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In an Austere Era, Sprawl is Simply Too Costly

William Fulton / Oct 19 2012

For Release Friday, October 19, 2012

William FultonNo 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.

As I have said before, 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 TischlerBise, 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 the 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 conventionally sprawling development patterns often do so by pointing to the market. People want suburban living, they say, and we should follow what the market wants.

The only thing wrong with this argument is that 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.

William Fulton, a former mayor of Ventura, Calif., is vice president and director of policy at Smart Growth America, and a senior fellow at the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Gino Carlucci
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    The irony is that for 2 generations the conventional wisdom has been that zoning that mandates sprawl will reduce population growth and thus reduce service costs to the taxpayer. Studies that demonstrate that the opposite is true coupled with housing demand for village-style mixed-use development will hopefully be effective in changing development patterns.

  2. Posted October 20, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    For Mr. Fulton and others, I grew up in a rambler in a builder subdivision in Jacksonville, FL. The subdivision’s civic association was finally able to construct a children’s park 55 years after the land was set aside by the developer! This is the only amenity in this isolated neighborhood, which of late voted down a road link to a new adjacent neighborhood, citing lack of street capacity. This suggests that without incentives, the private sector can be quite complacent about public life.

    And yet, smart growth without good subdivision planning is no net gain either. It is time for the advocates of smart growth to step up with more specificity and quality in their ideas. A row of narrow-lot homes, or townhomes, featuring double or triple garage doors facing the street has little virtue.

    If I were a public official in a progressive community, I would look seriously at all private land that has already been subdivided for single homes. If the lots are 80’ feet wide, I would create a luxury tax on the sale of any parcel over 40’ wide. I would place another luxury tax on anything beyond a 1.5 car garage (.5 for bikes, storage, etc.). Taxes of this sort have been around for millennia. I would also factor in street parking as part of the home’s auto accommodation, as another way of reducing parcel sizes. Certain roads that could link with other subdivisions would be given increased right-of way.

    In summary, give the developers incentives to replan subdivisions that are CURRENTLY ready to go. Since a proposer of these incentives may receive the backlash of every kind of socialist epithet, the public would need education as to the upside of: increased walkability, public space for parks, set-asides for schools and retail, and so on. We are not talking about the future- with an upturn in the economy, it may be here tomorrow, hence a saying: THE PLAT IS WHERE ITS AT. AND IF YOU WAIT, IT’S TOO LATE.

  3. Karen Maas
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    But once these roads linking the subdivisions are built, the problem remains of how to travel between them and why. A recent trip to Europe revealed that, even in non-tourist towns, the residents there have no trouble getting to and from the grocery store (at least for the staples) or spending time outside (walking on sidewalks – remember those?) because the zoning of those areas have a completely different emphasis. Groceries are purchased in local storefronts, not in warehouse-stores where you also purchase your next coffee-maker, cheap patio furniture, etc. (Completely off the subject, but I once visited a cattle auction in a building remarkably similar-looking to my local super-WalMart. I still can’t bring myself to buy produce there from the memory of the smell.) I was gripped with nostalgia when I saw several small parks with children playing – not necessarily with equipment age appropriate for them, but they play a better game of soccer (they call it football, but their moms don’t have to purchase shoulder pads for their afternoons of play after school) and are healthier and better socially-adjusted for their age group as a result. The US will never have this without a semblence of public transportation and eliminating the resistence to pedestrian access even in neighborhoods close to stores, doctors, parks, churches, and so on. In order to get to the middle school in our area, children have to walk on the grass or in the street – at least one local mom drives her son five blocks to his school for his safety – and my mother, who has early stage cateracts but can still see her grocery store from the street in front of her house (another super-WalMart), still has to drive there because she would otherwise have to brave a busy highway on foot otherwise.