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Dense Neighborhoods are in High Demand, but Sprawl is the Only Option for Most

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The recent endorsement of continued suburban sprawl expansion in the National Review presents a narrative that is just as shallow and short sighted as it is incorrect. The argument glosses over the real benefits of urban density and ignores the underlying economic, environmental, and emotional pitfalls of suburban sprawl while also claiming it is a “choice” rather than a singular option enforced by law. We have to rethink the American urban planning paradigms that lead to sprawling low density suburbs and find better solutions.

At the heart of the suburban expansion is a financial model that StrongTowns aptly describes as a Grown Ponzi Scheme. The illusion of affordable suburban living is underpinned by initial low infrastructure costs. However, as these communities age, the burden of maintaining roads, sewers, and public services often outstrips the area's economic output. This unsustainable cycle leaves future generations with a hefty bill for short-term planning gains. This is already negatively impacting communities who are left struggling, unable to cover the high true costs to keep an unsustainable system going.

Dismissals of urban density overlook its myriad benefits. Modest increases in density, such as allowing rowhomes, mixing residential and commercial uses, or adding a few stories to buildings, can significantly enhance community vibrancy and walkability. This approach supports local businesses, fosters lively neighborhoods, and reduces environmental impact. By allowing apartment buildings and embracing mixed-use developments, cities can become more self-sustaining, vibrant communities to continue a long history of traditional development in the US.

Any appearance of a preference for suburban living is not as clear-cut as it seems. Much of the sprawling suburbs we see is a direct result of zoning laws and building codes that ban anything but low-density, single-family-home developments, rather than an intrinsic desire for such living spaces. This policy-driven landscape limits housing choices, falsely presenting suburban living as the preferred American dream. In fact, 79% of Americans want to live in a walkable community, and 78% are willing to pay more to live in a walkable community.

Sprawl's environmental impact is undeniable – increased carbon emissions, unhealthy reliance on automobiles, and destruction of natural habitats. Socially, it fosters isolation and community disengagement, in stark contrast to the interactive nature of denser urban settings. Moreover, the dream of suburban tranquility often clashes with the reality of infrastructure strain and traffic congestion. The way forward lies in sustainable urban growth. This means embracing denser, mixed-use developments that reduce reliance on cars, support local economies, and foster a sense of community. Urban density offers a more financially and environmentally sustainable model than the endless expansion of suburbs. 

Continuing to hold sprawling suburbs as the epitome of American living is a myopic view that ignores the long-term economic, environmental, and social costs of such development. The future of American urban planning and residential development should lean towards responsible density, creating vibrant, sustainable communities that offer a high quality of life while addressing the challenges of the 21st century. As we reshape our residential landscapes, the focus must be on creating diverse, dense, and economically viable spaces that meet the needs of all Americans.

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Michael Moore is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Resident Urbanist. He has previously written for Streetsblog and Millennial American Dream, he has also been covered on Planetizen, the How We Work podcast, and StrongHaven. You can follow him on Threads, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

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