Cherrypicking the sprawl-bankruptcy connection

Bill Fulton has a piece in the LA Times where he argues that sprawl contributes to municipal bankruptcies. There’s so much wrong with his argument that I don’t even really know where to begin.

It’s easy to mistake a sprawling new development for prosperity. New buildings and wide new roads look great at first. But over time, the cost of serving such developments gradually bleeds taxpayers dry. More firetrucks have to travel longer distances to serve fewer people. So do police cars. And ambulances. And school buses. And dial-a-ride buses. And, up in the mountains at least, snowplows too.

This is not a terrible argument as far as it goes; density does leverage economies of scale in the provision of urban services, and so the cost per person goes down. The problem is the assumption that all urban services are cheaper to deliver via density–and that the marginal cost curve associated with service delivery continues to slope downwards with additional people. But that can’t be true past a certain point: using Fulton’s own example, a fire truck is also subject to congestion, which means at some point, the marginal contribution to delay that additional people bring can cause the service to slow beyond what gains to proximity yield–though it’s an empirical question about where that inflection point might occur, and whether most cities that might be more dense are anywhere near it. But that point probably varies for a whole bunch of municipal services. That was the goal of all the economics literature in the 1980s and 1990s about ideal city sizes. People have known for some time about the economic trade-offs between scale and congestion, the tensions between them, and how congestion of urban goods can act as a prompt for de-centralization.

Or, and this is one of our questions, how those economies of scale and marginal cost curves might change slope when cities get institutions large enough to unionize, or how and when collective bargaining attained through statewide public sector union activity acts as a particular problem for small-scale municipalities within the state.

Fulton is a smart growth guy. It’s what he does, so he just nods at pensions: yes, I guess that pension thing is a problem, but let me tell you about my pet issue: sprawl. But really? No mention of Prop 13 or the redevelopment money grab, and just a nod at the pension issue?

Then there’s the cherry picked examples: Stockton and San Bernardino, contrasted with his own shining Ventura, where he was mayor, which he happily notes is ‘not bankrupt.’ Come on. There are currently 3 cities in California that have filed for bankruptcy, and hundreds that, like Ventura, are not currently bankrupt, so don’t self-congratulate too much yet.

Both Stockton and San Bernardino are gritty older cities with struggling downtowns and dreams of urban revitalization. They have sometimes overreached in their zeal to achieve those dreams. Stockton in particular kept trying to rescue the city with grandiose redevelopment projects, none of which were within walking distance of one another and, not surprisingly, none of which succeeded.

Those redevelopments weren’t within walking distance of each other, and that was they reason they “didn’t succeed”? Not the fact that the developments were in Stockton? But if that’s the case, why do redevelopments in LA that everybody drives to walk around in ‘succeed wildly’ (like the Grove, the 3rd Street Promenade?), if by “succeed” you mean “they make a lot of retail cashola and generate an enormous amount of traffic.” You can’t walk between those, though, either.

FYI, the other city that is bankrupt is Mammoth Lake. Sprawled? Meh. What appears to have brought Mammoth Lake to its fiscal knees is…a conflict with developer trying to do one of those fancy new mixed use airport development. Now, in fairness, plenty of Smart Growth folks would guffaw at the notion that this resort town development was in any way sustainable, but it did have a bunch of mixed uses that went along with the airport expansion.

So here’s a story about Stockton that actually makes sense, from the HuffPo. It tells a story that is, indeed, related to the housing market, but also to the pension dodges that a cash-strapped city used to deal with unions and Prop 13. It’s a mess.

Here is a map of municipal bankruptcy filings of all city institutions (including school and park districts) from Governing. You can break out the whole-city chapter 9 filings.

Look, I’m all for the idea that it’s generally cheaper to provide infrastructure to greater population densities, but oye. Smart Growth is not medicine for every problem, even if ‘dumb growth’ doesn’t help.

Two picks from JUA suggesting that suburbs aren’t what planners think they are

Two picks from the upcoming issue of The Journal of Urban Affairs:

These are unfortunately paid links, but you might be able to find drafts if you look on Google. Please let me know in the comments if you do find a link to a free pdf.


ABSTRACT: This paper examines the location and growth of creative industries within metropolitan areas. In recent years, the creative industries have been increasingly sought after as potential engines of metropolitan economic growth. Although some research has been done on the location decisions by such firms and workers, it has primarily focused on interregional and intermetropolitan disparities. We use establishment-level data to investigate intrametropolitan (central city versus suburban) location and growth for creative industry establishments in 40 of the top 101 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). We compared the number of employees and total annual payroll in each location, and categorize them by region, population size, and creative employment growth. Findings suggest that although creative industries are more centralized, they are decentralizing faster than other industries in general, but this rate, and even the direction, varies widely across MSAs.


ABSTRACT:  A wealth of data drawn from cities and their nearby suburbs show that, consistent with place stratification theory, African Americans live in poorer quality communities than similarly affluent members of other racial groups. Yet, few have examined whether these trends are playing out in the rapidly growing exurbs, places that emerged in the post-Civil Rights era. Through a case study of African American migration to Los Angeles’s exurban Inland Empire, this article tests the applicability of place stratification theory by triangulating evidence from interviews with 70 movers with U.S. Census and American Community Survey data. Both sources reveal that the gap in neighborhood conditions among similar income racial groups is much narrower in the exurbs than inner city Los Angeles or its nearby suburbs, an outcome that participants attributed to the region’s rapid housing construction, relative lack of a history of who lives where, and resulting neighborhood diversity.

Declining suburbs: cause or symptom?

Last week I wrote about why I don’t think Chris Leinberger is correct in his assessment that the American suburb drove the financial crisis. I noted that increases in unemployment–there was some discussion about whether that increase in unemployment was particularly severe or not–revealed the fragility of credit markets, and thus the dominoes began to fall.

So I’m less convinced that declining suburbs are the reason for the continued lag in US employment after the crash and subsequent recession. This article from the FT explains why: Pay gap a $740bn threat to the US economy. Three points: a) new technology is replacing labor at a much more rapid pace; b) greater labor supply in general has depressed wages (there was similar discussion of wage decline after women entered the workforce in large numbers); and investment simply isn’t moving despite high profit-taking. That is, companies are cutting labor due to a) and b) and yet still posting large profits. Still, investment isn’t moving. In theory, investment should be available to help those laid off back to work in new endeavors, but if investment isn’t moving, it can’t do that. It smells of a saving trap not unlike Japan’s. Trickle-down theories only work if people who have the means to trickle do trickle rather than keeping the money in the old oak chest.

The saving trap problems adds fuel to the Keynesian fire. Sure, gummint spending may be less productive than private sector spending, but it (in the past) hasn’t had the same incentives that investors have faced and has (prior to our current problems) been able to take on risk that private investors eschew. Sparks are meant to work in both directions.

In the end, the long-term factors pushing down real wage growth whittle away the wealth available to people who would consume housing, both urban and suburban. Once easy credit dries up, it’s not hard to see why geographic locations where new homeowners have typically been able to buy, like suburbs, show decline.

I like the reasoning. No data to prove anything though.

Sprawl and decline, and reversing the directions of causation

Aaron Renn, the Urbanphile, has a post up arguing that cities are broke because of sprawl. Oh boy. Go read.

I have trouble believing that Buffalo is going broke because of sprawl. It’s such an extreme case of industry loss over the last 40 years that it’s hard for me to use it as an exemplar for any urban phenomenon other than “a place where the weather makes Dr. Schweitzer want her mommy.”

So what’s my point about the direction of causation? In a place like Buffalo, where populations began to decline due to employment loss and demographic shifts, land prices go down, and so larger lots become comparatively more affordable to the people there who remain a) employed and b) in the housing market. My friend who teaches in Rochester, for example, routinely sends me the absolutely beautiful homes she thinks about buying.

This is what you can buy in the Fillmore area of Buffalo for $115,000. SWEET CRACKER SANDWICH that’s a big honking house on a big honking parcel of land.

Voila Capture37

For comparison, I looked for comparable 3,800 square foot houses anywhere in the Bay Area, and it’s just not happening. I don’t know that market as well as I know LA, so looking there, I find this little darling (holy buckets) in Sherman Oaks:

Voila Capture38

Ok, apples and oranges, and all that, but still: $115K in relatively suburban Buffalo versus $1.5 million in suburban Los Angeles. Yes, wages are different, but I am pretty sure I don’t make 15 times as much as a university professor at SUNY Buffalo.

And in Buffalo, your suburban life really carries few transport-housing costs trades, either, because as population goes down, your travel costs go down (no congestion of any real magnitude). Fuel costs, yes, the costs that Buffalo winters take out of vehicles, yes, but time costs–low. The incentives for individuals in these places to consume land is nicely set, and the city/regional government is not in a strong position to implement growth controls when they are not growing.

I suspect that Detroit is rather like Buffalo’s story; decades of industry decline and outsourcing leave very few reasons for young people to stay there, or for immigrants to move there. Other than it’s cheap.

But Renn’s claim about Chicago is hard to reconcile. The Chicago metro area grew, and Chicago is a region with multiple urban centers (like most thriving metros).

The city of Chicago has been a darling amongst planners for doing everything right for past decade: they cleaned up their downtown, you can’t turn around without hitting a pedestrian walkway, public art smacks you in the eyeball every time you look up from your iphone, pocket parks galore, and they have invested heavily in every part of their transit. If that’s a pro-sprawl, laissez-faire central city government, I’m a size 2 (hint: I ain’t). So what’s up with that? Chicago usually ranks pretty low or moderate on sprawl indexes as well. So either those policies aren’t working, which is bad news, or something else is going on. According to one of the commenters, Chicago’s policy and planning methods haven’t had enough “teeth.” What teeth, exactly, can the city use to try to starve it suburbs? And how smart would that be? Most New Urbanist and Smart Growth tools are voluntary, incentive and amenity-based strategies. They are not widely implemented with teeth. How do you lay down an urban growth boundary when your city is surrounded by other cities? If you think regional governance is the answer, you have never ever attended a meeting at the South Coast Association of Governments.

The bottom line is that investments in infrastructure on the fringe of declining regions make little sense–that’s Renn’s major point, and of course he’s right–but I can’t credit his connection between being broke and sprawl. There’s probably a connection between tax aversion and suburbanization, but I don’t think Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo are suffering from the same urban malaise, unless that malaise is “too damn much snow for the human mind to fathom.”

If sprawl is the reason we’re broke, why are states having trouble financially? The Federal government? It’s not like they pay for water infrastructure to serve irresponsible, bloodsucking suburbanites.

Tired cliches, a bacon apology, bad social science, and sidewalks/foreclosures (again)

So there’s been a debate between Joel Kotkin, who is described here as an “apologist” for the suburbs, and Chris Leinberger. Do suburbs need apologists? Is that like being an apologist for capitalism? Can I be the apologist for bacon? Bacon is sorry that it is bad for you, but it is really so delicious.

Sorry, focussing.

Chris Leinberger, who is the director of the University of Michigan real estate graduate program, whips out a tired cliche about the social sciences which makes me angry enough to want to move to the suburbs, learn to drive, buy an SUV, and do nothing but drive it all day–just to annoy him as much as this annoys me:

This happens all the time in social science research. It is best reflected in the story of a drunk who staggers out of a house late at night, dropping his keys near the front steps. He walks the 20 feet to the curb by the street light and starts looking for his keys there. A friend asks him why he is looking there since he dropped them at the front steps. The drunk replies he is looking for the keys by the curb because that is where the light is. Social scientists look for answers where the data sets are, not always where the “keys” are.

link: Walking — Not Just for Cities Anymore – Up Front Blog – Brookings Institution

Or, alternative to what “happens all the time” in social science research, advocates trot out this tired drunk guy-keys-streetlight analogy “all the time” when they are confronted with theories and analysis that contradict their ideology. And as we all know, the absence of evidence is always reason to assume that what I think is totally right.

And you know what else is cool about whatever it is I think? There’s a silent majority that agrees with me. All. The. Time.

This analogy is insulting, tired and wrong. If Leinberger and the people he runs with don’t collect data suited to answer their research questions, that’s what we hereabouts call “bad social science research.” Yeah, it exists, sure, just like there are bad doctors. But there’s a difference between good and bad social science–and in particular, between bad and good policy analysis.

To Leinberger’s points:

There’s demographic evidence; there’s consumer research evidence; but probably the most compelling evidence is the price premium people are willing to pay to live in a walkable urban place, that the survey’s show anywhere from a 40% to 200% price premium on a price per square foot basis for a walkable urban place as oppose to a competitive near by drivable suburban place.

link: Christopher B. Leinberger – Brookings Institution

First of all, if housing that has amenities like sidewalks and nearby businesses and transit aren’t still going for higher prices, I’d have to start over in life because something like that would turn urban economic theory in ways I can’t fathom.

So even with the recession and price adjustments, places with amenities are still higher in price than places that don’t have amenities. OK.

And centralized locations “have a price premium” over places on the fringe. Again, OK.

These two things are pretty standard urban economic fare, and why Leinberger pronounces them like they are major new evidence about recession consequences and new markets is a bit mystifying.

Let’s try a couple of thought experiments to see why none of this walkability stuff probably has all that much to do with the recession or being underwater, in sum. What if every region were a New Urbanist dream? Absolutely everywhere in our theoretical New Urbanist region is densely populated, mixed use, walkable, and served by public transit. There is nothing but high-rise condos in this regional market. And every condo is sold in units of 1,000 square feet. If you want more, you buy more units and knock walls down.

In that case, would there be a “price premium” for walkable neighborhoods? No. Why not? For the same reason that one neighborhood doesn’t have a national defense price premium over another, or a premium for unobstructed views of Saturn’s rings. In Lamont, IA, where you can walk from one side of town to the other in 20 minutes, everybody’s got the same walkability and urban amenity set, and none of the houses carries a premium value for sidewalks. Everybody’s got sidewalks, and the 5 minute difference between your walk to the library and my walk to the library is irrelevant. Everybody has the same access or lack of access to these amenities, and thus differences in value derive from other things, like garages, fireplaces, etc.

Then in our ideal New Urbanist region where everywhere is a walkers’ paradise, let’s introduce some toxic ideas in the mix: lack of real wage growth for decades and the subsequent problem that Americans have been spending and borrowing too much for decades. Add some smart and unethical people looking for ways to make people who are actually getting poorer feel richer and come up with the idea of loosening up credit markets even more.

Let’s throw some dumb buyers in the mix and a deregulated system where dumb buyers’ risks can be passed from institution to institution, profitably.

So are suburban locations just plain inherently and essentially riskier because they aren’t walkable and don’t have that amenity value? Or did lower value land on the fringe provide both a) the opportunity to buy big houses and b) something for dumb buyers to buy, like stock for internet companies with no business plan 15 years ago?

If we had lived in a New Urbanist world with toxic lending and dumb buyers, wouldn’t we just be having the same conversation about underwater condos right on the urban growth boundary that we are having now about underwater McMansions on the urban fringe? So dumb buyers overbought land in bubble regions; couldn’t and wouldn’t they have overbought location or lofts just as easily in an ideal New Urbanist region?

It shouldn’t surprise us that places with high prices and high amenity values also have fewer problems being underwater: those are places where demand is high and supply more restricted. I could probably replicate the “walkability and foreclosures findings” with other urban amenities, like wonderful schools or golf courses. Investing in place–whether through sidewalks or design–had damn well better be reflected in home values. If not, you are supplying things that people don’t value. The fact that amenities raise home values doesn’t win you any arguments–because perhaps we’d have an even higher bump from different urban services than walking. (I actually think walking/sidewalks/mixed uses are a cheap improvement, but when we get into expensive stuff like HSR, this counterfactual becomes important.)

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Le Smart Growth, Les Infill, Les Do-Gooders, and Les Locavores in the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture

C’est la nécessité d’un développement auto-centré, afin de favoriser localement une architecture plus économe, plus intelligente. Le besoin est ressenti dans nos pays développés: l’architecte Patrick Bouchain ouvre des chantiers d’insertion à Tourcoing, travaille avec des entreprises locales… Les coûts baissent, la qualité est mieux assurée, et le chantier contribue au re-développement de son bassin. En Afrique, il s’agit de sortir d’une économie coloniale d’importation des produits, pour aller vers l’ouverture de filière économiques et remettre en place un cercle vertueux de développement endogène.

link: Au Sud, il faut construire une ville d’un million d’habitants chaque semaine – Le : Supplément partenaire

Take a look at the full article to see the discussion of those honored, including an American, Steve Baer.

Alejandro Araveno is one honoree, whose work is exciting and not as well-known outside of Chile as it should be, is a nice blend of social policy, planning and design. His work focuses on helping impoverished families pool and maximize the very limited housing aid they receive to assemble parcels or established property rights. He then helps them design a skeleton structure which they then build. The structures are intended to be modifiable as families change. Very interesting work. You can see some of his work here.

Black Lung Lofts: Infill and Neighborhood Exposures to Ozone

LA Weekly’s article about a month ago summed up a problem that has bothered me for years: the problem of exposure to poor air quality at the neighborhood level resulting from infill. LA Weekly’s article coined the term “Black Lung Lofts.” Forthcoming in JAPA is:

Neighborhood Air Quality, Respiratory Health, and Vulnerable Populations in Compact and Sprawled Regions – Journal of the American Planning Association

Problem: Recently, public health researchers have argued that infill development and sprawl reduction may improve respiratory outcomes for urban residents, largely by reducing vehicle travel and its attendant mobile-source emissions. But infill can also increase the number of residents exposed to poor air quality within central cities. Aside from emissions studies, planners have little information on the connections between urban form, ambient pollutant levels, and human exposures or how infill changes these.

Purpose: We examined neighborhood exposures in 80 metropolitan areas in the United States to address whether neighborhood-level air quality outcomes are better in compact regions than in sprawled regions.

Methods: We used multilevel regression models to find the empirical relationship between a measure of regional urban form and neighborhood air quality outcomes.

Results and conclusions: Ozone concentrations are significantly lower in compact regions, but ozone exposures in neighborhoods are higher in compact regions. Fine particulate concentrations do not correlate significantly with regional compactness, but fine particulate exposures in neighborhoods are also higher in compact regions. Exposures to both ozone and fine particulates are also higher in neighborhoods with high proportions of African Americans, Asian ethnic minorities, and poor households.

Takeaway for practice: Compact development and infill do not solve air quality problems in all regions or for all residents of a given region. Planners should take differences in neighborhood air quality and human exposure into account when planning for new compact developments rather than just focusing on emissions reductions.

Research support: This project was supported by a grant from the ShenAir Institute at James Madison University and by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Author Posting. (c) ‘Taylor & Francis, 2010.
This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Taylor & Francis for personal use, not for redistribution.
The definitive version was published in Journal of the American Planning Association, , June 2010.
doi:10.1080/01944363.2010.486623 (