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Why Sprawl Goes Broke, but Cities Rebound

Suburban sprawl often comes under criticism for a variety of aesthetic, environmental, and social reasons, but one criticism rules them all, Aaron Renn writes [1]. They aren’t financially sustainable:

new suburbs look attractive for a number of transitory reasons: everything is new, state of the art, and exactly in line with current market tastes; no legacy costs; no legacy institutions, deals, political dynasties, etc; few low income residents and thus low social service costs; deferred infrastructure development; the efficiency of large lot development; and scale economics in public service provision in a growth environment.

Eventually though, your shiny new suburb fills up and so growth comes to a halt, then often about the same time it gets old. This send all of those positive factors into reverse, triggering a cycle of decline that will ultimately cause major problems in vast tracts of suburban America that aren’t either a) wealthy communities or b) in markets that have tight restrictions on new building (which preserves these communities at the expense of rendering them unaffordable).

Renn recounts the experience of his current home of Indianapolis, where the city chased after its fleeing tax base by annexing the surrounding suburbs and forming a truly sprawling metropolitan government. As the shine wore off, however, the suburbs declined, and sprawl’s short-sighted design began to take its toll. As Renn wrote,

The bottom line is that the type of development that’s been ongoing in Indy and most American communities can’t ever generate enough tax revenue to pay to provide the infrastructure, amenities, and services necessary to support it.” Even the old city was comprised of widely-spaced single-family houses without so much as curbs, much less sidewalks. Suburbs are built because the land is cheap, as is generic development. There is simply no tax base to fund infrastructure developments that could revitalize the dragging sprawl.

Contrast Indianapolis’s infrastructure dilemma with the rapidly developing neighborhood of NOMA in Washington, D.C. Located north of Union Station, NOMA has seen an explosion of multi-story business and residential development over the past few years, with rooftop views of the Capitol obstructed only by the sheer number of cranes at work. The neighborhood has conspicuously lacked “open space,” or parks, in the eyes of its residents and developers, but that will soon change as the city has allocated $50 million to build NOMA some parks. Why does NOMA get park space when Indy can’t afford sidewalks? It has the tax base to pay for it [2]. Although for accounting reasons the money is coming out of general expenditures, the NOMA neighborhood now contributes $49 million more per year to the city in tax revenue than it did in 2006. By building dense communities with businesses and residences intermixed, urban development can go where decaying sprawl fears to tread.

Follow @joncoppage [3]

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#1 Comment By M_Young On May 24, 2014 @ 10:09 am

“Contrast Indianapolis’s infrastructure dilemma with the rapidly developing neighborhood of NOMA in Washington, D.C. Located north of Union Station, NOMA has seen an explosion of multi-story business and residential development over the past few years, with rooftop views of the Capitol obstructed only by the sheer number of cranes at work.”

Please tell me this is supposed to be ironic.

#2 Comment By TomB On May 24, 2014 @ 10:47 am

I’m sorry Mr. Coppage but the piece from which you took from by this Renn fellow is just an absolute mess, if not a repudiation of his own conclusion and perspective.

In the first place I at least saw not the slightest evidence given that this self-proclaimed “Urbanophile’s thesis that suburbs “go broke but cities rebound” is true to *any* degree much less to any significant one.

What I did however see is perhaps the reason for that lack of evidence: It isn’t happening, and instead it’s only this Urbanophile’s merest speculation that it will which is why he had to say that for the suburbs “[t]he numbers just don’t add up over the long term…”

All of which just oh-so-conveniently then justifies what these trendy “Urbanophiles” really want which is to continue have us pouring money as we have, to no effect, into the smoking craters they just happen to live in and so would be benefitted by.

And then let’s look at the sole specific situation he talks about and the facts thereof—using *his* facts—and then the thinking he derives from same:

That situation of course concerns the old suburbs built outside of Indianapolis decades ago in Marion County.

But were they “going broke” despite their age?

Nope. Instead, *as Renn himself admits,* they were so juicily flush that the City moved in and incorporated them so as to steal their tax receipts.

Ah well then Renn’s thesis still has a shot, doesn’t it? Because these old suburbs *have* apparently declined—again using Renn’s *own* account.

But wait, *why* did they then decline? Well my goodness, once again using Renn’s *own* words, what did the City do but take those tax receipts from those suburbs and … “us[ed] that captured suburban tax base to build up [its] downtown”!

(A bit of looting that Urbanophiles like Renn of course calls “a legitimately important and impressive accomplishment.”)

So what’s the lesson of this one specific instance Renn himself chooses? Of *course* suburbs will go broke and cities will rebound” (for a while) if the latter go out and loot the former, but otherwise…

And then, as if not content with being unable to give us an example that doesn’t do direct violence to his thesis, almost unbelievably what does Renn do but produce a good general intellectual point as to why his thesis is bunkum.

How? Well, firstly in showing a picture of a street in “old” (i.e. non-suburban) part of Indianapolis where he lives, with “minimal infrastructure,” and “not even curbs much less sidewalks.” (And streets so narrow to redo them would require tearing down all the houses along it.)

And then, secondly, and with undisputable validity, noting the immense amount of cost it would take to retrofit neighborhoods like this with infrastructure and sidewalks and lighting and snow-plowing and etc.

I.e., doing nothing less than apparently trying to demonstrate the ridiculousness of his own thesis that “revitalizing” cities requires pouring ever more money into their “infrastructure.” Capped off by his own statement about same that ” the math will never work.”

In short, Renn’s piece could almost be used as some … Common Core test question example to see just how well some high-schooler could deconstruct the text to show how it doesn’t just fail to support its thesis, but indeed does direct violence to same.

And you know the real tragedy here? It’s these Urbanophiles’ ridiculous, corrupt Establishment-serving fantasy and mantra that of course what ails our cities is just a lack of money “for infrastructure,” and if only there were bigger sidewalks and more public playgrounds people would come flocking back to same.

Baloney. Harmful baloney in fact because it’s just an excuse not to address the *real* reason people fled the cities and thereby depleted the tax base so as to fund truly needed infrastructure and etc. and refuse to repopulate them.

Because look again at that picture of Renn’s own neighborhood in “old” Indianapolis. Despite it’s lack of the kind of “infrastructure” Renn bemoans it’s lovely and warm and neighborly as hell. Filled with the kind of houses Renn himself notes are wonderfully desirable to tons of people: Small, neat, affordable 2-3 bedroom homes…

So what’s got these neighborhoods going down? What in the world has got people who can pay their mortgages and keep the houses up leaving and others staying away from such desirous places? Moving way the hell out to the ‘burbs where they know nobody and have to fight long commutes?

Well it’s hard to imagine it’s the mere lack of curbing or sidewalks is it?

No, it’s crime and violence and danger and anti-social behavior resulting in all kinds of uglinesses like unkept yards and houses and littering and filth and etc., etc.

I.e., all those sorts of behaviors our cities damn near consciously decided to default on, lots because of the cries of racism against the measures punishing and dissuading and opposing them.

Just as they did in the past all sorts of people aren’t going to mind not having curbs or even sidewalks or etc. so long as their neighborhood looked like this picture. Indeed and again it looks like a place where kids actally play together (and be watched over) as next-door neighbors instead of having to be laboriously toted to far-away soccer camps or etc.

But nobody but nobody who can afford leaving in any way is going to keep their spouses and kids in neighborhoods in which they are in danger. Or in which if they fall down they may well land on a used syringe or condom.

You want to be a real Urbanophile then, start demanding that the cities and their school districts start to clean same up. Except, I fear, it’s simply too late. Not only have the only real remedies for same now become so polemicized that they have been read out of discussion by all the allegedly Right Thinking People, but you’ve now had *generations* brought up since this massive default has occurred which know no way of life other *than* thuggery and crime and violence and anti-social behavior. Indeed, generations which have been *subsidized* in such a lifestyle.

Accordingly, so far as I see nothing’s gonna change, and you know the reaction the Urbanophiles are gonna get? (Except the opposition when they go a looting?) Yawns. Indifference. Because they can put in all the “infrastructure” they want and nobody is gonna be fooled and they are gonna stay the hell away from these places of danger, like any sensible people would.

So leaving the Urbanophiles in precisely the posture they are in today: In a sort of a permanent culture war (in which they of course see themselves as oh-so-enlightened), trying to force the average person to do (and pay for) what they don’t manifestly don’t want to do.

#3 Comment By SteveM On May 24, 2014 @ 11:39 am

Agree. And a perverse irony is that as United States transitioned into an “information economy”, the related jobs were transferred to suburban and exurban “campuses” that are remote from public transportation and often from retail amenities. Long before NOMA was a gleam in some urban planner’s eye was the massive sprawl up the Dulles Toll Road in Virginia and Route 270 in Maryland.

With gas prices at 4 bucks a gallon, and massive utility bills and real estate taxes attached to owning a McMansion, what was obvious but ignored 30 years ago is finally becoming obvious and accepted. I.e., build where the transportation and commercial infrastructure already exists and re-purpose existing buildings when feasible rather than construct new ones.

It’s a shame that it took so long for that planning model to mature. And it’s a bigger shame that buildings (including housing) poorly sized and/or poorly placed will be economic sinks for years to come.

#4 Comment By MikeCA On May 24, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

I live in one of those new build suburbs outside of Sacramento;the old part of town grew up around the railroad and the rest was & still is being built on old ranch & orchard land. We live here strictly because of work – Sacramento has no mass transit to our suburb,otherwise we’d probably live in the city.( Sitting in traffic for hours is not a workable trade off). Our town is predominantly upper middle class with a good tax base with lots of amenities,good schools,lots of green space,etc. In short with the exception of the original parts of town it is well planned and orderly. It is also soulless. Sterile & uninteresting,too perfect. Which is why most people love it. I’ve lived in big cities,college towns & even in the country once and all those places had a “sense of place”. After 8 yrs here I’ve made my peace but it will never be home. Hopefully retirement will be a pied à terre in a large city & a modest place on a lake or river in a more rural setting. Just not a suburban guy,sustainable or not.

#5 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 24, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

Not to be a killjoy, but couldn’t an argument be made that DC gentrification is a result of the Federal government’s growing dominance? Money is pouring into DC and DC area housing, because money is pouring into, and out of, the Fed. As well as power being centered there, which also attracts money. Sure, this area of DC has a big “tax base,” but doesn’t most of that money ultimately come from, either directly or indirectly, the Fed? In other words, from taxes raised, overwhelmingly, elsewhere?

Old line manufacturing centers in the Midwest, like Indianapolis, not so much. They represent “the real economy,” which ain’t doing so good, city or suburb, rather than the unreal, fiat economy of DC.

#6 Comment By Paul Emmons On May 24, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

Glad to hear it (to indulge in a little Schadenfreude). The extent to which our national infrastructure relies on the automobile and vanishing fossil fuels has only begun to bite us back, one fears; and these sprawling, sparsely populated suburbs are exhibit A. We’ve had forty years to learn better (ever since the gasoline shortages of the early 1970s should have been a wake-up call) and this is still happening too slowly.

A related concern is the disappearance of farmland. This is closely related, actually, because the high agricultural yields we still enjoy depend heavily on fertilizers that consume more petroleum. Then we burn yet more petroleum in transporting the food long distances. It’s downright painful to hear in the marketing of new mcmansions on half-acre lots near Lancaster Pa., for instance, that buyers will enjoy “the richest soil in the country” for their expanses of lawn.

Let’s beware also of “economies of scale.” They exist. But nine times out of ten, scratch the surface of a claimed “economy of scale” and you will find an externality. A cost saving for one party becomes an added expense for another.

#7 Comment By aslkd On May 24, 2014 @ 5:28 pm

One feature of suburbs I noticed when I moved to the US is their relatively low cost and short shelf-life compared to brick-and-mortar (literally) nature of much of urban buildings. Surely, long-term costs of upkeep of those cheaply made houses and of the spread-out infrastructure suburbanization requires will be higher than the similar costs of urban areas.

One interesting development to follow in the future will be the effect on suburbanization of the spread of renewable generation and especially of the small-scale distributed generation. One would expect and many have predicted that increasing fuel costs will make suburbanization increasingly uneconomic due to its reliance on driving. At the same time, the spread of distributed generation, especially distributed solar, will require a lot of space and will thus be more difficult to utilize in densely populated urban areas. Those who remain in suburbs will definitely have a leg up helping counter their higher gas bills. (once transportation switches to power, and it will eventually, they will probably have lower overall energy bills)

#8 Comment By bjk On May 24, 2014 @ 8:19 pm

This would be more persuasive if Washington had any industry other than taxing the schmucks who live out in the sprawl in Indianapolis.

#9 Comment By ArgosyJones On May 24, 2014 @ 9:07 pm

This would be very nice, if true.
However, I don’t think it holds up well without cherry picking examples.

Look at the rust belt cities of Detroit, Toledo, and to a lesser extent, Cleveland. The Urban cores remain hollowed out shells while the sprawling suburbs remain more successful by any index you might choose to measure.

#10 Comment By Console On May 25, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

The resurgence of city life is a very undertold story. Especially in the ideological circles where Detroit is supposed to serve as some sort of warning about urban communities. The reality though is that places like D.C. and New York are undergoing a boom. And the southern cities that are booming aren’t simply adding people to their suburbs. They are creating these large urban districts (see: Uptown, Dallas). But the eventual death of sprawl is an even more undertold story.

#11 Comment By Glaivester On May 25, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

One reason for sprawl is that having large yards and building restrictions makes it easier to separate one’s self from poor people, and more specifically, from poor minorities.

If you want to end sprawl, you need to make it easier to escape the dysfunctional people.

#12 Comment By Sam M On May 25, 2014 @ 10:46 pm

This seems kind of selective. Indianapolis sprawl was kind of successful for a while. Then wasn’t. It’s all described in The Magnificent Ambersons.

But is this an indictment of sprawl, broadly considered? NOMA was always kind of dense compared to Booth Tarkington’s stomping grounds. It worked. Then it didn’t. Then it did again. And pretty soon it won’t.

Yes. Sprawl is cyclical. So is density.

Besides, it’s kind of weird to cite anywhere in DC as an argument for density. Logan Cirle is pretty dense. But it’s the most dense neighborhood in DC, and it’s still less dense than the average density in a place like San Francisco.

#13 Comment By Tom Clark On May 26, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

And cities are so much more fun to live in.

What strikes me is that this is another case where what are considered liberal and conservative goals converge – support for cities for social aims and economy in government. The other recent case that comes to mind is changes in criminal justice policies to reduce dependence on prisons.

I think it just shows how much of what has come to be considered controversial is caused by an unwillingness to listen closely to what people who approach things differently than we do are saying.

#14 Comment By James Canning On May 26, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

Great piece. American sprawl has been a disastrous blunder.

#15 Comment By charles cosimano On May 26, 2014 @ 5:00 pm

Well, Waukesha is certainly doing fine.

#16 Comment By Glaivester On May 26, 2014 @ 8:44 pm

What strikes me is that this is another case where what are considered liberal and conservative goals converge – support for cities for social aims and economy in government. The other recent case that comes to mind is changes in criminal justice policies to reduce dependence on prisons.

In both cases, the problem here is that you can find support on both ends of the spectrum for the ideas behind the goals, but the fact of the matter is that both ideas in the real world crash up against the fact that people want to segregate themselves from the dysfunctional, and both incarceration and the ability of the middle-class to escape to suburbs allows this.

Reducing dependence on prisons was tried from the 60s to the mid-80s or so. People who remember those decades tend to look at it as a failed experiment.

#17 Comment By Bob Johnson On May 26, 2014 @ 10:14 pm

Our Lot by Alyssa Katz, Snob Zones by Lisa Provost, and The Slaughter of Cities by E. Michael Jones are must reads on how government programs and regulations engineer suburban sprawl

#18 Comment By Winston On May 27, 2014 @ 1:07 am

Spral development is wasteful. See Canadian study in another consolidated city:

Cost of urban sprawl: $960m over next 18 years

Sprawled development in cities causes biased service delivery and that causes people to leave for suburbs. It is not a racial issue. Survey of people in 5 largest metros reveal driver was service delivery. Actually what is needed is decentralization within cities.

#19 Comment By Rambler88 On May 27, 2014 @ 4:05 am

Renn’s article doesn’t in the least show that suburbs fail. It only shows that suburbs fail when core cities take them over. There are plenty of cities where independent suburbs have been quite successful for fifty-odd years. Despite Renn’s solemn pronunciations, the economic numbers work out just fine in the long term for quite a few suburbs–if they are allowed to run themselves and take care of their own inhabitants. It’s when corrupt core cities take over suburbs, or when “regional” governments are formed which are dominated by the powers that corrupt the core cities, that the numbers don’t work, because the money, passing through many sticky hands, doesn’t buy nearly as much.

From what I’ve read of Indianapolis (and from the picture Renn posts), it’s a highly anomalous metro area. His description of what has happened there doesn’t have any significant resemblance to any of the five metros I’ve lived in.

There’s a long list of reasons why people flee the core cities, and keep fleeing farther out if the cities extend their reach. Renn writes as if none of those factors exist.

Independent suburban governments work because, and insofar as, they are responsive to the whole range of basic needs of the whole range of their residents. Core city governments are bigger targets for corruption, and have long governed on the basis of pandering to gullible and cheaply-bought voting blocs, and to individuals who can put a lot of cash in an envelope. They’ve governed that way for a long time, causing new problems that pile up on top of old ones. That’s why the middle class began fleeing a long time ago, and will keep fleeing, despite the media pretense to the contrary.

For lots of real numbers that show the consistent failure of core cities and the consistent success of suburbs, and the consistent manipulation of data by “new urbanists” in media and government, and by consultants like Renn with an eye on the big contracts offered by the big governments, look at [5]. Renn has some of his stuff reprinted there too, but he’s stopped trying to peddle the “regionalist” line there, or they won’t print it–the rest of the site’s content consistently gives him the lie.

#20 Comment By jacobus On May 27, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

The suburbs will die the day gas goes to $5 a gallon.

Building your whole life to be dependent on one commodity? Foolish.

#21 Comment By TomB On May 27, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

Jim Canning wrote:

“Great piece. American sprawl has been a disastrous blunder.”

No it isn’t; in both its theory and its specifics it not only fails to support its thesis but is in clear and 180-degree contravention of same.

But yes the sprawl has been a disaster. A huge disaster.

And despite its size isn’t it interesting how the mainstream “respectable/acceptable” way of talking about that disaster is—exactly as was the case here with Renn and Coppage—either so commonly, relatively silent as to its causes, or just asserts the ridiculous.

I.e., crime and violence and danger and anti-social behavior and dirt.

You know, all those things that people *used* to believe were the absolute *core* responsibilities of city authorities.

And now for a show of hands:

Who really believes you can solve a problem such as this without confronting its cause(s)?

#22 Comment By cka2nd On May 27, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

In my city – and I think this is true for a lot of mid-size to small cities, especially with well-developed suburbs – our Grade 6-8 middle schools seem to be the one overarching reason why middle class families of all colors flee the city for the suburbs. Not crime in general, but the fact that their 6th graders will be bullied by kids in the 8th grade.

A friend recently explained to me that 8th graders are the school cohort most likely to bully and that 6th graders are far less able than 7th graders to defend themselves against 8th graders. Also, the tendency to bully drops significantly with the move to 9th grade, and 9th graders will exercise at least some control over 8th grade bullies. His solution? Change the middle schools to serve Grades 7-9, which is how my New York City junior high school was organized in the 1970’s. He would go further, though, and institute a city-wide rotation with all 7th graders attending one school, all 8th graders a different school, and all 9th graders the third middle school, with the 7th and 8th graders continuing on in the same separate buildings the following year and a new class of 7th graders replacing the 9th graders in the third school, and so on.

Anyone else see the same or similar problem in their metropolitan areas? Any thoughts on my friend’s proposals?