Suburban sprawl is a radical, government-led re-engineering of society, one that artificially inverted millennia of accumulated wisdom and practice in building human habitats. Charles Marohn
In the recent article The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs Charles Marohn (@StrongTowns) takes on the awkward relationship between conservative Americans and cities. He questions why conservatives not only perpetuate myths around the suburban experiment but also cede urban issues to the left. Like Peter’s post on Monday this The American Conservative piece is a response to geographer Joel Kotkin’s love letter to the suburbs in Why Suburbia Irks Some Conservatives.
Marohn cites the federal largess of central government programs- the FHA, Fannie and Freddie and the interstate highway system – all of which have underwritten and subsidised the smudging of cities over the landscape.
The sad reality is that, despite the marketing, the suburbs were never about creating household wealth; they were about creating growth on the cheap. They were born under a Keynesian regime that counted growth from government spending as equivalent to that coming from private investment. Aggressive horizontal expansion of our cities allowed us to consistently hit federal GDP and unemployment targets with little sophistication and few difficult choices.
That we were pawning off the enormous long-term liabilities for serving and maintaining all of these widely dispersed systems onto local taxpayers–after plying municipalities with all the subsidies, pork spending, and ribbon cuttings needed to make it happen–didn’t seem to enter our collective consciousness. When all those miles of frontage roads, sewer and water pipes, and sidewalks fall into disrepair–as they inevitably will in every suburb–very little of it will be fixed. The wealth necessary to do so just isn’t there.
He also questions why conservatives tend to entrench the notion of an urban left and a rural right when cities could benefit from a closer look at inefficient market distortions.
These are places that have been abandoned to the left for decades. Many urban dwellers are hungry for better government. They want a more responsive bureaucracy. They favor unwinding many of the stifling regulations and perverse subsidies that have built up over the years. They are angry with the political patronage systems run by a governing class that has been unchallenged for decades. Why would conservatives cede this ground so easily?
Strongtowns has been covering a wide range of transport and urban issues over the last several years including some highly critical pieces on the traffic engineering profession, transportation economics, and street design. During that time I never considered their work to be following a particular left/right political paradigm.
I’ve written a few things inspired by the Strongtowns aproach. Below is a diagram calculating the property value of various land development types (land value+capital value)/area. Note how poorly suburban/horizontal/car-based typologies perform compared to traditional land developments (see for example the Onehunga Mall property). This is how the ponzi scheme of suburban car-oriented development pencils out. Atlantic Cities wrote a great piece calling this “the simple math that can save cities from bankruptcy” which describes the thought process:
We tend to compare buildings to each other, without looking at their unit value. This would be like comparing the fuel economy of the tank of a Ford F-150 to the tank of a Prius. We don’t shop for vehicles that way, because that makes no sense. We look at miles-per-gallon, not miles-per-tank, because tanks come in all different sizes. We should look at buildings, Minicozzi argues, the exact same way.
In a country where many people derive income come from land productivity, it seems that this approach would resonate. But maybe not. One example is Westfield (malls) pleading in the Unitary Plan hearings to maintain minimum parking regulations.
Parking minimums, set at reasonable and appropriate levels, are essential to ensure that sufficient parking is provided for identified activities and localities.
Such regulation, requiring spatially inefficient development, ensures that the return on public investment – roads, pipes, footpaths – remains very low.
Here’s another example. This 3D graphic illustrates property values (land value+capital value/area) not height. The new, modest, 4-story apartment block (Ockham Building) has 13 times the property value as it’s neighbours (mostly one-story stand alone homes). This property value also translates to rates which for the most part fund ongoing road maintenance but also city services like community pools, libraries and berm mowing.
This above image was cross posted to Facebook and someone (I assume) with a “conservative” disposition said:
It probably generates more than 13 times the cost involved to provide additional council services – plus additional congestion costs!
Lets take this comment at face value. Here is a project that has few car parks, is located on a frequent bus line, next to rail station, and within cycling (if not walking distance) from the largest concentration of jobs in the city. This part of town has a very active mode share and the shortest journeys to work averages (0-6km). Worrying about congestion in this context is a failure to understand the spatial implications of congestion mitigation (see image 1 above) or a very optimistic expectation about vehicle travel time contributing to economic productivity.
As far as the additional council services – I don’t know the specific impacts that 20 additional households has on existing schools or the pipes under the street, but a recent Council study has determined that attached dwellings are only 60-80% as costly to serve. (link)
Overall it seems very likely that 20 households in an existing neighbourhood close to the city centre in the space of 20 meters is much more cost effective than serving the same across 200m in a greenfield scenario. And it seems reasonable, and even fiscally responsible, that someone should do this math.