The consequences of urban sprawl

by | Featured, Public Policy

  • Smart Growth Policies
  • Economic Development
  • Impact Fees & Revenue Sharing

Various initiatives and programs have been started from coast-to-coast in this country in an attempt to balance out the inequities caused by urban sprawl. At the heart of most of these policies is an attempt to forge a partnership not only between the citizens of a community and the local government, but also to form alliances between various groups of the communities. The formation of such groups also transcends political lines in an attempt to break down the barriers that urban sprawl has built.

As America began to suburbanize in the mid-20th century, the urban landscape began to change dramatically. Most notable was the phenomenon of urban sprawl. Urban sprawl has been defined “as a pattern of urban and metropolitan growth” where neighborhoods and communities develop “on the fringe of settled areas.” These areas often become enclaves of exclusivity that have a low-density and rely heavily on the automobile.

Urban sprawl has also led to a massive drain on resources as the development of these far-flung, low-density communities has increasingly stressed the existing infrastructure. At the same time, the exclusive nature of these communities has caused a disparity in wealth because there is no mechanism for the distribution of revenue across political lines. Without this redistribution of revenue, poorer central cities are often faced with carrying a disproportionate amount of the costs. In essences, these wealthy enclaves are subsidized by the poorer central cities.

Smart Growth

 

One of the most popular “remedies” discussed today when talking about urban sprawl is the implementation of some form of smart growth policy. Smart growth initiatives attempt to combat urban sprawl through planning and resource management. By attempting to gentrify inner city neighborhoods while at the same time moderating suburban growth, smart growth policies try to make more efficient use of the resources available. At the same time, the reversal of several federal policies (i.e. FHA policies of the mid-20th century) has led to more economic opportunities for low- and moderate-income inner city residents (Burchell, Listokin & Galley 2000).

Studies seem to suggest the savings in resources could be substantial if smart growth policies are implemented and maintained. Urban areas can see substantial savings in development costs, land consumption, and infrastructure construction. Over a twenty-five year period, the cost savings could reach the hundreds of billions of dollars (Burchell, Listokin & Galley 2000). In conjunction with these policy changes, upgrades to the educational system and housing stock are also affected through policy revisions.

By making undesirable areas more appealing through urban infill policies that take a more inclusive approach to development, smart growth can lead to more opportunities for a wider segment of the urban population. This is done with only a minimal increase in population density and a slight increase in per capita cost-of-living (Burchell, Listokin & Galley 2000). These results are based on projections from the study of areas that have implemented smart growth policies. Initial results in each of the areas were projected over a twenty-five year period in order to extrapolate the aforementioned benefits from smart growth. But how does this compare to areas such as Portland, Oregon which has a long-term track record with smart growth policies?

In the mid-1970s, the state of Oregon implemented growth policies intended to slow sprawl and provide equitable housing for all. The city of Portland, Oregon and surrounding incorporated cities passed a series of laws that established growth rings around the cities. These growth rings governed development in unincorporated and undeveloped areas as well as incorporated cities (Cox & Utt 2001).

It gradually became apparent, however, that these policies were having some unintended consequences on the community. The smart growth restrictions implemented in order to provide affordable housing for the community slowly raised housing costs and priced low-and moderate-income homeowners out of the market. As a matter-of-fact, Portland became one of the most expensive places in the country to buy a house by the year 2000. Comparatively, Atlanta, which had not implemented any comprehensive growth control initiatives, saw a marked increase in its affordable housing stock during the same period (Cox & Utt 2001).

Revenue Sharing

 

Another policy tactic used to control urban sprawl is to use a carrot and stick approach through revenue sharing and the use of various fees. Of the fees imposed, impact fees are one of the most common forms. Impact fees are those fees imposed on a development in order to pay for the increase burden on the infrastructure by the development. The justification being that a development has inherit costs to the city systems beyond those gains that a particular development may contribute to the community through tax revenues that may be generated. Impact fees are used to fund education, waste treatment, and roads (Cox & Utt 2001).

Revenue sharing entails communities in a region pooling funds to somewhat balance out some of the inequities between community wealth. Revenue sharing policies are intended to reduce both differences in wealth as well as reduce competition among communities for industrial and commercial development. This is done by providing a pool of money for the regional communities to draw from thus relieving pressures for communities to annex land while at the same time fostering a regional perspective among the cooperating municipalities. The pool of money is generated through tapping some tax base (i.e.: property tax or commercial/industrial taxes) and dispersing it by some formulaic distribution process (Squires 2002).

Impact fees can often be overly burdensome to low- and moderate-income homeowners where they can represent a substantial increase in ownership costs, sometimes pricing the property out of the affordable market (Cox & Utt 2001). There is also a lot of questions about the bases of the fees. There is often heated debate about how much of the costs of new development are or are not mitigated by the future revenue generated by the development itself.

Revenue-sharing has seen some marginal success, Minneapolis-St. Paul for example, but getting the program started has its own challenges. Often the state or county government has to provide some kind of seed money to get the ball rolling. But even with this, a regional revenue-sharing program can be a hot-button political issue taking years to implement (Squires 2002).

Forming Partnerships

 

In order to overcome some of the bureaucracy involved with policy initiatives such as the ones previously mentioned, some areas have formed quasi-governmental cooperatives between the public and private sector to effect equitable changes in their particular communities. Often some form of Development Corporation is used composed of governmental and private interests (Krumholtz 1999). Using this model allows the development to progress in a more efficient business-like manner while still having governmental oversight in place to make sure the development is in the best interest of the community as a whole.

Along with Development Corporations, tax credits for job creation are often used to stimulate the local economy. By giving tax credits to businesses willing to locate in inner city or deteriorating areas, these credits can increase the rate of urban infill. These credits help to mitigate the benefits a business might receive by locating in a sprawl area thus leveling the playing field to a degree (Squires 2002).

Both Development Corporations and tax credits have proven to be useful tools in sprawl control. Cities such as Boston, Cleveland, Oakland, and Chicago have used Development Corporations to various degrees of success (Krumholtz 1999). Job tax credits can not only level the playing field they can also provide a seed in the community for future growth by bringing businesses to an area. Both methods, however, are susceptible to corruption and are very depended on the motivation and character of those involved in order to succeed.

The policies of growth control are varied and many. Growth policies go beyond simply trying to make urban areas efficient through resource management. Growth policies cross the lines into political and cultural areas. Because of this balance that such policies must attempt to attain, these policies often produce unintended consequences such as those seen with the implementation of growth policies in Portland. The success of a policy is dependent upon the skill and motivation of those involved in its implementation rather than the policy in and of itself. Complex issues such as the ones addressed with growth control policies require constant planning and adjustment.

Each part must be analyzed individually which leads to the eventual creation of a comprehensive plan. A policy has to be implemented incrementally so that it can be reviewed and adjusted on a real-time continual bases. By developing a system of successive comparison the policy can be kept on track of its overall goals. At the same time, any unforeseen consequences can be identified and addressed in a timely manner (Lindblom 1959).

Although urban sprawl is a nationwide phenomenon, it has to be viewed from a local or regional perspective. There is no one-size-fits-all policy for growth control. Each region must take a basic framework of policies and then adjust them for their particular circumstances. It is only through the efforts of those who understand the unique set of factors influencing a region or area that effective and sustainable growth policy will be achieved.

In conclusion...

 

Growth policies go beyond simply trying to make urban areas efficient through resource management. Growth policies cross the lines into political and cultural areas. Because of this balance that such policies must attempt to attain, these policies often produce unintended consequences such as those seen with the implementation of growth policies in Portland. The success of a policy is dependent upon the skill and motivation of those involved in its implementation rather than the policy in and of itself. Complex issues such as the ones addressed with growth control policies require constant planning and adjustment. Each part must be analyzed individually which leads to the eventual creation of a comprehensive plan.

A policy has to be implemented incrementally so that it can be reviewed and adjusted on a real-time continual bases. By developing a system of successive comparison the policy can be kept on track of its overall goals. At the same time, any unforeseen consequences can be identified and addressed in a timely manner (Lindblom 1959).

Although urban sprawl is a nationwide phenomenon, it has to be viewed from a local or regional perspective. There is no one-size-fits-all policy for growth control. Each region must take a basic framework of policies and then adjust them for their particular circumstances. It is only through the efforts of those who understand the unique set of factors influencing a region or area that effective and sustainable growth policy will be achieved.

Krumholz, N. (1999). Equitable Approaches to Local Economic Development. In Susan Fainstein & Scott Campbell, Readings in Urban Theory, Second Edition (pp. 224-236). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Lindblom, C. E. (1959). The Science of “Muddling Through”. In Susan Fainstein & Scott Campbell, Readings in Urban Theory, Second Edition (pp. 196-209). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Squires, G. (2002). Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences & Policy Response. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute Press.

Cox, W., & Utt, R. D. (2006 April). Smart Growth, Housing Costs, and Homeownership. [Electronic version]. The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder-Executive Summary, 1426, 1-24.

Burchell, R. W., Listokin, D., & Galley, C. C. (2000). Smarth Growth: More Than a Ghost of Urban Policy Past, Less Than a Bold New Horizon. Housing Policy Debate, 11 (4), 1-59.