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Sprawl Articles

So What Can We Do -- Really Do -- About Sprawl?

by Donella H. Meadows
The Global Citizen, March 11, 1999

In my mind St. Louis is the poster city for sprawl. It has a glittering, high-rise center where fashionable people work, shop and party. Surrounding the center are blocks and blocks of empty lots, abandoned buildings, dying stores, a sad wasteland through which the fashionable people speed on wide highways to the suburbs. In the suburbs the subdivisions and shopping centers expand rapidly outward onto the world's best farmland.

When I imagine the opposite of sprawl, I think of Oslo, Norway. Oslo rises halfway up the hills at the end of a fjord and then abruptly stops. What stops it is a huge public park, in which no private entity is allowed to build anything. The park is full of trails, lakes, playgrounds, picnic tables, and scattered huts where you can stop for a hot drink in winter or cold drink in summer. Tram lines radiate from the city to the park edges, so you can ride to the end of a line, ski or hike in a loop to the end of another line and ride home.

That is a no-nonsense urban growth boundary. It forces development inward. There are no derelict blocks in Oslo. Space no longer useful for one purpose is snapped up for another. Urban renewal goes on constantly everywhere. There are few cars, because there's hardly any place to park and anyway most streets in the shopping district are pedestrian zones. Trams are cheap and frequent and go everywhere. The city is quiet, clean, friendly, attractive and economically thriving.

How could we make our cities more like Oslo and less like land-gulping, energy-intensive, half-empty St. Louis? There is a long list of things we could do. Eben Fodor, in his new book "Better Not Bigger" (the most useful piece of writing on sprawl control I've seen) organizes them under two categories: taking the foot off the accelerator and applying the brake.

The accelerator part comes from widespread public subsidies to sprawl. Fodor lists ten of them, which include:

  • Free or subsidized roads, sewer systems, water systems, schools, etc. (Instead charge development impact fees high enough to be sure the taxes of present residents don't go up to provide public services for new residents.)
  • Tax breaks, grants, free consulting services, and other handouts to attract new businesses. (There's almost never a good reason for the public to subsidize a private business, especially not in a way that allows it to undercut existing businesses.)
  • Waiving environmental or land-use regulations. (Make the standards strong enough to protect everyone's air, water, views and safety and enforce those standards firmly and evenly.)
  • Federally funded road projects. (The Feds pay the money, but the community puts up with the sprawl. And where do you think the Feds get the money?)

Urban growth accelerators make current residents pay (in higher taxes, lower services, more noise and pollution and traffic jams) for new development. There is no legal or moral reason why they should do that. Easing up on the accelerator should at least guarantee that growth pays its own way.

Applying the brake means setting absolute limits. There are some illegal reasons for wanting to do this: to protect special privilege, to keep out particular kinds of persons; to take private property for public purpose without fair compensation. There are also legal reasons: to protect watersheds or aquifers or farmland or open space, to force growth into places where public services can be efficiently delivered, to slow growth to a rate at which the community can absorb it, to stop growth before land, water, or other resources fail.

Fodor tells the stories of several communities that have limited their growth and lists many techniques they have used to do so. They include:

  • Growth boundaries and green belts like the one around Oslo.
  • Agricultural zoning. Given the world food situation, not another square inch of prime soil should be built upon anywhere.
  • Infrastructure spending restrictions. Why should a Wal-Mart that sucks in traffic force the public to widen the road? Let Wal-Mart do it, or let the narrow road limit the traffic.
  • Downzoning. Usually met with screams of protest from people whose land values are reduced, though we never hear objections when upzoning increases land values.
  • Comprehensive public review of all aspects of a new development, such as required by Vermont's Act 250.
  • Public purchase of development rights.
  • Growth moratoria, growth rate limits, or absolute caps on municipal size, set by real resource limitations.

Boulder, Colorado, may be the American town that has most applied growth controls, prompted by a sober look at the "build-out" implications of the city's zoning plan. Boulder voters approved a local sales tax used to acquire greenways around the city. A building height limitation protects mountain views. Building permits are limited in number, many can be used only in the city center, and 75 percent of new housing permits must be allocated to affordable housing. Commercial and industrial land was downzoned with the realization that if jobs grow faster than housing, commuters from other towns will overload roads and parking facilities.

All that and more is possible in any city. But controlling growth means more than fiddling at the margins, "accommodating" growth, "managing" growth. It means questioning myths about growth, realizing that growth can bring more costs than benefits. That kind of growth makes us poorer, not richer. It shouldn't be celebrated or welcomed or subsidized or managed or accommodated; it should be stopped.

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 taxes.

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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