Last week I read an article and watched a talk by Kevin Klinkenberg. Klinkenberg is an urban designer from Savannah, Georgia. He shared some of his analysis that the efforts by some to "repair" sprawl into more walkable, productive environments is a poor investment. In essence he is looking at our municipal dollars and performing triage, trying to get the most for our investment. You can read the piece on this topic here.
Klinkenberg does make the distinction that not all sprawl is created equal. Ex-urban rural sprawl cannot be rehabilitated by his assessment, but residential neighbourhoods built before 1950 can often be easily integrated into a more productive urban fabric. His central thesis is fairly straightforward: with limited resources we cannot possibly repair all the sprawl in our cities, given that the best places to invest our money is traditional urban-style neighbourhoods. To be clear he isn't exclusively talking about big cities. The town downtown of a small town or smaller city is the safest investment by his metric.
I find that Klinkenberg has a certain rationale that is inescapable. Say the city of Brampton has $1 million to spend on a local project. Does it make sense for them to add sidewalks to a new suburb out by Mayfield Road, or to add better pedestrian features or bike infrastructure to the Downtown? Simply by the number of people it would serve I think the answer is pretty clear. Analysis done by Strong Towns and its allies also suggests the tangible return on investment would be greater and more tangible in more traditional/urban parts of the city.
The one part I might differ with Klinkenberg is that I think there is a certain point where municipalities are throwing good money after bad. I think it is easier to do that in suburbia, but I can see it happening in urban districts as well. Using Brampton as an example again, there is only so much the city could invest in the Downtown before it addresses broader policy issues. Eventually the easy things will be all done and then it will be necessary for a more radical rethink. Brampton's Downtown is undersized, so the government should look at expanding its boundaries to allow it grow its mixed-use development. How does this align with transit and transportation policy? What role to bicycles have in the Downtown area? How do we redevelop the low-rise properties Downtown to more productive uses? These questions aren't tackled by adding better street decorations, gardens, or share-rows.
This is partially why I suspect suburban or sprawl retrofit is so popular. The easy fixes are obvious and do not usually cost a great deal of money. As an urban district grows and becomes more complicated it becomes harder to tinker with it, while we have hundreds of suburban streets we could add sidewalks to, or bike infrastructure, or improve pedestrian access. Still, I think Klinkenberg is generally correct and as we look more to fixing or salvaging cities we will have to take this approach.