Sprawl & Sustainability
Highlights and analyses of remarks made by 2015 Smart Growth Summit speakers Peter Calthorpe, Chuck Mahron and Chris Leinberger regarding the effects of sprawl on financial and environmental sustainability.
Sprawl & Sustainability
At the 2015 Smart Growth Summit, LOCUS President Chris Leinberger shared this alarming statistic for the U.S.: “For every 1% of population growth, we’ve seen land use consumption jump 6-8%.” Chuck Marohn and Peter Calthorpe’s Summit presentations also provided rich analysis and evidence that the transportation infrastructure and sprawling development patterns driving this exponential growth in land consumption threaten both the economic and environmental sustainability of our state.
It wasn’t always this way …
To provide some historical context, Chuck Marohn, Founder and CEO of Strong Towns, explained that, “cities for thousands of years have been built around and scaled to the dominant transportation mode. It used to be your feet; now it’s the automobile.” Marohn suggests that the narrative of progress that is generally assumed may not apply when we examine the impacts of drivable suburban developments that locate homes farther and farther away from places of employment and other frequent destinations. While walkable places in which housing, retail and employment are in close proximity to one another is a form that has been tried, tested and proven over thousands of years, the current style of development – sprawl – is relatively new. Baton Rouge has, however, mastered this new form as of 2014 when the city gained the dubious distinction of being the most sprawling midsized metro in the U.S.
We are only beginning to fully understand the full range of financial, environmental and health impacts of sprawl on our towns, cities, countryside and residents, but we know that it means many jobs and housing options are accessible only by car; that the long-term costs of the infrastructure required to service suburban communities far exceed our ability to pay; and that long commutes and lack of transit are major contributors to reduced economic mobility, negative environmental impacts, sedentary lifestyles and diminished quality of life.
We can’t afford sprawl
Peter Calthorpe, author of Urbanism in the Time of Climate Change and a founding member of the Congress for New Urbanism, reminds us in his Summit presentation that even though there are costs associated with changing the status quo, “doing nothing is very expensive” – sprawl “weighs down economies.” The fiscal ramifications of sprawling development are felt by municipalities, regions, businesses and individuals alike. Taxpayers pay more to maintain roadways needed to connect workers to far-away jobs and provide water and sewer to far away homes. Businesses, individuals and the regional economy bear the costs of long commutes and limited access to employment, services and workforce.
In his compelling presentation, “Smart Growth for Conservatives,” Chuck Marohn demonstrates that the rate of growth required in order for sprawling development to be financially viable over the long term is simply impossible. The funds required to maintain the miles and miles of infrastructure built to serve a relative few suburban dwellers will never be recouped from the tax base. Sprawl is, Marohn quips, “a growth ponzi scheme.” The returns looks good on the front end, but over the lifetime of the development, the municipality is on the hook for maintenance expenses that will outstrip both residential and commercial tax revenues by staggering margins. Marohn provides the results of a recent study conducted in Lafayette, Louisiana as an example: “A typical resident pays $750 a year to the city [in municipal taxes]. In order to maintain everything the city has committed itself to maintaining, that bill would have to be over $8,000 a year [per household]. That’s not going to happen.”
Leinberger also demonstrates how high transportation expenses and the related opportunity costs affect households. Amidst what he describes as “essentially a domestic policy that mandates residents must own cars and drive, the average U.S. household spends 25% of their income on maintaining cars. Dropping one car will save a household approximately $9200 per year. Translated into mortgage capacity, that’s an increase of $150,000 that you could invest in an appreciable asset such as real estate, rather than a depreciable asset such as a car.” This is of particular significance for those who have limited opportunities to build wealth. On the other hand, Leinberger’s research also suggests that dense development that provides connectivity, transportation options, and access to jobs creates real opportunity for residents – he shows a direct correlation between walkable urban places and higher levels of income and education.
Leinberger’s presentation includes examples demonstrating that walkable, urban developments create lasting value for municipalities, as well. “On a price-per-square-foot basis, walkable urban real estate in all categories financially outperforms their suburban counterparts by wide margins. For instance, office space in walkable urban areas costs 134% more than its suburban counterparts; hotels, 120% more; and for-sale residential, 90% more.” These places create more tax revenue for the municipality in direct proportion to their higher values. Leinberger made sure to point out that high-value walkable places are not only to be found downtown – they can be “downtown adjacent, urban commercial districts, districts anchored by urban universities, suburban town centers and even redevelopment of commercial strips.” Similarly, Marohn’s research shows that even blighted commercial main streets generate more tax revenue than big box stores or other commercial uses situated on large lots with expansive parking.
Dense – or “intense” as Marohn calls it – development creates value for both municipalities and households. Walkable urban places are not everyone’s first choice, but as long as demand is exceeding supply, we should be working to provide the options that provide the greatest return on investment.
Leinberger spoke to the primacy of transportation in shaping development patterns and the importance of getting it right: “Of 15 infrastructure categories, we know who’s first among equals – transportation. It’s the transportation system that dictates development.” The design of our transportation systems affects far more than just how we get from point A to point B. In conjunction with land use policy, it goes a long way towards determining how far our homes are from jobs and essential services, and the character and sustainability of those places. The interstate highway network that we rely upon to facilitate easy connections between suburbs, jobs and urban centers is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain as it ages, while also becoming increasingly ineffective as it induces additional growth in outlying areas and thus additional demand for capacity that requires interstate expansion. A lack of viable alternatives to car ownership and a lack of connectivity between workforce housing and jobs curtail economic opportunities for families and individuals, and eventually hamper economic development on a regional scale.
Sprawl & the Environment
A smart growth approach that directs development towards core areas with existing infrastructure not only supports financial sustainability – it also supports environmental sustainability. Sprawl costs taxpayers for the added infrastructure and transportation expenses, and for the related environmental impacts. Increases in emissions, energy consumption, and waste; heat island effects; habitat destruction; loss of permeable landscapes; and depletion of resources all culminate in liabilities to our health, safety, economic wellbeing and quality of life. According to Calthorpe, transportation-related emissions account for the lion’s share of greenhouse gases and are the fastest growing source of emissions globally. The joint effects of land subsidence and sea level rise in our state make reduction and mitigation measures even more urgent for our residents, businesses and future generations.
Furthermore, as Leinberger points out, cities simply can’t afford to protect sprawling city borders from flooding and other disasters that call for coordinated defenses and response systems. Having the systems and resources in place to protect our cities and towns is key to resilience, but as cities sprawl, our ability to protect them from flooding, severe weather events, and other natural and manmade hazards diminishes drastically. Leinberger estimates that in South Louisiana, we can only afford to protect between 20-30% of our land, and thus he maintains that future growth should be concentrated in walkable urban places that are capable of covering their own expenses and creating wealth for households and municipalities.
Calthorpe acknowledges that climate change is a politically divisive issue. This is certainly true in Louisiana, a state that trends heavily conservative – but we’re not alone. Calthorpe observes that, “In most of the world people don’t care about carbon, and they’re not willing to focus on climate change because it’s just too painful and challenging. [Instead,] they’re concerned with earning a living and getting their kids through school.” The good news is that when we employ smart growth principles, economic opportunity grows and “we solve climate change as a bonus.” Calthorpe’s scenario planning tools and analyses demonstrate that a smart growth approach prioritizing walkability, bikeability, transit, infill, mixed use zoning and deep connectivity between regional hubs results in significant reductions of vehicle miles traveled, land and water consumption, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, as well as major savings in infrastructure costs, large increases in revenues to cities and towns, and improvements in public health.
However, Calthorpe also warns us that behavior changes will be required – especially among those whose carbon footprint is the largest (i.e. U.S. residents). He cautions that the popular notion that “we won’t have to change our lifestyles, our cities or our habits” because “technology will save us” and do all the work of reducing emissions and stalling climate change simply isn’t true.
Especially given the lamentable condition of much of our infrastructure and the equally dismal state of our budget, we should be supporting mixed-use infill development, redirecting investment to our core areas, and identifying opportunities to retrofit suburban areas with greater densities. Marohn delivered the hard truth: “As long as we continue to build in a way that is functionally insolvent, our cities are going to be insolvent. We have to start having a conversation about how we can build financially productive public places.” Calthorpe surmises that, both economically and environmentally, “the way cities succeed in the future is through smart growth – not sprawl.”