Suburban Sprawl Loses its Sizzle

A major demographic shift is just one catalyst for inner-city urbanization

From coast to coast, a paradigm shift is occurring in the urbanization patterns of large American cities. Throughout the 20th century, suburban sprawl has become a way of life, in turn creating the gargantuan metropolis many of us call home. Our cities have become cumbersome to navigate and their infrastructure costly to maintain. Our love affair with the automobile has driven development to the suburbs for cheaper land and lower-cost housing.

Today, suburban sprawl does not have the same sizzle it once had, and development is moving back to the inner-city because our freeways are congested, fuel costs have skyrocketed, environmental pollution is increasing and our forests are being paved with concrete to build new roads and subdivisions.

All of these factors are contributing to an unsustainable growth model for our future. According to the Brookings Institute, the U.S. population is expected to increase 33 percent, to more than 376 million by 2030, an increase of 94 million people since 2000. With this substantial growth, can we expect urban areas across America to perpetuate the suburban sprawl model? My opinion is that we can’t, and I believe the future will prove to be unkind to the suburban sprawl model that exists today.

In addition to gridlock snarling our freeways, there is also a major demographic shift occurring in our population that is a catalyst for inner-city urbanization. Today, there are 25 million empty nesters over the age of 60 in America. Close behind, there is a ground swell of 85 million baby boomers that are moving into the empty nest category. Boomers make up a large portion of the market segment whose attitudes about lifestyle are changing as they approach the empty nest phase. There is a strong desire by many people, in this particular age group, to live near the arts, entertainment, sports venues and restaurant scenes offered by city living. At the same time, empty nesters are looking to downsize their residences for less maintenance, heightened security and the freedom to travel on a moment’s notice. Similarly, Generation X and Generation Y prefer the city and are placing an increasing demand on higher-density development.

Urban growth in Houston

Houston stands out as a city that will grow at a more accelerated rate than the rest of the country. Houston has bragging rights for explosive job growth and being host to the largest medical center in the world and the second-largest port in North America, as well as being the world’s energy capital. Currently, there are over 150,000 commuters working in the Central Business District and 80,000 commuters working in the Texas Medical Center.

Commute times, to and from work, have doubled over the last 20 years for those living in suburban areas. In addition, our suburban communities, which are organized around cul-de-sac street systems fed by major feeder streets, are now congested during rush hour traffic, only adding to driver frustration to be home with families and friends. Sprawl has placed stress on our quality time, which is arguably our most precious resource and the one commodity that money cannot buy. How can we begin to rethink and simplify an urban development strategy to address a better quality of life?

Compared to other U.S. cities, and more dense urban areas in Europe, Houston is in the very infancy of urbanization. Little known to Houstonians is the extent to which the boundaries of our metropolitan area have haphazardly expanded. The Houston metropolitan area comprises a whopping 5,436 square miles. The Houston city limits encompass 1,100 square miles, which equate to an urban density of roughly 1.7 persons per acre, well under other cities of comparable size.

Suburban sprawl has become an inefficient development model and continues to consume our precious natural environment. Sprawl expands our carbon footprint and increases greenhouse gases at exponential rates as compared to high-density mixed-use developments. Ironically, sprawl also increases vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per household, negating the perceived lower cost of housing, which is the reason people moved to the suburbs in the first place.

More importantly, however, the long-term infrastructure cost of maintaining our freeways; MUD districts; sewer, water and electric services; police and fire protection; and EMS services are unsustainable. We see evidence of this by the recent vote of the Houston City Council to raise our water bill rates by 30 percent, which has been noted as the highest single rate increase in the history of Houston. Will all of this growth become a financial burden and impact our quality of life? Absolutely, unless we have a sustainable growth strategy that contemplates a more manageable and coherent development pattern. Low-density development will continue to destroy natural areas by paving and developing greater swaths of land, increase air and water pollution, escalate our infrastructure costs and degrade our quality of life.

High-density developments

It’s time to rethink our urban development models and come up with solutions that are ecologically, economically and socially sustainable, and at the same time respond to the global urgency to reduce greenhouse gases. For the first time, we are beginning to recognize the inefficiencies of suburban sprawl and realize that Houston is just at the beginning of a higher-density urban growth period. We can no longer afford to maintain an urban density of 1.7 persons per acre. To have a meaningful impact, a sustainable growth strategy must go beyond adding up LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) points for individual buildings to be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, but rather, it must be part of a broader development strategy for an entire community that addresses quality of life and the physical environment.

Our municipalities must begin to look at responsible high-density, mixed-use growth models that have tangible benefits to its residents. At the metropolitan scale, mixed-use developments make it easier for people to access jobs, affordable housing, shopping, entertainment and convenient transportation. High-density, mixed-use developments conserve land and create more green space, parks and contribute to the public realm, all of which reduce the carbon footprint and vehicle miles traveled by the creation of walkable communities.

Most people are under the false perception that higher-density developments create more regional traffic congestion and parking problems than lower density developments. The fact is, though, that higher-density development generates less traffic than low-density development by making walking and public transit more feasible and creating more opportunity for shared parking.

Meet the micro village

As an alternative to suburban sprawl, the natural evolution in the urbanization process of U.S. cities is to create inviting, urban village environments that provide a distinctive sense of place and are characterized by a strong residential base constructed at a garden district scale of six to seven stories. The micro village consists of the full spectrum of uses, including housing, office, retail, restaurants, recreation, entertainment and grocery stores. In essence, the micro village is a high-density, mixed-use development that takes the form of an urban community where people walk in attractive pedestrian environments appointed with outdoor cafés, park space, public plazas and tree-lined promenades.

As we look at the creation of high-density, mixed-use developments, we have the opportunity to provide authentic community environments that encourage people to gather with friends. Starbucks founder and CEO, Howard Schultz, calls this “the third place,” a place to relax and socialize between work and home, and a place to buy a cup of coffee with friends or enjoy an alfresco dining experience.

Our challenge in creating inviting micro village communities will be to provide affordable housing to serve all income levels in order to establish healthy urban environments. A critical mass of high-density housing will support development of office space and promote a healthy retail base, which becomes the core of the micro village. That being said, it takes a strong vision and a measured development effort to have successful results. High-density housing is key to the success of active pedestrian environments.

Recent examples of micro village developments in Houston include City Centre, Uptown Park, Post Midtown and West Ave. Successful micro village communities are infused with a vibrant, urban life that is a more entertaining and engaging alternative to our auto-dependent suburban lifestyle. What each of these micro villages have in common is the creation of a public realm, or a place for people to gather and socialize with family and friends.

As our cities become more urbanized, the shaping of great outdoor spaces with cafés, tree-lined boulevards, plazas, public fountains and pocket parks become the humanizing elements that enrich our urban fabric. In Houston, where we have no zoning, it seems quite contradictory that our public spaces, for the most part, are shaped by private hands.

As Winston Churchill stated, “First we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.” Over time, individual buildings become the fabric of our cities and the spaces between buildings become the public realm arrayed into a network of pedestrian spaces. Even in the absence of zoning, private enterprise can create attractive, mixed-use projects with great public spaces that enrich the public realm and, at the same time, demonstrate a sustainable, urban development alternative to suburban sprawl. History has taught us that a city’s greatness is measured in large part by the quality of its art, architecture and urban environment; therefore, before us lies an enormous opportunity to meet this challenge. Let us reclaim the development direction of our cities and make a more richly designed urban fabric become the new sizzle.

R. Scott Ziegler is founding principal of Ziegler Cooper Architects in Houston.

To comment on this story, e-mail Diana Mosher at