Reid Ewing: There is no such thing as ‘smart sprawl’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ongoing development takes shape around Oquirrh Lake at Daybreak on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. Daybreak, the 4,100-acre master planned community in South Jordan, illustrates the idea of blending higher density housing and walkable community design with ample amounts of open space. That "smart growth" land use approach is being required by Salt Lake County for a proposed development called Olympia Hills, a 933-acre residential and commercial project proposed west of Herriman.

I was frankly shocked to read the article in last Sunday’s Salt Lake Tribune, “Smart sprawl: The way to grow?” It seemed so imbalanced and much longer than the thesis deserved.

While there were counterarguments against sprawl at the end of the article, masterfully delivered by Ted Knowlton of the Wasatch Front Regional Council and Ari Bruening of Envision Utah, the casual reader would be left with the impression that suburban sprawl is desirable and that this region should be building more of it.

Underlying the entire article is the notion that low-density suburbs provide protection from the COVID-19 pandemic, at least as compared to the more urban and denser parts of this region. The irony is that The Tribune published a story only weeks ago showing that, based on empirical evidence in a top, peer-reviewed journal, density has no effect on the spread of the infection and actually reduces the rate of mortality.

The first finding may be due the stricter adherence to social distancing and mask-wearing in denser places, and the latter may be due to superior health care in denser places. A restaurant, bar, church, school, private home or other gathering place in the low-density suburbs provides just as much risk of the virus as the same places in more urban settings. Crowding does not equate to density, or vice versa, and it is crowding that fuels the pandemic.

Long after we have effective vaccines and are managing the COVID-19 pandemic (as we did the 1918 Spanish flu), we will be dealing with the existential threat to our planet of climate change and many other local problems such lack of affordable housing and poor air quality. In one peer-reviewed study after another, based on scientific evidence rather than catchy phrases like “smart sprawl,” ourselves and others have documented the high costs of sprawl.

Sprawl is associated with higher infrastructure costs, more vehicle miles traveled in automobiles, lower rates of upward social and economic mobility, lower rates of innovation and productivity, higher rates of obesity and shorter life expectancies, higher rates of traffic fatalities and longer emergency response times and even higher costs of living (when you consider both housing and transportation costs).

What is interesting about the “smart sprawl” idea is how little empirical evidence underlies it. The main argument is that a majority of consumers want to live on large lots in suburban subdivisions where every trip is an auto trip. Even if that were true — and biennial surveys by the National Association of Realtors dating back a decade suggest that as many or more Americans want to live a variety of housing types within walking distance of shops, schools, parks and other amenities — it wouldn’t compensate for the high external costs of sprawl listed above.

Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox, the proponents of smart sprawl, are correct that most Americans prefer a single-family detached home to other housing types. But that does not mean that they want or can afford a large lot rather than a small lot for their single-family homes, or that everyone can afford to live in a single-family home rather than less expensive alternatives like apartments and town houses. And this is particularly true of certain demographic groups like Gen Zers.

Meanwhile, kudos to Knowlton and Bruening, and their respective organizations, for getting it about right. Their vision of the Wasatch Front is of a region with single-family neighborhoods aplenty, which we already have, but also with denser centers that have a mix of land uses and a mix of housing types, are walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly, have urban amenities and offer lifestyle choices and, most importantly, accommodate the high rate of growth anticipated for the region.

As we run out of buildable land, we are already seeing the evolution of such centers in downtown Salt Lake, Sugar House, 400 South, North Temple, Sandy, West Valley City and even Daybreak, the quintessential well-planned suburban community.

There is no such thing as “smart sprawl,” just sprawl vs. smart growth. Fortunately, our region has chosen the right path.

Reid Ewing

Reid Ewing is a distinguished professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah. He has been researching and writing about the costs of sprawl for almost 30 years.