General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 17, Number 6
September 2000



By Ed Eilert

Some people level criticisms against suburbs like Overland Park, saying that they are "sprawling," a word that has come to mean that they are responsible for increased traffic congestion, wasteful duplication of costly infrastructure, higher levels of air pollution, decline of the urban core, and loss of agricultural land. They view them as too oriented to automobiles and the consequent need for more highways and as development not dense enough in terms of either residences or businesses to support construction and use of mass transit systems.

I have a different perspective, viewing the growth in Overland Park as good for Overland Park, good for the metropolitan area, and an example of rational regional growth that has been responsibly planned. There are five reasons why I think this. First, the craving of large numbers of people for low-density suburban living has deep historical roots. There have been core cities and outlying suburbs since antiquity. Today, the built area population density of Kansas City is actually lower than the built area population density of Overland Park, in part because 40 percent of Overland Park’s housing is multifamily and 60 percent is single family.

Nor is the concept of sprawl a new one. It, too, has been around a long time, although no definition of it has ever achieved unanimous agreement. The Country Club Plaza, built in the 1920s, was the first automobile-oriented shopping center in the nation, located three miles south of downtown Kansas City. Built by J.C. Nichols, founder of the Urban Land Institute, the Plaza became a commercial success and the hub of Kansas City’s business and cultural activities. Nichols’ Country Club residential district was a "streetcar suburb" that sprawled 10 square miles of Kansas City, just south and west of the Country Club Plaza. It ultimately contained 6,000 homes and 160 apartment buildings and housed 35,000 people. Despite the alarmist views expressed about those areas 50 years ago by the Kansas City Plan Commission, both the Country Club Plaza and the Country Club residential district today are viewed as two of Kansas City’s brightest stars and an important part of the urban core of Kansas City.

Second, Overland Park has been growing at a rate of nearly 3,000 persons per year for the last several years. It is growing because people want what it has to offer: houses larger and newer than the ones they moved from, a high level of public safety, quality schools, and well-maintained roads and other basic infrastructure. Overarching these practical reasons for relocation is another factor that lies deep within the American character: a deep-seated American way of life that is distinguishable from the way of life of almost all other countries of the world. This American way of life involves a yearning for large amounts of private space; a tradition of private, detached single-family homes with big yards; a preference for low residential density; a blurring of division between city and country; a love of the automobile; and a willingness to commute a reasonable distance and to pay for the cars, gasoline, and roads to get there and back. Short of a radical restructuring of the American psyche, the American way of life is likely to continue to drive the structure of American metropolitan areas.

Third, I believe Overland Park is not what we should think of when we talk of sprawl. It is a diverse city, at least in terms of land uses and economic categories of housing stock. It is not an endless expanse of strip malls and uncoordinated subdivisions but a well-planned city. Growth is not haphazard; it is well thought-out to maintain a balance of land uses and densities of development that ensure a livable and prosperous community. The city does not regulate the rate or timing of development; but it does regulate the type, location, quality, and scale of development. Its land-use-intensity system ensures the city has infrastructure in place to handle the growth. Overland Park’s growth techniques assure the lowest possible public costs to support development at the same time that it uses only minimal interventionist and regulatory tools.

Fourth, everyone wants to control sprawl, but do they realize at what cost they are being asked to do so? When considering laws that I might vote to pass, I try to remember that too many times those who make those decisions are convinced that their decisions are well intended and so any amount of regulation by law or ordinance is okay. To some experts, control of sprawl always means forcing people out of their cars and into mass transit systems and high-density living conditions. The compact cities of Europe are viewed as the models we need to emulate in the United States. However, European cities also are suburbanizing, despite their higher population densities, their pervasive transit systems, and their higher gasoline prices. Like central cities in the United States, European central cities are losing population to the suburbs.

Fifth, too many times growth management proponents assume that people work in the central cities, commuting from the suburbs. Growth management policies are designed to keep people living and working in central cities. But this picture of metropolitan areas around the nation today is not an accurate portrayal of current commuting patterns. Suburban development has caused monocentric metropolitan areas, such as Kansas City used to be, to grow into polycentric forms. Many people both live and work in Overland Park and other nearby suburbs. Automobile trip lengths are shorter in a polycentric metropolitan area.

In making public-policy decisions, it is important to understand what motivates individual consumer decisions. A study of 26 cities by the Brookings Institution and the Fannie Mae Foundation found that all expect their downtown populations to grow by 2010. The Economist analyzed why this would be so and found several reasons. Some of these reasons have also supported movement to the suburbs:

• Proximity. Businesses have found an advantage in being close to customers, suppliers, and competitors; and workers would rather not battle traffic to get to and from work.

• Comparative Advantage. Some cities are considered the natural center for dining, entertainment, culture, and sports.

• Falling Crime. • Demographics. Aging baby boomers are finding that a more urban lifestyle can be preferable to maintaining a large home and lawn.

However, the study showed that the large and influential group that isn’t moving to the city is families with children. In almost every metro area, suburban schools are still far better than their urban counterparts, which is likely to keep young families from living downtown for a long time to come.

Ed Eilert is the mayor of Overland Park, Kansas. This article presents his remarks made during the "Smart Growth and Regional Cooperation" panel at the State and Local Government Law Section’s 1999 Fall Meeting. Footnotes to the original article were eliminated in the digesting process; please see the original article for more information .

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 1 of State and Local News, Summer 2000 (23:4).

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