Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Intro to Urbanism, Part Four: Fiscal Urbanism

This is post number four in my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”.  It’s my attempt to increase the knowledge of readers who have an interest in urbanism, but may be insecure in their current familiarity with the subject.

In the first post, I described my reasons for writing this series of posts and acknowledged my modest qualifications for the assignment.

In the second post, I wrestled with a definition and synonyms for urbanism.

In the third and most recent post, I noted the number of contemporary land-use challenges, from greenfield preservation to climate change to municipal finances, that can be addressed, at least partially, by urbanism.  And from the answers to those challenges, I noted that urbanism is generally comprised of two elements, sufficient density to meet community goals and strong non-automotive transportation options.

Today, I’ll begin exploring the concept that I called “fiscal urbanism” in the last post, the possibility that urbanism can help alleviate the financial distress being felt in many city halls in the 21st century.  Admittedly, “fiscal urbanism” is a term I coined for the last post, but it’s shorthand that the proponents of the concept would likely accept without hesitation.

However, I must admit some trepidation about wading into this subject.  StrongTowns has been a leader in highlighting the financial flaws in the suburban land-use paradigm and the opportunities of urbanism to address the problem.  I belong to StrongTowns and follow their work regularly.  If I were to give a complete review of the justifications for fiscal urbanism, I’d be largely repeating, probably ineptly, the positions laid out by them.

Instead, I’ll give an overview of the topic, note a few of my own thoughts, and then highlight StrongTowns in the post-Intro syllabus that I’ll offer a few posts hence.

Also, I find that even an overview requires more words than I had anticipated, so the last part of the fiscal urbanism discussion will be deferred to the next post in this Intro.

Fiscal Urbanism: Reduced to its essence, suburbia is expensive.  Between construction of the additional infrastructure required to serve an increasing far-flung world, the long-term maintenance of that infrastructure, the cars and gasoline needed to navigate the suburban world, the home and yard maintenance implicit in moving from an urban apartment to a suburban home, and many other factors, our pocketbooks have been squeezed by the rise of suburbia.

That is not to say that suburbia is the only element of life that is more expensive now than it was 70 years ago.  As one example, we now demand greater environmental safeguards, a demand that has costs.  (That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have upgraded our environmental protection, only to note that the change didn’t come free.)

As another example, technology consumes a portion of our paychecks that no one expected 70 years ago.  High-definition televisions and frequent smart phone replacements cost far more than occasional wireless purchases.

Faced by increasing financial pressures, perhaps including growing income inequality, although that topic lays outside the scope of this blog, people looked for relief.  Not paying for the costs of suburbia was an easy solution.  Among the strategies available were rejections of tax hikes, ballot initiatives to cap property taxes, and fees imposed on new construction that are nominally for new infrastructure, but often get spent to fix existing problems.

A more honest intellectual response would have been to acknowledge that, among the other options on which we could spend our paychecks, we’d prefer not to spend money on sprawl.  But instead we choose to continue to building suburbia, while looking for justifications and stratagems not to pay for it.

Proof of the inefficiency of sprawl can be tricky.  It’s well hidden within a multitude of funding programs, such as intergovernmental payments, and deferred costs, such as underfunded public sector pensions.  But StrongTowns has done well at identifying indications of the problem.

First, StrongTowns notes that the per acre tax roll assessments are far greater in every downtown studied than in the urban fringes.  So downtowns are effectively forced to subsidize sprawl.

Also, as of a couple of years ago, Chuck Marohn, the StrongTowns founder, noted that the accumulated highway maintenance reserves for the entire U.S. were roughly equal to the accumulated maintenance needs for California highways only.  So we’ve been building a transportation system without a plan to maintain it.  (Given the concerns over the gas tax funds, I imagine this situation has worsened recently.)

Third, StrongTowns notes that the amount of public and private debt has soared since World War II, indicating a problem of keeping up with the costs of modern life.

I have several more key points to make on fiscal urbanism, but I’ve claimed enough of your attention for today.  I’ll conclude the discussion when I next return to the Intro.

Next up, I’ll give myself a little breather from the task of writing the Intro.  Instead, I’ll offer thoughts on the next episode of “The Planners”, a BBC show on land-use planning.

(Note on the photo: The building is 555 Hudson Street in Greenwich Village.  It was from a window on the second story that Jane Jacobs watched streetlife and reached the urbanist conclusions that became “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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