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Building resilient cities and towns with fiscal conservatism
May 8, 2012 5:03 PM   Subscribe

"...Charles Marohn and his colleagues at the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns have made a very compelling case that suburban sprawl is basically a Ponzi scheme, in which municipalities expand infrastructure hoping to attract new taxpayers that can pay off the mounting costs associated with the last infrastructure expansion, over and over." Building resilient cities and towns with fiscal conservatism.

Curbside Chat: A candid talk about the future of America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods, the report cited in the article, can be found here.
posted by invitapriore (46 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
First response: well, duh.

All the local municipal leaders can ever talk about is "expanding the tax base" by building Wal-Marts and subdivisions, but they never seem to recognize that they're going to have to spend all that money servicing... Wal-Marts and subdivisions. It's a never-ending death-spiral.
posted by klanawa at 5:15 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Let's stop the hysteria and honestly ask ourselves what is sprawl? "Sprawl" is the unfortunate pejorative title government planners give to economic development that takes place in areas they can't control. In reality, "sprawl" is new houses, new school buildings, new plants, and new office and retail facilities. "Sprawl" is new jobs, new hope and the fulfillment of lifelong dreams. It's the American Dream unfolding before your eyes."
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 5:22 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


With all due respect to the authors of this article, I think this problem is obvious to anyone who has spent time playing SimCity and realized that you can't grow a healthy city by aggressively expanding it. Eventually you run out of places to grow and you're still running yearly deficits.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:27 PM on May 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Today, if a company pulls up stakes, abandons a suburban location and moves into the central city (often doubling or tripling the commute time for its employees), the anti-American Dream doom-and- gloomers call it "economic revitalization," and they praise it. But if a company, a residential builder, or a family moves out into the suburbs, it's condemned by the anti-American Dreamers. "It's sprawl," they hiss, "it's bad." They demand new laws be imposed turning local control over to state government planners charged with discouraging, containing, shutting down, stopping and reversing growth outside central cities.

Well, that's a silly article. The only reason commute times are doubled or tripled is because of sprawl. Keep your company in its suburban location and you'll have a lucky few who have short commute times, while everyone else will be commuting from some other far-flung suburb or the city core. Why not redevelop already developed land instead of ever-expanding outward? More convenient for your employees, the City reduces its infrastructure costs, it's a win for everybody.
posted by LionIndex at 5:36 PM on May 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


(quote taken from link posted by wikipedia brown)
posted by LionIndex at 5:39 PM on May 8, 2012


To the doom and gloom crowd, "sprawl" ranks right up there with the plague, leprosy, and the French.

... I don't think I'll be moving to Oak County any time soon.
posted by kdar at 5:45 PM on May 8, 2012


What if I like the French? Or, for that matter, relatively easily navigable cities (like many in Europe)? You can keep your plague and leprosy, smart guy.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:47 PM on May 8, 2012


Yeah the 800 word essay long on rhetoric and short on evidence does not stand up very well to the meticulously argued document in the link. Still working my way through it, but I'm pretty well inclined to be on the side of anyone arguing that we should budget and plan carefully and responsibly.
posted by kavasa at 5:55 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Previously: Charles Marohn, Strong Towns, and the Growth Ponzi Scheme
posted by parudox at 5:56 PM on May 8, 2012


With all due respect to the authors of this article, I think this problem is obvious to anyone who has spent time playing SimCity and realized that you can't grow a healthy city by aggressively expanding it. Eventually you run out of places to grow and you're still running yearly deficits.

Clearly the problem is that far too few of our elected leaders have spent time playing SimCity.
posted by limeonaire at 5:56 PM on May 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


Sorry, I didn't mean to derail the thread, I should have provided some more context. The link I posted is an unabashed defense of sprawl from L. Brooks Patterson, the county executive of Oakland County, MI (very wealthy NW Detroit suburbs). Although attitudes about sprawl seem to be slowly changing, I posted it because it basically seems to encapsulate the suburban/exurban feeling about sprawl. People are socially and emotionally invested in this particular Ponzi scheme, which will make it extremely difficult to expose.
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 6:04 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was also going to say, this completely mirrors what my area's county executive said in an interview published this month, re: tax-increment financing for new shopping malls and other developments in the far suburbs. Building new shopping malls doesn't magically tap into an unlimited fountain of wealth; it just changes where the people with money go to spend it. (And even that doesn't always work.) So building new shopping malls with community subsidies is like robbing people twice, 'cause existing businesses are hurt when shoppers go elsewhere and everyone pays for the privilege with increased taxes.
posted by limeonaire at 6:06 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


We evolved quite definitely outside the modern city environment for millions of years before anyone ever thought to move away from centers of population density.

Considering a condition that necessarily predates urban existence, as some sort of "scam", denies reality in favor of a pathological modern myth.

Now if you want to talk about "suburban" communities in places that can't naturally sustain human life (ie, "suburbs" of Phoenix/Reno/AnyReclaimedDesertCity), we can go a bit futher; but the problem there has nothing to do with the "sub" part of "urb".
posted by pla at 6:09 PM on May 8, 2012


I used to think that all employees of our fair city should be given a copy of Sim City and four hours a week to play it. Because it can really get you thinking about the big picture issues in running an actual city.
posted by sneebler at 6:14 PM on May 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


If anyone wants to read a really eye opening account of post-WWII suburban sprawl in the United States I highly, highly recommend Adam Rome's "The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism".
posted by IvoShandor at 6:23 PM on May 8, 2012


I absolutely agree that sprawl is a Ponzi scheme; still, it seems hard to take Marohn's position as representative of fiscal conservatives. Fiscal conservatives are obviously interested in saving money for something and, in my experience, that something is a house on a half acre lot, a Chevy Tahoe and a nearby Wal-Mart with lots of toys. That's how we got to subsidizing this sprawl in the first place.
posted by Apropos of Something at 6:25 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dunno. Most of the cities I've been in are ludicrously expensive to run, corrupt and massively inefficient. Add into that pollution, noise and crime; slow, unreliable and overcrowded public transportation and neglected, overcrowded public spaces. This includes Boston, which is supposed to be a great city. I suppose it is, if you pull down 150k/yr, and don't mind raising a family in a two bedroom tenement apartment. Providence is flat out terrible.

Unlike Providence, the small coastal town I'm moving to doesn't seem to have a problem balancing its budget, paying the pensions of its retired employees, offering public services like water and trash pickup and new skateparks and a new library and roads in good repair. Its school system offers special education and a gifted program and a music program, and they just finished a brand new elementary school.

It does this with taxes that are higher than the farming community one town over, sure, but nowhere near as steep as Providence, which charges me more than a two grand a year in property tax just for my car, and precious little in public services. I also really enjoyed being turned away from the polls because they couldn't find my name in the roll of registered voters, and wouldn't let me look at the printout book to verify for myself. I couldn't help fix the place if I tried.

I believe smaller urban areas with smaller suburbs, and a lot more of them, with a more logical distribution, are a better idea than large cities surrounded by stripmalls and freeways.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:26 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Dear, that Oakland MI CE is an ass-hat. The sheer myopic, winner-take- all of the fleeing residents is so hard to fathom, GRAH.

People, every single city planner already has put in their time in Sim City, its the politicians, county execs and city council members who need their eyes taped open.
posted by stratastar at 6:31 PM on May 8, 2012


Slap*Happy: "I suppose it is, if you pull down 150k/yr, and don't mind raising a family in a two bedroom tenement apartment. "

Implying that living in a modern two-bedroom apartment is somehow equivalent to sleeping with 20 of your best friends in a cellar as the result of forced migration is, to be honest, kind of silly.
posted by Apropos of Something at 6:37 PM on May 8, 2012


pla, did you read the report? Or even download it? The things you're talking about are simply not relevant.

Slap, did you read it? I don't see any sort of suggestion anywhere in the report talking about trying to drive people back to the urban cores. They talk about things local governments should stop doing, as well as methods those governments should use to evaluate their plans. Like they should start asking questions such as "how much revenue will we need to maintain this improvement 20, 40, 60, and 80 years out? Is it reasonable to think that it will supply that revenue?"

The answers to these sorts of questions are going to be different in different places, but it seems true to me that we probably should start asking.
posted by kavasa at 6:43 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Consider this excerpt, for example:
Th e fi rst step is to compile a complete inventory of all infrastructures the community is currently obligated to maintain, their condition, an estimate of their remaining life and approximate replacement/maintenance costs. With modern GIS and database systems and a cadre of trained volunteers, most of this information is reasonably obtainable.

We call this a real Capital Improvements Plan to contrast it with the standard approach to CIP’s, which is more of a wish list of future projects than a balance sheet of the public’s future obligations.
Right? We're not talking about generalities of urban life vs. hunter-gatherers or your anecdote about how one suburb seems better than one urban area to you. These are specific recommendations, so unless you think it's a good idea for cities to have no idea what their maintenance costs are..?
posted by kavasa at 6:47 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Any community model that depends on cars and cheap gas for its existence is doomed.
posted by Go Banana at 6:49 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


We evolved quite definitely outside the modern city environment for millions of years before anyone ever thought to move away from centers of population density.

We need to build more caves.
posted by snofoam at 6:56 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Implying that living in a modern two-bedroom apartment is somehow equivalent to sleeping with 20 of your best friends in a cellar as the result of forced migration is, to be honest, kind of silly.

Regional dialect issue - here in Providence, a tenement is a wooden apartment house, either a two-or-three decker (two or three floors, usually but not always one apartment per floor), and usually side-by-side with hundreds of similar structures in dense neighborhoods. Some of them are quite nice (just not the ones I can afford).
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:58 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The things you're talking about are simply not relevant.

I was replying to this comment directly above mine, not the OP. Sometimes I get lazy and don't quote.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:02 PM on May 8, 2012


Cities are a network effect in action. The more people in the city, the better it is for your employment, business, dating, purchasing, social, etc opportunities, because you have access to more options. Activities that require multiple people or objects or information to be assembled are much easier if all of these are physically closer. Even if you're outside the city, it being there for you to take trips to it is a benefit to you.

The logical endpoint is mega-cities and the only reason we don't live in them already, is that proximity to so many people and things has mental and physical health costs. Broadly available internet helps a lot, in that everything is as "close" to everything else. I foresee more migration outside of cities as people become able to run more businesses and perform more of their employment exclusively on the internet rather than in person.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 7:13 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


L. Brooks Patterson, the county executive of Oakland County, MI

AKA the Grand Dragon of Oakland County. Not only a suburban sprawl apologist, but a guy who fought school desegregation all the way to the Supreme Court. But of course suburban sprawl and segregated schools go hand in hand.
posted by BinGregory at 7:13 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't think many people choose to build density. Hell, I don't think many people would live in a high density area if they had a choice (finance wise). They're being forced to, though, and they're kicking and screaming the whole way. Even here in condo-tower land.

Its just the way it has to be if you want to go with current population and consumption levels.
posted by Slackermagee at 7:18 PM on May 8, 2012


Hell, I don't think many people would live in a high density area if they had a choice (finance wise).

I don't think this is the case - I think it's a demographic thing. For the unmarried twenty-somethings I know, suburbs, the country, anything but urban is just death. They want nightlife nearby, restaurants nearby, crazy artist collectives nearby, they want to walk down to the corner store for the milk and on the way pass a guy on a unicycle, concert posters of upcoming shows, a dog in a side-car, and a woman wearing something they've never seen before.

By contrast, people I know who are raising kids, they want affordable multi-bedroom housing, a safe neighborhood, a car big enough for the kid-seat and assorted kid-emergency supplies because they prefer to the kids be driven to their destinations (and because the distances they need to travel are further in order to get the affordable large house), somewhere to park that vehicle, etc.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:45 PM on May 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


kavasa : pla, did you read the report? Or even download it? The things you're talking about are simply not relevant.

Better than that, I actually clicked through from TFA to the bogeyman-article the FP mentions!

And I stand by my original point. The fact that one particular style of Municipal-Industrial growth has problems doesn't reflect on the larger category of "people getting the hell out of Dodge" - For the simple reason that we didn't start in cities in the first place.

If you want to rephrase the problem as "developers incorporating as townships so they can expand with cheap munis count as a Ponzi scheme", I'll agree with you completely. The issue of surburbanism, however, has ethical baggage that, IMO, the TFA deliberately abuses to imply far more than it can actually defend.
posted by pla at 7:53 PM on May 8, 2012


Slackermagee, I will never again live in a low-density area if I have a choice, and neither will most of the high-density-loving city dwellers I call friends. Density means energy, variety, opportunity, interaction, stimulation, possibility. Dense places are lively places. Of course there is a sorting process: the people who actually like suburbs have presumably all moved away to them, and we never see them again, while the people who like density move closer in, so we see more of them and they become a bigger part of the social circles.

I'm puzzled by your suggestion that people live in downtown condos because it's all they can afford - my experience is that the downtown condos are the priciest homes available. I've always thought that a major reason people keep moving out to the suburbs is that it's all they can afford!
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:22 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's interesting that the ideas there really are fundamentally conservative, and largely boil down to having government resist taking too active a role in development. The thing is, there is always a strong incentive to make governments take an active role in the who/where/how/what in development.

In the end, sprawl happens largely because we want sprawl to happen.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:22 PM on May 8, 2012


The oldest, most dense neighborhoods in my city only use something like $80/unit of sewers and phone lines and road paving maintenance and so on; the new, suburban-ish, sprawl-y neighborhoods use around $120/unit. (I can't remember what the unit is ... road mile? acre?) The oldest neighborhoods have something like 12 houses/acre (and the housing costs there are very depressed); the middle-aged neighborhoods are around 6-8 houses/acre; the newest are 2.6 houses/acre -- and they're not on the street grid, they're all twisty and cul-de-sac-y, which costs more too. (For reference, both the local Sears kit houses and the local Frank Lloyd Wright house(s) are in the 6-8 houses/acre areas.)

Of course the newest neighborhoods have high home values that bring in high tax dollars, but their values are only around 5 times the home values of the oldest neighborhoods, and there are plenty of older neighborhoods with home values just as high for fairly comparable space (around the university where the profs live, or where the old victorian mansions are). There's no reason newer developments can't be dense, too, without even necessarily being right on top of each other. We're starting to have at least SOME pushback from politicians against developers who want to build these very sprawling neighborhoods that have higher home values, but cost a ton in tax dollars to maintain.

Just looking at busing costs for schools, our busing costs for newer neighborhoods are SO much higher than for older neighborhoods -- and the newer neighborhoods often don't have sidewalks, so it's not super-safe for the kids to stand out waiting for the bus. There are also frequently no crosswalks on the major arteries in the newer neighborhoods. And in the older, denser neighborhoods, a higher percentage of kids can walk to school -- it's within walking distance, and there are sidewalks, and the walk is human-scaled and not typically right next to a super-busy street. Going in and out of those cul-de-sac neighborhoods with 6 houses on a "block" is really expensive and repeats too many streets for efficiency.

We are looking at moving to a bigger house (we have two bedrooms, and four people), but it's really hard, because nothing in our neighborhood that's bigger than our house has come on the market since we've been looking (because people love this neighborhood and don't leave! The only houses that go up on the market are from retired people moving to nursing homes!), but it's really, really hard to think about moving to one of the newer, sprawl-ier neighborhoods where you can't walk to school, or church, or the park, or the library (okay, technically just the Bookmobile, but the entire regional library system will send interlibrary loans to the Bookmobile) ... and man, the Walgreens I can walk to just got a liquor license so I can walk to buy alcohol and I *just* found out we're getting a grocery store within walking distance like next year and that's the LAST THING I COULDN'T WALK TO.

"I was also going to say, this completely mirrors what my area's county executive said in an interview published this month, re: tax-increment financing for new shopping malls and other developments in the far suburbs."

Ugh, WTF, TIFs are meant for central-city and ex-industrial-area revitalization. WHY ON EARTH would you use it in distant suburbs? (Arguably it doesn't work anyway.)

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:25 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Hell, I don't think many people would live in a high density area if they had a choice (finance wise)."

As noted above, we live in a higher-density area by choice (it's clearly mid-density by larger standards, but it's fairly high-density for here), and we NEED a house with more bedrooms (at least differently-arranged space if not necessarily more space) and we've been looking for over a year and have seen some nice houses, but just CANNOT bring ourselves to move out of our fantastic, walkable, denser neighborhood.

I have two kids and, yes, a minivan (a Mazda 5! it's (American) teeny!) and before today I hadn't driven since last Wednesday. I only drove today to go to the fancy plant nursery on the outskirts of town for some unusual stuff I can't get at the garden place I can walk to. We walk to nursery school, we walk to the drugstore, we walk to the hardware store, we walk to the Bookmobile, we walk to the park, we walk to church, we walk to about half our playdates, we walk to our favorite greasy-spoon restaurant ... we can walk to five churches, three elementary schools (Catholic, public, & private Montessori), two playgrounds, a daycare, a nursery school, a fire station, a drug store, three fast food places, four locally-owned restaurants, and a bunch of other commercial establishments of various sorts. Next year we're getting a grocery store in walking distance! I have a 300-square-foot vegetable garden and a swingset. It's safe and shady with mature trees. When we drive, we mostly drive deeper into the downtown for kiddie classes and to watch trains and to go to the zoo.

Living in the suburbs means it takes forever to get anywhere and you have to drive everywhere and half the neighborhoods don't have sidewalks or mature trees. Why would I want to drive half an hour to get to the kiddie music class when I can live closer in, pay far less in gas and in home heating costs (smaller houses! mature shade trees!), get my street plowed way earlier when it snows, and be a 10-minute drive from everything there is to drive to?

Aw, dammit, I am never going to manage to move at this rate!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:43 PM on May 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


Hell, I don't think many people would live in a high density area if they had a choice (finance wise).

I'm pretty sure my 2-BR apartment could pay for every house on the entire suburban street I grew up on, and there's no way in hell I'd do it. Some people need lots of private space, while others would gladly pack their kids 2 to a room if it meant that parks, restaurants, and culture are within walking distance.

Nobody's saying that someone everyone must live in cities. We're just saying that all that space has real costs, and municipalities should figure out these costs as part of the planning process.
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:56 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


For the simple reason that we didn't start in cities in the first place.
This still seems just plain ol' irrelevant to me. I'm sorry if I'm misunderstanding you? It just seems like you're talking about something else entirely.

The suggestions the report writers make, if correct, can and should be applied by city managers at all population levels and densities. There may or may not be some consequences one way or the other as a result of doing things like taking the future maintenance cost of a development into account, but the report really doesn't talk about what those might be.

Alternatively: what snickerdoodle's final sentence said.
posted by kavasa at 9:16 PM on May 8, 2012


we didn't start in cities in the first place

First place? Even with the most disingenuous angle this seems ridiculous. Since humans left nomadic existence the primary form of 'civilization' has been cities.

While there have been increases in space-time compression through advances in transport and communications (most especially in 20th century US), people still find urban areas the most lucrative place to be (sorry the original article has eluded me).

As mentioned above much of this hinges on the fragile ability to maintain relatively priced energy (and outsource the externalities).

The central issue many here are fighting about is consumer preference.

Boston, which is supposed to be a great city. I suppose it is, if you pull down 150k/yr, and don't mind raising a family in a two bedroom tenement apartment.

The important part here is what's after "don't mind...". The real costs of this life style are going to quickly collapse on the average american. Ie, we'll all be living with less space closer to each other soon. Don't worry. By 'quickly' I mean at least a generation or two and 'average', I mean mostly not people on this site.

For the empathetic, of which I count myself, steering local government actors towards a vantage point (see below) that realistically evaluates the bearers of costs and benefits will ease the transition and brighten the future.

Burchell
Fishkind
Tischler
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 10:55 PM on May 8, 2012


The real costs of this life style are going to quickly collapse on the average american

To clarify, look at the total costs of housing + transport for the average American and you'll it's increasing past income at a rate second only to health services.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 10:59 PM on May 8, 2012


It seems to me that much of the attraction of the suburbs was focused on exclusivity. They were originally supposed to be exclusive to the credit-having, gainfully-employed, no criminal record, white middle class-- enforced by the banks' lending standards if not by restrictive covenants. If they required above-average public and private expense, it wasn't a problem, because the residents could easily pay. Indeed, it was a feature, because the poor literally couldn't afford to live there, or even physically get there.

Time took its toll, however. The walls were chipped away by anti-discrimination laws, by the section 8 program, the housing bubble which allowed everyone to get a loan, and finally the crash, which brought hard times to many who thought themselves immune.

The suburbs can't deal with poverty, but poverty may be coming anyway. When residents have trouble paying for gas, it won't be possible to get enough money from them to maintain public services-- and now the expensive design becomes a real problem. It was a fragile system, and it broke.
posted by alexei at 2:29 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


To clarify, look at the total costs of housing + transport for the average American and you'll it's increasing past income at a rate second only to health services.

And it's increasing faster in the cities.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:11 AM on May 9, 2012


they required above-average public and private expense, it wasn't a problem, because the residents could easily pay

See, that part there is not accurate. Perhaps the initial years could be covered by the first owners of new developments. However, the ponzi scheme descriptor really is accurate when you look at the real costs to service these new developments over time. This is even for even relatively wealthy demographics of owners.

This is besides the point that these people will always vote out local authorities who try to make them pay the real costs of their built form. The can gets kicked down the road repeatedly by the land speculators, the construction firms, the developers, the residents and the town officials.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 5:49 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


And it's increasing faster in the cities.


And to show this you're bringing up the post-Big-Dig financial hangover in Boston.

WHich is a huge expense Boston is paying for a highway that does not serve the residents of Boston.

Bad example there.
posted by ocschwar at 6:55 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


And it's increasing faster in the cities.

They don't elaborate on their estimation for 'non-housing' costs, but I'm going to guess their accounting either doesn't include major costs for suburbanites or it doesn't benefits to urban lifestyles. Specifically, I'm guessing, they leave out the factor we've been debating here: that many suburban communities ammortize their debt for services whose net cash-flow will never cover it.

It's kinda a no-brainer that housing in the city is more And to show this you're bringing up the post-Big-Dig financial hangover in Boston

The MBTA's funding problems originate in a structural fiscal trap set on them by ST legislature. It's the same strategy many federal programs suffer from in that they are not given a realistic revenue source.

...a huge expense Boston is paying for a highway that does not serve the residents of Boston

This deal was struck during the organization for the Big-Dig. The second part of this isn't entirely accurate though. The Big Dig is more of an urban design project than a real high way project. By those standards it's been an amazing success.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:14 AM on May 9, 2012


Bad example there.

It's not an example, it's the nearest major metropolitan area - and the minor metropolitan areas that are even closer by - Providence, Fall River and New Bedford - are in much rougher shape, fiscally and in terms of basic infrastructure.

So, not only are we to move back to the city to stave off some ill-defined collapse of civilization, we have to move hundreds of miles to find a city that's a "good example"?

"In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they're not" - Yogi Berra.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:09 AM on May 9, 2012


Hmm yes I wonder why cities would be in rough shape, fiscally and in terms of basic infrastructure, could it be because their tax base has fled to the suburbs?
posted by entropicamericana at 11:05 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Marohn has some interesting ideas and points to make, but I like the ones backed up by numbers more than the ones backed up by his assertions-from-principles. For instance, Strong Towns (or one of the other sites that publish his stuff) pointed me to this study comparing the tax-revenue benefits of a mixed-use site downtown versus a sprawl site. It was -- per square foot -- an almost incredible 100:1 ratio.

I think he unfairly characterizes the TIF (at least in certain of its state-by-state incarnations) as a "tool of the devil" that forces car-based development to occur. I don't see why a TIF financing model can't work with sustainable development patterns such as transit-oriented development.

While I buy the general idea that sprawl is far more expensive to taxpayers (in terms of sewers, streets, transit, and other services), I'm really uncertain I buy the idea that it's a Ponzi scheme in which new development finances old, except by the associative principle or monetary fungibility. I think this is less an issue of a "scheme" than a transfer of costs to the public (socializiation of losses, that OWS saw). If we could finance this development appropriately it wouldn't be a Ponzi scheme. In-the-wild example: When a local city planner pointed out that businesses on the fringe have to buy their own parking lots, a typical citizen concerned with the tax issue blurted out: "Why don't the downtown merchants have to pay for their own parking?!"

We also had really illustrative examples locally because of a municipal policy to put in streets for a development and charge the costs back to the property, in advance of construction, which left us with a long spur street that had only 2-3 houses on it when the developer went bankrupt, leaving taxpayers on the hook for the $2-3 million costs of construction. If not for the housing bubble/crash this might not have happened, of course, but then the model would never have come into question at all.

In short, I always think his ideas are interesting, but when you apply them to the real world I often have questions. He seems to be a prototypical instance of the intersection of the frugal/granola/sustainable culture with the bureaucratic/fiscal management/lower taxes culture, probably more common than you think but often politically isolated.
posted by dhartung at 3:13 PM on May 9, 2012


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