BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE
COVER STORY -- 21 IDEAS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

Q&A: Baby Boomers and Immigrants Will Lead the Fight


Urban planner Robert W. Burchell, a professor in the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University, is a leading figure in the fight against sprawl. One of his landmark studies showed that the South Florida region could save $6.15 billion over the next 25 years if it could funnel its growing population into the already developed eastern section, instead of allowing new subdivisions to spread across the western suburban fringe. Burchell is currently working on a National Academy of Sciences study that will document the costs of sprawl for other regions as well. He spoke with John Carey, Business Week's Washington-based science correspondent, on the alternatives to sprawl.

Q: Where is sprawl happening?
A: Essentially, sprawl takes place everywhere growth is taking place. There's even sprawl in Portland, Ore. It is a national issue.

If you define sprawl as significant residential and nonresidential growth, then it is taking place in 750 of the 3,200 counties in the U.S. That means that there are a lot of counties that either are declining or not growing.

Q: But we've gotten sprawl because that's what Americans want, right?
A: If you define quality of life as having your own home, which appreciates in value, is in a safe neighborhood where the tax rates are low, and the school system is good, then sprawl gives you what everyone is looking for. Add that to the desire for separation from the problems of urban areas, then sprawl gets you everything. That's why fighting sprawl is viewed as a pretentious issue.

Q: That makes the prospects of fighting sprawl sound bleak.
A: Not really. It's possible to do a lot. If you say you will not subsidize growth and not have the government pay for putting in roads, utilities, and other things, even the richest community in the world will toe the road [and put the curbs on growth].

You can control public employment, too. You can't tell people where to live or tell private business where to locate. But you can do an enormous amount with public employment. The reality is, the public jobs should be in county seats and state capitals. Those, typically, are the largest cities and the ones with the largest levels of decline. If you say that public jobs must go into the downtown areas of these cities, you have the opportunity to encourage downtown development like you've never seen before. You can direct markets anyplace you want to direct them.

Q: But will people really prefer to live in cities, even if urban areas are revitalized, rather than out in the 'burbs?
A: We're coming on a time, with the retirement of baby boomers and continued immigration, where today's extraordinary dislike of the central city will no longer be true.

When the baby boomers retire, we will see a demand for central places, the likes of which we have never seen before. People are living much longer than their health allows them to drive and move around.

I live in the suburbs, as do all planners who complain about sprawl. But [once we retire] we are going to get rid of the suburban house and move into a village or urban-like setting, where we can live without getting in the car for every single trip.

That doesn't mean that urban areas will automatically inherit these people. They have to have public safety, an interesting environment, and good schools. If urban areas can produce those, they will be sought out. Another powerful driver of urban revitalization is immigration. Immigration will allow urban neighborhoods to come back in a much shorter period of time.

Q: Are there any good examples of this now?
A: Here in New Jersey, we have the Hoboken phenomenon. Hoboken is sought after like you wouldn't believe. The reason is that there are things to do there, 100 restaurants, and stores for everything you need. It is an urban environment that is a very neat and safe place to live. There is no competition between Hoboken on a weeknight and all the finest suburban environments even on the weekend.



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