Saturday, April 07, 2012

Storyline IV: Fortification of urban sprawl in the Northeast, with no plans for cropland development

           Urban sprawl, loosely defined, refers to lower city densities over an expanding urban footprint. The rise of sprawl in the US during the 20th century stemmed from a number of reasons, including higher incomes and cheaper fuel and transportation costs that enabled the average family to afford residential homes outside urban centers. The immediate outcome of such a migration out of Gotham to Levittown created opportunities for significantly higher levels of housing and land consumption for most households. The costs for such suburbanization are still being dealt with today, namely: unproductive congestion on roads, high levels of pollution from exhaust, loss of open space amenities, and unequal provision of public goods and services across sprawling suburbs that give rise to residential segregation and poverty. With this as a backdrop, the following is a storyline that predicts a second stage of urban sprawl that carries out to the middle of the 21st century. This will be a new type of sprawl, one that is divorced from a central city, and is coupled with a failure to utilize undeveloped land as cropland, rendering the Northeast devoid of a strong agricultural sector.

            Loss of the public commons and abandonment of farms
            As population and unemployment continue to rise, the average citizen in the Northeast will be limited to medial to low paying jobs that require traveling large distances, or working within a low-density suburban community. Commuting may be common, but not necessarily to a large urban center. Due to a moral malaise brought on by limited sources of income, there will not be incentives to develop or maintain cropland. Most produce will be distributed from another part of the country, or from international agricultural sectors. The number of agricultural producers will continue to decline as farmers become swamped with debt and are forced of their land. Such unemployment of farmers will be due to a number of economic risks: volatility of energy prices, domestic competition, offshore production, a weakened economy and the eminence of the global market [1]. With undeveloped land and cropland left open to market forces, huge portions of real estate will be sold to large conglomerates, or leased to developers, ultimately fueling the spread of low-density sprawl. The price of undeveloped land will remain cheap, though competition driven by the demands of the energy market may drive prices up. Price increases may only come in the form of short-term speculative bubbles, but will not benefit the average citizen, as development of lands for natural gas exploration in the form of hydro-fracking operations will increase the risk of pollution and catastrophic environmental degradation to rural areas, which only serves to further lower prices.
            The market will trend towards “noncropland.” Open space owned by the federal or state government will be auctioned off and become restricted areas, as private entities come into possession of undeveloped land [2]. Sprawl, once anchored by a central city, will become more fragmented. The new form of sprawl will resemble a patchwork of low-density urban sectors separated by strips of undeveloped or abandoned land. There may be small factions of land that are salvaged for local farms, possibly due to the demand for local produce. CSAs and producers of organic local food will remain uncommon, and largely absent despise small enclaves, usually centered within college towns. Small cities may also grow around universities, yet this specific type of growth will be hindered if the suburbs become ghettoized. 

            The ghettoization of the suburbs
            An increase in suburban poverty, begun during the recession era of the late 2000s, will result from the continual rise of debt, either from credit cards or failure to pay mortgages, alongside decreasing median household incomes. The recent decadal trend of larger increases in suburban poor relative to urban poor will continue [3]. Population of urban centers will remain high, and grow to attract higher-paying tech jobs and employment catering towards specialization. In the suburban sprawl away from the large tech-based cities, small businesses will be created, supporting some parts of the population. Such job creation, however, will not encourage the growth of cities, nor progressive-minded jobs (green jobs). Green jobs may be created only if new sprawl offers variety to the population [4], but since rate of poverty will be increasing, this kind of equity seems unlikely.
            A combination of factors including overall population growth, job decentralization, aging housing left to neglect, general economic decline, the collapse of the housing market, and policies to promote mobility of low-income households will lead increasing to poor inhabiting suburbs [3]. People will no longer be able to afford to live within local jurisdictions based on their preference for local amenities such as good schools and low crime rates. A “flight from blight” will occur within older suburban regions that will further segregate communities into poor, impoverished neighborhoods as households that are financially stable move away. The rise of low-income, low-density sprawl will reinforce the lack of planned cropland. Continual decreases in education standards that mirror the lack of strong outside investments in such areas will generate a situation where residential areas are abandoned, increasing urban decay and decreasing moral fortitude for constructive change. Crime will increase as people become more and more desperate.  These factors, bolstered by strong market forces that impede development of a strong agricultural sector and efficient long-term urban development, will move the Northeast to become an impoverished part of the country outside the thriving high-density urban centers.

[1] Brumfield, Robin G. (2010) Strategies Producers in the Northeastern United States are Using to Reduce Costs and Increase Profits in Tough Economic Times, HortTechnology, 20, 836-43.
[2] Anderson et al. (1999) How and why to privatize federal lands, Cato Policy    Analysis No. 363, December 9, 1999.
[3]Berube, Alan (2011) Parsing U.S. Poverty at the Metropolitan Level, Up Front Blog – Brookings Institute,  September 22, 2011.
[4] Nechyba, Thomas J. and Randall P. Walsh. (2004) Urban Sprawl, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18, 177-200.

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