Debunking anti-infill arguments

April 23, 2014

 

My goal with this column has been to make a reasoned, data-driven case for why the Central Valley should move away from sprawling subdivisions and instead encourage infill development and neighborhood revitalization. However, there is still a lot of misinformation out there on what this actually means.

People who prefer the status quo of vanishing farmland and rotting urban cores are happy to distort what smart growth really stands for. This month’s column is devoted to debunking some of the false claims regarding smart growth, infill development and density.

Smart growth advocates want you to live in a tiny box surrounded by other people, like New York City

Inevitably, a conversation regarding infill and density digresses into accusations that smart growth advocates want nothing more than to force people to live in cramped high rises, suffocating from the noise and debris inherent with big cities like New York City or San Francisco. It’s an effective scare tactic, playing off of people’s fears of being forced to choose a lifestyle that is contradictory to their own.

In reality, the vast majority of American cities — and certainly  no city in the Central Valley — will ever be anywhere near as dense as megacities like New York or San Francisco. Infill in medium sized cities can range from simple townhomes to modest three to four-story mixed-use buildings. As research right here in the Central Valley has shown, even slight increases in density can have tremendous economic impacts over traditional suburban development. We don’t have to cram people into skyscrapers to realize the benefits of reinvesting in our older neighborhoods.

More importantly, if you enjoy where you live, you have every right to stay there. Smart growth doesn’t mean that anyone will be forced to move from their homes into apartments. Smart growth simply means that when we build homes in the future, we should consider the impacts they will have on the city and region as a whole so that we make the best decisions for the health of our cities.

They are coming for your backyards

“Do you like your backyard? Well if smart growth people get their way, you won’t have one.”

This is a typical straw-man tactic used to confuse people about the tenets of smart growth. This is disingenuous on two fronts. First, if you like your backyard, great! No one has ever suggested that smart growth policies will result in the seizure of backyards to build apartment buildings.

Second, if you want a big yard, you are probably better off buying a home in an older, walkable neighborhood, not a sprawling subdivision. Many suburban yards are actually much smaller than yards in homes around a city’s core, especially here in the Central Valley. Suburban developers often cram homes together in order to sell as many lots as possible, leaving people with tiny yards.

On the other hand, some of the biggest yards in the region can be found in historic neighborhoods. Homes just north of downtown Stockton boast yards large enough for expansive lawns, decks, fruit trees, tool sheds and even space to grow your own food. A quick check of Google Earth shows that several of these turn-of-the-century homes even have large pools.

So if you like big yards, you can find them in core, walkable neighborhoods, usually at bargain prices. You generally can’t say the same about suburban homes.

Once millennials have kids, they will all move back to the suburbs

Much of the recent consumer shift to cities has been powered by young professionals who have put off buying houses in favor of city life. Smart growth detractors say that this is just a phase, and that once those people have kids, they’ll inevitably revert to the tendencies of their parents and hightail it out to the cul-de-sacs.

To be sure, some young professionals will certainly leave cities in search of more space and better schools. But at the same time, larger numbers of these individuals are continuing to stay put even when children come along.

In a recent survey by the American Public Transportation Association, only 37 percent of millennials with children said that they see themselves living long-term in a suburban setting. Moreover, 42 percent agreed with the statement that having children does not mean having to move out of the city. So, even while some millennials will undoubtedly move out of cities, a large chunk plan on staying in an urban setting.

Also, claiming that the rejuvenation of cities is simply a millennial trend completely ignores the fact that even if this group does move en masse to the suburbs, there are younger generations that will take their place in the cities. It’s as if suburban apologists forget that kids probably won’t want to live in the suburbs once they are in their 20s, either.

People are only interested in walkable communities because they can’t afford cars

Lastly, many believe that the increase in demand for walkable communities and better transportation is only spurred by economic circumstances. If the economy were better, more people would ditch cities and public transit for SUVs and suburban homes. There are certainly instances where this may be true, but once again, we find that younger generations aren’t just skipping big homes and cars because they can’t afford them; millennials value the convenience of short commutes and proximity to amenities.

The same APTA survey found while saving money was the top reason for their transportation choices, 35 percent of millennials said that they used public transit because their communities provided an environment where public transit makes the most sense, followed closely by those who said they use multi-modal transportation as a means to get exercise, and because they care about the environment.

Young people are also far less infatuated with car culture as the preceding generations. Surveys by car companies reveal that the children of baby boomers would be more willing to give up their cars than their smart phones, and fewer feel that having a car is a necessity. Among teenagers, the number of those with driver’s licenses, once seen as a rite of passage, has plummeted.

These are only a sample of the falsehoods peddled by those who want to keep using farmland for development. There are certainly discussions to have about how cities should grow, but it’s tough to wade through the misinformation. But once we dispel all of the myths, I hope we can all come to a consensus that the status quo is unsustainable and that our cities need to be smarter about how they grow so that everyone can continue to love living in the Central Valley.

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