country. The country’s going to look fundamentally different over the next generation than it has over the past two generations,” [says Chris Leinberger] – Emily Badger in The Atlantic Cities; in contrast, under-investing in walkable places suppresses future economic growth by making the metro area less efficient and less productive. In Streetsblog, Angie Schmitt notes that the same study found that the workers with the most choices seek out walkability: 27% of knowledge workers live on 0.88% of the region’s land area.