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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. 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. 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.

about the author

Jonathan Coppage is a TAC associate editor. He received a BA in Political Science from North Carolina State University, and previously attended the University of Chicago, where he studied in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts great books concentration. Jonathan also worked at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Jon can be followed on Twitter @JonCoppage, or reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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