Saturday, July 2, 2011

Too much space and the pyramid scheme of sprawl

Near Piramide Metro station in Rome.

An abundance of space would seem to be an advantage. It could be, if we had the self-control to use it properly, but we don't.
We've found ourselves on a treadmill of growth. Developers built some infrastructure, in order to sell some homes.
'Great, free roads' says the municipality. Then eventually the infrastructure needs maintenance, which the city is responsible for. Unfortunately, the tax base to pay for the repairs can't (ever) cover the cost of maintaining these all investments.
Municipalities get this money by continuing to grow. Development expands the tax base so that the municipality can pay for current maintenance. There's lots going on, though, so it doesn't seem this clear while it's happening.
It's almost impossible, politically, to resist this sort of immediate boost to revenues, especially if the treadmill's going faster and faster. However, it comes along with a time bomb: all the new development will also need to be maintained. It's the same problem as the first time, but multiplied. So you do it again. 
Pyramid schemes work really well for people at the top, but defraud people at the bottom. As the global debt crisis continues to spiral out of control, we're finding out where the bottom is.
Having lots of space entices us to squander the investment in our cities that could have gone to development instead of growth. Building at the edges is easy and cheap, but being a great city is sometimes at odds with being cheap and easy.
Smart municipalities focus their development efforts on revitalizing their core rather than continuing to squander civic vitality building at the edges.
Short election cycles make this a tough sell though, because the payoffs of sprawling development are quick, but the 25 year maintenance costs are too far away to impact current decisions.
In cities that are spatially constrained you see the vitality, the walkability, and the density that makes great cities. They also stand a better chance at financial solvency because they have a tax base supporting less infrastructure than they would have if they'd built at the edges.
We can do better, but only if we're willing to escape from the pyramid scheme of continuing suburban sprawl. It won't be easy, but it's that or get crushed by the pyramid.
We need better cities, that's clear. Increasing densities is part of that. We've got the space. What we need to develop is the self control to leave that space alone.
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