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A recession is no time for the suburbs

The economy is mandating a return to smarter, community-oriented growth.

No matter how the November election turns out, it’s clear America’s communities are in for a time of austerity. Federal and state cutbacks are likely to have a big impact on local governments. And many locals will be squeezed by pension obligations at a time when tax revenues are flat.

All of which means that from now on, taxpayers must get more for their money. That means we’re going to have to build our communities differently.

It is easy to mistake shiny new subdivisions for prosperity. New suburban buildings and new wide roads look great when first built, but over time the strain of that type of development creates a significant burden on a city or county treasury.

Communities create value because people, organizations and goods and services are in close proximity to one another and can interact efficiently. In the same way, compact communities  —  built on what are often called “smart growth” principles —  represent a good financial deal for taxpayers. Because things are closer together, the need to build costly, upfront infrastructure is minimized. Taxpayers save money over time as well, because all those public servants we rely on  — police officers, firefighters, paramedics, school bus drivers, snowplow drivers —  don’t have to drive as far.

Conventional suburban communities, by contrast, are much more expensive to build and serve. In North Carolina, a study by the City of Charlotte found that a fire station in a low-density neighborhood with disconnected streets serves one-quarter the number of households and at four times the cost of an otherwise identical fire station in a less spread-out and more connected neighborhood. Another study in Champaign, Ill., by the respected consulting firm Tischler Bise, found that growing within the city’s current urban service area would generate a tax surplus of $33 million, while sprawling beyond it would put a $20 million hole in the city’s budget.

Cities can sometimes stay in the black temporarily by approving new development and getting new revenue from it to pay for the costs. But that’s really just a Ponzi scheme. When a real estate bust hits —  as it did starting in 2008 — there’s no more new development to subsidize sprawling development, and cities start to run in the red. That’s partly what has happened in the recent municipal bankruptcies in California.

In the past, cities have also been able to cover themselves with state and federal funds. But that spigot is slowing down, too. After the November election, the federal government will inevitably start cutting back money for domestic programs, and states will have to cut back as a result.

Cities can create a more fiscally sound future for themselves — and generate more political support from taxpayers —  by taking a smart growth approach. In a time of austerity, the federal government —  and states — can get more “bang for their buck” from taxpayer dollars by setting smart growth performance standards for the locals to follow. Otherwise, taxpayer money at all levels — local, state and federal  — will be thrown away on fiscally unsustainable development patterns for at least another generation.

Ironically, those who defend conventional sprawl often do so by pointing to the market. People want suburban living, they say, and we should follow what the market wants.

There is only one thing wrong with this argument: It’s not true. There’s overwhelming evidence that the housing market is trending strongly away from low-density suburban living, especially among the two demographic groups driving the housing market  —  retiring Baby Boomers and the Millennial generation, ages 18-30. There’s considerable evidence that the fast-growth sectors of the economy thrive in village-style, smart-growth settings rather than standard suburban office parks.

So, smart growth is what people want, and it’s what drives economic growth. On top of that, it’s a better deal for taxpayers. At a time when America is hungry for prosperity  — and all levels of government must provide better value to taxpayers  — the smart growth approach is an essential part of our nation’s prosperity and sound fiscal management.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Nov 5, 10:22 p.m. Inappropriate

The whole Happy Motoring culture is doomed. There are those who predict the most likely fate for the McMansions to be "salvage, slums and ruins."

But there is precious little worth salvaging out of those things other than perhaps a bit of inferior copper piping. They won't even make decent slums, since they are basically just stapled together strand board, not sturdily built structures like the old tenements. And they won't make very picturesque or long lived ruins either, probably just an occasional granite countertop sitting amid some gypsum dust.

I wonder if there will be anyone around to wonder what they were?

Posted Wed, Nov 7, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

All of this is true, and why we need to stick by the Washington growth management act. It's the best in the country. Passed in 1995 - we're now starting to reap the benefits. LA based Mr. Fulton might want to have a look at how it's working here.

g_dub

Posted Wed, Nov 7, 7:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Why do planners and liberals love trendy little words so much?

Smarth Growth.
Complete Streets.
Silly words, that make me cringe.

Why can't we just use common sense and simple English? With simple building permit descriptions, small fees and quick turnaround times to get said permit?

Posted Sat, Nov 10, 8:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Did you guys go to sleep for the last two weeks.

Hurricane Sandy showed millions of people can be brought to the brink of barbarism because of being dependent on centralized resources whether power, food, or transit!

Is this what the centralizers want for Washington State -- to turn us from a bunch of widely spaced, individuals, into a hamster cage of lab animals all dependent on a few easily broken points of failure.

My prediction is that Sandy has spelled the End of Cities.

We cannot go back after Sandy. People will see the need to flee density, to abandon the lifeless towers and head for newer, more robust exurbs that cost less, and offer the greater flexibility of personal transit.

jabailo

Posted Mon, Nov 12, 6:18 p.m. Inappropriate

jabailo, you also make a point you haven't stated. I would never choose to live in such a dense area say as downtown Seattle -- surrounded by people who have no clue how to cope on their own.

Those towers, wherever they are, are great for an overnight stay or two, but I wouldn't want to live there. Nor do I want to work inside of one. 911 showed us that being ground level has more merit than fault, no matter whether a terrorist attack, or just mother nature, or a freak fire, or perhaps a gas attack.

Posted Mon, Nov 12, 12:50 a.m. Inappropriate

"Eggs are cheaper in the country". And, so are lots of other things such as quality housing.

animalal

Posted Mon, Nov 12, 6:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, and those nice people in the cities are building us more commuter trains to ride, for only $4 a pop.

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