Over the last 60 or so years pretty much every town and city across the country has made sprawl based development part of their building and urban design codes. These rules which codify things like separation of uses, minimum parking requirements, and minimum lot sizes among other rules, restrictions and laws have pretty much assured that things will be spread out requiring travel mostly by car with large distances between destinations. These codes were established in the 1950s mainly as a reaction to the massive growth in car ownership, irrational fear, and new wealth in America after WWII. The norm in the US is now to build single use single floor buildings on massive plots of land surrounded by acres of parking served by miles and miles of utilities and roads that never seem to be wide enough. People take this way of doing things for granted now as if that is the only way it can be done. “Of course, you have to drive a mile and a half for some milk.” It is an old story with no need to go into the bankrupt social and aesthetic disaster this has become. We could go over and over this in a discussion, but even if there were 500 comments in the thread we would still never get anywhere.
But what about the gigantic cost of all this car based infrastructure? What about the cost of sprawl? The high cost of sprawl is made starkly evident when you compare the municipal revenue generated on a per acre basis between high density mixed land use versus sprawl based low density land use.
A study prepared by Joseph Minicozzi of Urban3 in Asheville, North Carolina did just that. His study was recently printed in the May/April Better Cities &Towns newsletter, a publication of the Congress for New Urbanism. The study shows a shocking truth that most public officials ignore in their budgets and land planning. Mr. Minicozzi shows that a typical mixed use 6 story building on a compact urban site produces a whopping 59.39 times more tax revenue per acre in comparison to a Walmart store, single storey, single use big box surrounded by several acres of parking. This is due primarily to the vast area of “free” Walmart parking, which produces nothing. The study showed that even a 2-storey mixed use building on a dense urban site produces 7.67 times more tax revenue than the Walmart per acre. You can read more on this study at Planetizen which also elaborates on details of how Urban3’s parent company initiated this study in an effort to show Asheville officials how they could generate an added $1m dollars in revenue through revised land use plans.
When you consider that sprawl based building produces lower revenue per acre while also mandating the use of more acres (meaning also more costly infrastructure) you have to wonder where the logic is. Why is this not a major subject of civic discourse in this era of increasing demand for government austerity? Cost is not a subjective measure. It is what it is and in the case of sprawl there is a growing database of fact which shows that sprawl is wildly expensive and highly inefficient. Yet government officials and politicians never mention it when campaigning on government waste and inefficiency. You would expect the Conservatives to be all over sprawl as a giant government mandated waste of money. And what about the Democrats hunkered down in the old cities – where are they on this issue? It is their voters most damaged by the gigantic financial sink hole that sprawl is. Minicozzi, quoted in the story, notes that governments should be encouraging dense mixed use development and recommends that municipalities should evaluate development proposals based on their revenue per acre rather than on the value of the individual project. Well? Taxpayers of WNY, you keep complaining about high taxes. Here is a place you can start to cut. Call your public officials now and ask them to stop wasteful expensive sprawl now.
Here is a series of videos featuring Mr. Minicozzi describing the benefits that are accrues to Asheville due to the strength of its dense and lively downtown.
Video 1 of 4 http://youtu.be/3VSx5NaxXow
Video 2 of 4 http://youtu.be/jxMSukOxsxY
Video 3 of 4 http://youtu.be/AA8yu8OSK8w
Video 4 of 4 http://youtu.be/FgXfDPYQ1OE
Images are from Urban3urban3.com