If We Don't Like Sprawl, Why Do We Go On Sprawling?
by Donella H. Meadows
The Global Citizen, March 4, 1999
We have planning boards. We have zoning regulations. We have urban growth boundaries
and "smart growth" and sprawl conferences. And we still have sprawl. Between
1970 and 1990 the population of Chicago grew by four percent; its developed land area grew
by 46 percent. Over the same period Los Angeles swelled 45 percent in population, 300
percent in settled area.
Sprawl costs us more than lost farmland and daily commutes through landscapes of
stunning ugliness. It costs us dollars, bucks straight out of our pockets, in the form of
higher local taxes. That's because our pattern of municipal growth, especially
land-intensive city-edge growth, consistently costs more in public services than it pays
In his new book "Better Not Bigger," Eben Fodor cites study after study
showing how growth raises taxes. In Loudon County, Virginia, each new house on a
quarter-acre lot adds $705 per year to a town budget (in increased garbage collection,
road maintenance, etc. minus increased property tax). On a five-acre lot a new house costs
the community $2232 per year. In Redmond, Washington, single-family houses pay 21 percent
of property tax but account for 29 percent of the city budget. A study in California's
Central Valley calculated that more compact development could save municipalities 500,000
acres of farmland and $1.2 billion in taxes.
There are dozens of these studies. They all come to the same conclusion. New
subdivisions reach into the pockets of established residents to finance additional schools
and services. Commercial and industrial developments sometimes pay more in taxes than they
demand in services, but the traffic and pollution they generate reduces nearby property
value. New employees don't want to live near the plant or strip, so they build houses and
raise taxes in the NEXT town. Large, well-organized companies such as sports teams and
Wal-Mart, push city governments to widen roads, provide free water or sewage lines, offer
property tax breaks, even build the stadium.
Given all the evidence to the contrary, it's amazing how many of us still believe the
myth that growth reduces taxes. But then, every myth springs from a seed of truth.
Municipal growth does benefit some people. Real estate agents get sales, construction
companies get jobs, banks get more depositors and borrowers, newspapers get higher
circulations, stores get more business (though they also get more and tougher
competition). Landowners who sell to developers can make big money; developers can make
even bigger money.
Those folks are every town's growth promoters. Eben Fodor calls them the "urban
growth machine" and cites an example of how the machine is fueled. Imagine a proposed
development that will cost a community $1,000,000 and bring in $500,000 in benefits. The
$500,000 goes to ten people, $50,000 apiece. The $1,000,000 is charged to 100,000 people
as a $10 tax increase. Who is going to focus full attention on this project, be at all the
hearings, bring in lawyers, chat up city officials? Who is going to believe sincerely and
claim loudly that growth is a good thing?
Fodor quotes Oregon environmentalist Andy Kerr, who calls urban growth, "a pyramid
scheme in which a relatively few make a killing, some others make a living, but most [of
us] pay for it." As long as there is a killing to be made, no tepid
"smart-growth" measures are going to stop sprawl. We will go on having strips
and malls and cookie-cutter subdivisions and traffic jams and rising taxes as long as
someone makes money from them.
We can't blame those who make the money. They're playing the game according to the
rules, which are set mainly by the market, which rewards whomever is clever enough to put
any cost of doing business onto someone else. They get the store profits, we build the
roads. They hire the workers (paying as little as they can get away with, because the
market requires them to cut costs), we sit in traffic jams and breathe the exhaust. They
get jobs building the subdivision, we lose open lands, clean water, and wildlife. Then we
subsidize them with our taxes. That, the tax subsidy, is not the market, it's local
politics. Collectively we set out pots of subsidized honey at which they dip. We can't
expect them not to dip; we can only expect them to howl if the subsidy is taken away.
The "we-they" language in the previous paragraph isn't quite right. They may
profit more than we do, but we flock to the stores with the low prices. We buy dream homes
in the ever-expanding suburbs. We use the services of the growth machine. (With some
equally amateur friends I'm trying to create a 22-unit eco-development, and I'm learning
to appreciate the skills needed and the risks borne by developers.) We want our local
builders and banks and stores and newspapers to thrive.
So what can we do about this spreading mess, which handsomely rewards a few, which
turns our surroundings into blight, which most of us hate but in which most of us are
complicit -- and which we subsidize with our tax dollars?
Concrete answers to that question take a long chapter in Fodor's book and will take
another column here. The general answer is clear. Don't believe the myth that all growth
is good. Ask hard questions. Who will benefit from the next development scheme and who
will pay? Are there better options, including undeveloped, protected land? How much growth
can our roads, our land, our waters and air, our neighborhoods, schools and community
support? Since we can't grow forever, where should we stop?
Donella H. Meadows is director of the Sustainability Institute and an adjunct
professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.
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