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.
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:
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.