Will American cities take kindly to federal intervention intended to help wean them from dependence on sprawling development?

Perched on the threshold of economic recovery, American cities whose housing markets crashed and burned during the recent recession are struggling like modern-day phoenixes to rise from the ashes. While rebirth comes naturally for some, others seem caught between a trap labeled sprawl and an open window tagged sustainability.

The question is whether cities that once embraced policies favoring sprawl over density can buy into a new vision calling for a more sustainable, livable, and socially fair way of life. The shift required may be dramatic, but it is not impossible.

The sprawl trap is familiar territory for Phoenix, Arizona, a post–World War II boomtown where production builders John F. Long and Del Webb are hailed as the godfathers of postmodern development. Using innovations like simple, mass-production techniques, Long and Webb delivered Phoenix’s first workforce housing to an eager middle-class consumer.

By Long’s own account, his company was building as many as 20 homes a day during the 1950s and 1960s, and selling up to 100 a week. By 1959, more homes had been built in metropolitan Phoenix in one decade than in the previous four combined—each employing a new, single-story ranch design and carefully arranged on wide streets set on a grid.

Simultaneously, however, this new generation of developers was planting the seeds of sprawl in automobile-centric, self-contained, master-planned communities that would push the limits of consumers’ drive-until-you-qualify buying habits for the next 50 years.

Now, a half century later, sprawl and the suburbs are being blamed for everything from global warming to social segregation. Heavily suburbanized states like Arizona, California, Nevada, and Florida felt the housing bust like a punch to the gut two years ago. Faced with aging infrastructure and higher maintenance costs, fringe communities are now home to the country’s largest and fastest-growing population of the poor, according to The Suburbanization of Poverty: Trends in Metropolitan America, 2000 to 2008, a report released by the Brookings Institution in January. Between 2000 and 2008, the country’s largest metropolitan areas saw their poor populations grow by 25 percent, almost five times the rate found in either primary cities or rural areas, Brookings reports.

Many economists believe the country’s latest economic decline presents the opportunity for a massive do-over—a chance for cities to end their love affair with the automobile and embrace development practices that create more dense, walkable neighborhoods.

The Obama administration evidently agrees. “The days where we’re just building sprawl forever— those days are over,” President Obama declared shortly after taking office. He followed up those remarks by telling the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January, “When it comes to development, it’s time to throw out old policies that encouraged sprawl, congestion, and pollution and ended up isolating our communities in the process. We need strategies that encourage smart development linked to quality public transportation that bring our communities together.”

The president’s willingness to back up his convictions with $1.5 billion in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants and $100 million set aside for regional integrated planning initiatives is further proof that the suburban landscape is indeed set for a change. Also likely to have an impact is the federal government’s new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, an all-hands-ondeck approach to smart growth by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities—along with the EPA’s Smart Growth Guidelines for Sustainable Design and Development— focuses the spotlight on six core livability principles: provide more transportation choices; promote equitable, affordable housing; increase economic competitiveness; support existing communities; leverage federal investment; and value communities and neighborhoods.

But, for cities like Phoenix, where density has traditionally been considered a dirty word, the challenge is not so much where the money is coming from as it is how to change public perception. Will Phoenix, with its Wild West sensibilities and traditionally renegade attitude, take kindly to federal intervention intended to help wean it from dependence on sprawling development?

It likely will be a tough sell. True, infill development takes advantage of current infrastructure and services and produces a measurably smaller environmental impact than does its conventional counterpart.

And higher-density building creates additional living options for homeowners, such as rowhouses, walkups, and brownstones. And true, Phoenix residents, like many Americans, acknowledge they would rather walk than drive, or at least have access to more transit-oriented housing, making it easier and more convenient to use public transit.

Escaping the sprawl trap will involve an education process for consumers, developers, and community officials. The move away from sprawl development patterns presents new opportunities for developers, municipal leaders, and others to work together to embrace the freedom these new smart-growth initiatives and incentives provide. But, most important, it is a chance to learn from past mistakes—to build future communities around people instead of around cheap land and the automobile.

“Successfully addressing the challenges and opportunities of growing smarter and building greener will require that communities collaborate with each other, as well as with regional, state, and federal agencies and organizations,” write the authors of Smart Growth Guidelines for Sustainable Design and Development. The reward, they say, is decisions that benefit households in the form of more choices, lower combined housing and transportation costs, and healthier communities—and thereby stronger economies.

Isn’t that what communities like Phoenix that are battling their way out of the recession really need? Shelley Poticha, director of the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, thinks so.

“To me, this is about helping to rebuild our economy—about growing jobs in terms of making housing more energy efficient,” she said in an interview posted at grist.org. “It’s also about helping places and regions really understand where their economic future is going and how they can use that to be more sustainable.”