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This is Why We’re Broke

I part ways with many urbanists in that I don’t hate suburbs. In fact, I think we need to start with a basic acknowledgment of the fact that most people like owning single family homes and like living in the suburbs. I might live in the city and not own a car, but that doesn’t mean other people necessarily do. Did subsidies and public policy contribute to sprawl? Of course, as we’ve recently been examining here. But I do believe there’s a legitimate consumer preference for the suburbs.

I do think we should invest in cities and can build urban environments that attract a lot more people. But equally if not more important is to build better suburbs. What we see in America today is a suburban form that is unsustainable. I don’t mean that in the traditional sense of the word when it comes to the environment. I mean that it is simply financially unsustainable. Unlike urban environments, all too many suburbs have proven tragically unable to reinvent themselves. Thus as soon as they get old and lose the advantages of greenfield economics, they are abandoned in favor of new edge development. Plenty of these places are going to be in big trouble when their aging in place residents pass on with no next generation in the wings. The vast tracts of decaying inner ring suburbs across America may prove to be our most vexing “urban” problem of the next few decades.

The current development poses less of a problem in places that are growing strongly like Houston. There we really do need to built a lot of stuff to accommodate the million+ new residents that move there every decade. They are seeing new blood fill in the gaps even as other folks move to the edge. Even in a place like Indianapolis, the region added 230,000 people. Their core is still too weak, but only lost 25,000 people. Thus their suburban “sprawl” cannot be driven primarily by outmigration.

But this is a huge problem in places that are growing slowly or shrinking. Think Chicago (where the region only gained 362,000 people and the city lost 200,000), or Detroit or Cleveland. In these places sprawl is simply sucking the life out of the heart of the region. This was perhaps best shown in Buffalo, which Chuck Banas described as an example of “sprawl in its purest form.” Between 1950 and 2000, the Buffalo region tripled its urban footprint, but added effectively no population.

Map1_large.gifPlain and simple, this is why we’re broke. As Banas put it, “same number of people, three times as much stuff” (to pay for).

Wonder why Illinois and Chicago are in such a horrible fiscal crisis? Yes, Springfield is dysfunctional. Yes, there are sweetheart union deals. This is all true. But the massive exurbanization of the region while the core (excepting the “core of the core”) declines is a massive drain on the treasury. Huge sums of money are being pumped into serving these areas, whether that be a Metra line extension to Elburn or brand new Ogden Ave. in Oswego. This investment is being made at a time when the existing infrastructure cannot be maintained. And that new urbanized footprint has to be maintained itself and operated in perpetuity. Plus, the rump suburbs and neighborhoods being left behind get turned into de facto wards of the state or federal government, a costly enterprise in its own right. It should be totally unsurprising that we’re in a fiscal mess here.

Michigan and Ohio are even worse. Michigan as a whole lost population. The Detroit region did as well, yet there are still all sorts of highway expansion projects on the books there. In Ohio, the state is widening roads in Cleveland while the population on a regional basis dropped. As Ed Glaeser noted, the problem with shrinking cities is that they have too much infrastructure relative to population, so why build even more infrastructure you have to maintain? During the stimulus, Ohio’s #1 highway project was a $150 million bypass around a town of 5,000. With decisions like these, it is any wonder these states are in trouble?

I guess if we want to pay people to just move around in an area, we can keep doing that. It doesn’t seem very wise to me though. I’m not saying we should ban people from moving to the exurbs in stagnant or declining regions, but at a minimum it should be made very clear to those who do that they have to pay 100% of the freight on their own, and that no state or federal funds are going to be expended in support of that.

This might seem like a political pipe dream, and maybe that’s right. But the fiscal inevitable end result of the current ways of doing business will ultimately force some change. I just hope some things happen before a lot places end up going bust.

Aaron M. Renn is a urban policy analyst and consultant based in Chicago.  His writings appear at his blog, The Urbanophile, and in other publications.

Written by Buffalo Rising

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