The cost of America’s inefficient sprawl
July 31st, 2012
05:31 PM ET

The cost of America’s inefficient sprawl

By William Fulton, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: William Fulton is vice president for policy and programs at Smart Growth America, and a former mayor of Ventura, California. The views expressed are his own.

Earlier this month, Global Public Square addressed a critical issue at this moment in American history, as towns and cities nationwide look to bounce back from the recession.

“Why are U.S. cities going bankrupt?” is a question everyone should be asking, but the real answer isn’t necessarily as straightforward as the one Fareed Zakaria suggested. Or perhaps it might be even simpler, depending on how you look at it.

It’s true that pensions are an increasingly visible strain on city budgets. As the former mayor of Ventura – a California city that is not going bankrupt – I can attest that rapidly rising pension costs are a huge problem. But there are other, more fundamental factors driving cities to bankruptcy. Dealing with the underlying causes of poor revenue creation and out-of-control debt accumulation is a more nuanced – but ultimately more effective – solution to our country’s economic woes.

The way in which we plan and build our towns and cities has a direct impact on how well they do. Financial resiliency and prosperity is woven into the very fabric of cities. Where businesses go, where houses go, where roads go, where sidewalks go, where farms and natural spaces go – all of these things collectively affect a community’s economic performance and the cost of providing services there. Put things closer together, the services cost less. Put things farther from each other, the services cost more for the jurisdiction and its taxpayers. But in the case of many American towns and cities, we haven’t always planned and built in this fiscally conservative way – and that’s one of the biggest reasons why cities are struggling today.

When sprawling new development happens, it’s easy to mistake that for prosperity. New buildings and wide roads look great when they first meet the eye. But over time, distant development costs more, gradually bleeding taxpayers and putting the hurt on municipal budgets.

Think about it. Every time a new, spread-out subdivision is built far away from existing infrastructure, somebody has to pay for a bunch of roads that serve a small number of residents. And sewer and water lines too. And fire trucks that must travel farther to serve fewer people. And police cars. And ambulances. And school buses. And dial-a-ride buses. And – in many parts of the country – snowplows.

The cost is enormous. One study in Charlotte, North Carolina, found that a fire station in a low-density neighborhood serves one-quarter the number of households and at four times the cost of an otherwise identical fire station in a less spread out neighborhood. That sort of inefficiency adds up and multiplies as you take into account the hundreds of services cities must provide. What seems cheap on the one hand isn’t always when you look at it over the long haul.

Cities can sometimes stay in the black temporarily by approving new development and getting new revenue to pay for the costs. But that’s really just a Ponzi scheme. When a real estate bust hits – as it did starting in 2008 – there’s no more new development to subsidize sprawling development, and cities start to run in the red. That’s partly what happened in Stockton and San Bernardino.

There’s no silver bullet to fixing financial issues, especially ones as endemic as those facing America’s towns and cities. But planning for the long-term, investing in existing communities, building in a fiscally prudent way and examining changes to real estate market demand are essential first steps.

Balanced budgets don’t just happen. They happen because someone took the time upfront to check the costs and to evaluate what we can afford and what will add the most value. When we do a better job building with the future in mind and investing in what matters, rising pension costs and other secondary concerns will be more manageable.

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Topics: Economy • United States

soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. jnpaget

    Reblogged this on Noodles & New Urbanism and commented:
    Hear, hear! Ventura's mayor talks about what really makes a town go under: sprawl!
    "The way in which we plan and build our towns and cities has a direct impact on how well they do. Financial resiliency and prosperity is woven into the very fabric of cities. Where businesses go, where houses go, where roads go, where sidewalks go, where farms and natural spaces go – all of these things collectively affect a community’s economic performance and the cost of providing services there. Put things closer together, the services cost less. Put things farther from each other, the services cost more for the jurisdiction and its taxpayers. But in the case of many American towns and cities, we haven’t always planned and built in this fiscally conservative way – and that’s one of the biggest reasons why cities are struggling today."

    July 31, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
  2. It's

    The sprawl happens because the rich people don't want to live by the poor people. The poor people are so beneath them. Therefore, they create gated communities further out from the center of the city so they don't have to look at all those poor people. Then they whine and whine about getting their taxes raised so the city can service them further out. And they cry, "We want more tax breaks so we can create jobs in India and China."

    August 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Coogar

      Neat story, but really not true. Sprawl comes in all shapes and sizes. There are plenty of middle class beige boxes on the fringes of nearly every American city. In many cases, old neighborhoods closer in are unaffordable to middle class families, so they opt for the bigger, cheaper house outside the city. Sorry to bust your narrative.

      August 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • fantasticiquattro

      Yeah, that’s it. (rolling eyes).

      The only thing you have proven with your post is that you are a bigot. Congratulations.

      August 1, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Zoglet

      Your not wrong buddy.

      Notice how the detractors follow the same script?Namely their game is to reduce the impact of your statement by either making asinine remarks or else focusing on diluting the accurate point you make.

      Rather than acknolwedge the common ground (in this case that the over- privialedged are a burden on city resources) the attempt is to nulify this obeservable reality by diverting attention instead on the middle classes. Thus is the myth perpetuated that the middle classes interests are those of the uber wealthy. It also insulates the rich from critisism.
      Shame its an over played technique.

      August 1, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • nyaon

      it's not just the rich as someone points out. the middle class indulged housing boom in the suburbs too.
      they want to pretend to be rich.
      mortgage tax deduction and excess of credits encouraged this inefficiency. American cities need to be reinvested while personal households need to adjust to small, condensed apartment types of housing. it would be good for the environment, too to be efficient.

      August 2, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • bribarian

      blah blah rich people, tea party, palin

      August 4, 2012 at 12:56 am |
  3. Nikoletta

    Well said (and written), Mr. Fulton. Fiscal planning is something the average tax payer assumes is being done on the forefront. I am that average tax payer and thinking of the various new developments in our neighboring cities and looking at then much differently. I sat with a client who is retiring from the city of San Bernardino-she is doing so before she planned and fearful of what she can now expect going into retirement. As a financial advisor, it makes it difficult to help families plan around a collapsing pension.

    August 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  4. Quentin

    Good article. But there are many other reasons urban sprawl is bad for our society. Such as energy inefficiency and increased air pollution resulting from longer commutes. And what about the irrevocable loss of natural beauty destroyed by these so called developments? Doesn't "Mother Nature" matter to us anymore? What kind of environment will we leave for our grandchildren to enjoy? Most cities have plenty of available property to build or rebuild upon. Why expand our urban footprint when we don't even maintain the areas we've already claimed? It's pure insanity fueled by disrespect, ignorance, and greed. Everytime I see a new construction projects start on undeveloped land it deeply saddens me.

    August 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • fantasticiquattro

      Quentin, while I see merit in your points I also have to point that burgeoning populates sometimes demand we expand. One must also account for an increase in crime in heavily populated areas. Then there is the pollution. The environment loses either way, Quentin.

      August 1, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
      • patiat

        And when people demand houses with a minimum of 2500 square feet, even if they're only a family of three or four, on a very large lot, development can only sprawl outward.

        August 2, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
      • rosspatton

        Crime is at it's lowest rate in decades. What high crime? The environment might suffer either way, but it certainly suffers a lot less when you build on infill in a city instead of on unclaimed rural land.

        August 16, 2012 at 1:14 am |
  5. Ed

    This is a rediculous position to take...that city folk should be blaming everyone that lives outside the city for their economic issues. Try placing blame where it really belongs...bloated welfare rolls, free college tuition for illegals, corrupt politicans taking outrageous salaries on the back of tax payers. Your rediculous positon amounts to pointing over the horizon and saying "they did this"...when in reality you need to look in the mirror.

    August 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • nina

      Ed do not forget about the free medical for the illegals.

      August 1, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  6. fantasticiquattro

    Reblogged this on A Potpourri of Nonsense and Stuff and commented:
    This is an interesting piece. I have read about how cities with large swaths of emtoy neighborhoods have taken to shrinking their cities to reduce costs. Youngstown, Ohio is one that has done this. Detroit has started the process of doing this. It is only sensible that when you have a spread out city that it would cost more to service it. Consolidation makes perfect sense.

    August 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  7. Lost

    How about having wealthy suburban and rural areas pay tolls before entering city areas to work? One of the most harrowing things I've witnessed is that the money from the best paying jobs leave the city everyday, leaving those who are just within walking distance from city jobs without sufficient resources to build up the city economy and infrastructure. Our cities (especailly inner city), are blighted because businesses aren't making the connection and communication possible to open a dialogue to help those who suffer in city life. Without buying and investment power provided by higher paying work, it's also difficult to attract investment opportunities. It's high time to start returning the wealth that working in the city can provide. In response to one of the above commentaries about poor people....there is nothing wrong with "looking at, living near, or talking to" poor people. Naked I came into the world, and naked it go out.

    August 1, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  8. Aaron Chaney

    Romney vs. Frankenstein (Obama)

    Put simply, better the devil you don't know. Vote Romney.

    August 2, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • But

      But we DO know Robme. He off-shores jobs and hides his money in off-shore accounts to evade taxes.

      August 2, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  9. EVN

    Sprawl and the lack of efficient urban planning has a long history in America. The super highways built during Eisenhower's era made commuting longer distances possible, and added to the hasty decline in public transportation that could efficiently move people. Roads cost plenty, as does all of the infrastructure and common sense tells you that the further anything has to go the more it will cost, both initially and in maintenance costs. We need to build smarter, and maybe this recession and the toll it has taken on municipallities will finally do that.

    August 2, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • neo

      that's probably true, even though interstate highway system was a good thing for America. unintended side effect, i guess.
      i hope American infrastructure could be improved for 21th century like they have in other advanced nations, too.

      August 2, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
  10. kc

    Kudos to Fareed on this artical,this is an issue that I brought up at a town meeting when devolopment of a high rent appartment complex went up in our ranch home community.All the town planners would talk about was the pros of development,but none of the down the road costs,such as the way it caused flooding for homes on lower ground. Too many officials want devolpement feathers in thier cap, but it often goes with corprate profit warm fuzzy promises, but taxpayers flip the long term expenses. Revamping,or rebuilding run down existing structures needs to become a new focus,and it doesnt require dozing outlying areas that have potential recreational draw. This also means less expansion of water ,sewer and power grids,with maintaining quality of life,for urban and rural communities.

    August 3, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  11. kamarasune

    I see U.N. Agenda 21 is still alive and kicking. What they are really trying to pitch here is "we can do it better if only everyone would give up their property rights"...

    August 3, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • MummyMEI

      Wow, that conspiracy theory is alive and well still eh? Woulda thought it would have died out in the face of logic and fact by now.
      This has nothing to do with property rights or Agenda 21. It has to do with the real costs of sprawl development. In many cases municipalities have actually been subsidizing this form of development over the years (tax payers subsidizing the provision of services to these spread out developments, while the developers take the profits – not fair to anyone except those who engage in land development). Even after the infrastructure is in, those who live in more compact, closer in communities continue to subsidize the provision of services to these developments through their taxes. How is that fair? What about THEIR rights? Do those who chose to live out in fringes have a right to steal from those who don't?
      Those who benefit from it (the developers) should pay the FULL cost of providing services to their project (why should the rest of the tax payers subsidize their profits?) and the residents who chose to live there should pay the FULL cost of continuing those services. Simple and fair.

      August 13, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  12. bribarian

    California going down the drain. Liberalism, open borders, free money to everyone, who would have thought?

    August 4, 2012 at 12:58 am |
  13. Robin Jones

    To take Fulton's position to its logical conclusion, we should all live in a tightly-packed city in massive concrete apartment buildings, with each apartment sized at about 150 square feet per person, and 4 apartments sharing a single kitchen and single bathroom. Private vehicles would not be allowed, to force everyone to use cheap public transportation. Very efficient! That would make it possible to keep paying city officials enormous salaries and giving them multi-million dollar retirement plans without so much strain on public finances.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • Z. Prometheus

      You are stating an extreme hypothetical scenario that few people are actually suggesting. We can live more compactly and efficiently without having to live in an overcrowded concrete jungle. I got news for you buddy, the world isn't a black and white series of extremes.

      What exactly is your solution? The same old status quo arrangement? Sorry, not gonna work in the long run.

      August 10, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  14. Mike Moskos

    The guys at make this same argument. They have a great podcast on ITunes.

    August 10, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  15. dannydeh3

    Government intervention in land use, through height and minimum setback restrictions, segregation of commercial and residential use of land, minimum automobile parking requirements (rather than maximum automobile parking of 0), impact fees being too low for low-density land use and too high for infill, and basing property taxes on land and building rather than land alone makes it more profitable for builders to build outward rather than upward.

    August 10, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  16. Josh

    Common sense at work. Sprawl also fosters sentiments of xenophobia, economic elitism, and close-mindedness a-la Tea party republicans. If republicans are so adamant against big government spending, they should see that smart planning is important. Of course, they aren't against government spending in general, just spending that doesn't benefit them.

    August 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  17. Joseph McCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007 ©™/Joe Collins/J. Foster Dulles/Marine5484

    I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti American, anti GB, anti semite, anti India, anti modern anything because I am a good moooooslem. I steal people's monikers because I am so ashamed of myself and post the most stupid comment. When people get angry with me, I claim insanity. I am the same guy.

    August 18, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  18. Jackqueline Barra

    It is appropriate time to make a few plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I have read this post and if I could I wish to recommend you few fascinating things or advice. Perhaps you can write next articles relating to this article. I wish to read even more things about it!

    September 22, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
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