Gas Prices May Revive Cities

Urban planners finally see a way to curb sprawl.

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Andres Duany is thrilled by the prices he's seeing at the gas pump. The urban planner and high priest of the New Urbanism movement sees today's (and likely tomorrow's) gas prices accomplishing what he and others in his field have long sought: a wholesale re-creation of the American lifestyle. "The urbanism of the United States has been premised on two things," Duany says. "One is inexpensive land. And the other is inexpensive fuel. Both have led to sprawl."

Sprawl—that scourge of urban designers who prize a tightly packaged city, walkable neighborhoods, and mixed-use development that brings together homes with businesses and shops—may have finally met its match. At least, that's the hope of the enclave of people who study settlement and land use, and who now sheepishly admit they're rooting for high energy prices. "Urban planners have been beating their heads against the wall for decades trying to get Americans to settle in a more compact pattern on the landscape for the very reasons we're starting to see now," says Thomas Campanella, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. "To be honest, I feel that rising gas prices...are going to do more for good, sustainable urban planning than the entire urban planning profession."

Sure, they feel guilty admitting it, but high energy prices—gasoline as well as heating oil and natural gas—could prove to be the force that brings the dreams of urban planners to fruition: a greener, more sustainable society that is also a throwback to the preautomobile age, when it wasn't realistic to have tracts of homes miles away from business centers, which were, in turn, miles away from shopping centers. "There are vast swaths of the landscape that are inaccessible to anything but the automobile," Campanella says. "Obviously, we're going to see real changes if oil is going to skyrocket, and I think we can all assume it's not going to return to levels of the past."

On one hand, the story of the car, and the far-flung communities of huge homes and cul-de-sacs they enabled, is a testament to America's enormous economic success. But it has also meant more obesity, pollution, and, say urban planners, social isolation. They argue that in some ways, the quality of life was higher when Americans had less money to purchase things like cars. "The great cities that people love," Duany says, "were the result of a substantially less wealthy nation that had to be far more intelligent about its assets." He notes cities such as New York, Boston, and San Francisco, which were built for people to live close to their daily needs. A fringe benefit: more opportunities for interaction with and reliance on neighbors.

High energy prices could mean more U.S. cities joining those ranks, growing thicker with residents, shops, and employers—as they were decades ago. Together with the foreclosure crisis, gas prices "will really take the sheen off the distant suburbs," says Bob Dunphy, a senior fellow for transportation and infrastructure at the Urban Land Institute. Experts are predicting that city homes, often smaller than their suburban counterparts, could gain value for being less costly to heat and cool, as well as for their proximity to mass transit, shops, and employers. "It's what I call a return to reason," Duany says.

The obstacles to such a retro future, of course, are staggering. Thriving cities are expensive and cramped and hardly family friendly. Shrinking cities, like many in the Rust Belt, are dilapidated, crime-ridden—and hardly family friendly. Few offer a quality public school system. But the biggest changes would have to take place in the suburbs. New Urbanists such as Duany, who champion mixed-use environments, say suburbs must adapt to high gas prices by becoming more like villages. Central shopping should replace big box stores (and their aprons of parking) on the town edge. And entire swaths of city blocks with nothing but houses and cul-de-sacs must be retrofitted to fully functioning neighborhoods, with corner stores and businesses in walking distance. "Communities will have to look at diversifying their land use," says Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "You'll see more people buying into the idea of a more dense suburb." Public transit would have to not only link to the metropolitan core but to other suburbs, which often have their own employer bases.