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Rational Response #4: Establish Service Areas

Americans today have the choice between three different lifestyles: rural, urban and suburban. These are the same choices that have been available throughout history but, until we blurred the differences in our Suburban Experiment, those choices meant something very different.

As our governments cope with economic transition, those differences need to matter once again.

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Rural areas are for the pioneer. The hearty. Or for the infrequent getaway. Growing up on a farm along a little road distant from town, we knew that the fire truck was not going to get there quickly. If there was an injury on the farm, the ambulance wasn’t going to arrive in seconds or even minutes. When it snowed, we weren’t going to get plowed out as quickly as those in town would and, in fact, we may have a number of days where we weren’t going anywhere. That was okay; we made due. We never saw a policeman, rarely heard from the local government (zoning?), but we knew when all the neighbors were bringing in their hay. Our cellar was full of vegetables, the shed full of split wood and a loaded shotgun sat behind the door. It was a really good life I feel fortunate to have enjoyed.

Urban areas were for a completely different type of person, someone wanting to live in a totally different way. There the ambulance would show up right away. In fact, the hospital was just up the street for many places. The policeman patrolled the streets. There was shopping and parks and schools, all within walking distance. I had many friends who lived in the city and, while their life was very different than mine, it was also pretty good.

Prior to the Suburban Experiment, suburban areas contained a unique blend of people. I would call them upstarts, although they could easily be called the poor. In the traditional development pattern, the core of the city contained the most valuable land and the more affluent would congregate in the surrounding neighborhoods. On the edge of this was where the poor lived. This was the pre-automobile version of walk-until-you-qualify. As the city continued to mature, the forces of incremental growth would be directed inward, upward and outward with the latter being where these upstarts would be able to make modest investments that could grow over time. This was where you got the tiny house that could be added on to when the kid was born. It was also where the slums would sometimes coalesce. When things worked out right – when the party was good as Ian Rasmussen described – things got incrementally better for everyone.

To start responding rationally to the complex set of problems we’ve created, we need to actually reestablish a relationship between the productivity of the place and the services that we are able to provide. This means looking at our community and clearly spelling out geographically where those high service areas are. It would look something like this in my hometown of Brainerd, MN.

Here’s how I would distinguish each area.

In other words, where we have places that are financially productive – where the traditional development pattern is being used to create, capture and grow the wealth of the community – those are the places where the collective investment (taxes) can support the lifestyle choice of those choosing to live there. This would be true in urban areas where service demands are high and in rural areas where (and this is important) service demands are low.

In the places in between, where the pattern of development simply does not support a high service level, there the services become more al-la-carte. We will keep your taxes low – we’re not going to ask you to subsidize anyone else – but we also can’t subsidize the lifestyle that you’ve chosen for yourself. We’re not going to rip up your street, but when it falls apart, we’re also not going to fix it. You’ll need to do that. We’ll come out there with the fire truck, but we’re going to charge you for that.

In short, we’re creating a system that more closely correlates demand for services with willingness to pay. Someone moving to a community, understanding these different service levels and tax/fee structures, can choose the situation that best suits them.

Now I grasp that there are some practical problems here with the tax system. In most cities, you can’t establish different taxing areas and charge residents in different neighborhoods a different rate. Today any city can pretty much do the rest, and in a future rational response, we’ll talk about some changes to the tax code that would help cities align their service demand with the productivity of their development pattern.

And it should be said: those property owners in the fee for service areas that want to be designated high service areas can easily do so. They need to agree to a development pattern that includes continuous, incremental growth (there will be no process providing them an opportunity to oppose that accessory apartment next door or that coffee shop up the street) and pay a much higher rate of taxes.

One final note on the poor and disadvantaged in our communities. My greatest apprehension with our current pattern of development is that, after the transition that a lack of financial productivity is forcing upon us, it is the poor that are going to be trapped on the edge of each community – just like they have been for thousands of years – only here in North America it will be in suburban areas with horrible transportation, public safety and health provisions. That fear should not keep us from responding rationally to correlate willingness to pay with the provision of services, but it should prompt us to ensure that our urban areas continue to offer a broad range of price points within a financially productive built environment.


Welcome to all of you who are just discovering Strong Towns. In addition to the blog, podcast and TV channel here, join us on the Strong Towns Network for some additional discussion on this post and more.

And if you'd like more of my work, check out my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

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Reader Comments (13)

Fascinating! I have thought about surcharges for service on culs de sac or non-connected neighborhoods (tied to the extra expense of providing services like snow removal as well as infrastructure maintenance costs), but nothing on this scale. My biggest concern is the creation of private towns within cities. If infrastructure, parks, and services are privatized, what tie/commitment do these areas have to the community and what prevents these areas from imposing regulations which may increase the inequality?

I would like to avoid privatizing public services while finding alternative strategies for pricing which allocate costs fairly and transparently. What if home buyers could easily see what costs their choices included? The price guide would include the land, the structure and then the charges for service/infrastructure. Then, in my utopia, banks would lend money after taking the cost of maintenance into account.

Thanks for provoking much thought!

October 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBetsey Buckheit

Be careful what you wish for...


October 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Question: I don’t understand why on the table the financial productivity of rural areas is categorized as High, while their taxes are categorized Minimal. Why does that make sense? If taxes are minimal, how can the financial productivity be High? I can’t recall where on Strong Towns the financial productivity of rural areas is discussed. Most rural town governments don't have a lot of money, right? They would have $$$ if their financial productivity were high.

Related: I was surfing on-demand shows this weekend (wasteland!) and found a show about people moving to Alaska. I thought that might be interesting, but what I found was just another house buying show. The couple shown might have been buying a house in any US city, except the roads were unpaved and the houses much further apart. They wanted it all---all the appliances and conveniences and a big 2K-3K sqft house. I thought…’huh! that’s what moving to Alaska is about?!’ If the show is any indication, large sections of Alaska are moving toward (or already at) an exurban drive-to-Walmart model. Something must be subsidizing that infrastructure and lifestyle. I'm not sure what.

October 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpeter from Boston

@PeterCook....you're going to need to explain yourself or I'm going to assume you are making a typical nanny-state argument by taking the anomaly, projecting it as the typical then calling for government action to combat it. Typical orderly but dumb, so explain the point you are trying to make, please.

@Peter from Boston....truly rural areas (farms, forests, etc...) are very financially productive. They don't pay a lot in taxes but they also require very little in services. Of course, the urban/suburban approach has crept into a lot of rural areas and so, while the tax rates have only increased slightly, the service demand has skyrocketed (paving rural roads is really expensive, and unnecessary from a farming/logging standpoint). If we treated our rural areas as truly rural as I describe in the narrative, they are high yielding, but that is largely a function of the low service costs.

October 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

An alternative to this would be to provide the same level of services throughout the city but charge increasingly higher taxes the further you get from the denser core of the city/town. Your model would essentially be this--but with the services highly privatized.

October 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScott Jones

I have been thinking about this type of thing for months and months. This is where successful places are heading but getting to this model of service is going to be very difficult politically and culturally.

My personal focus has been on the political rhetoric that will allow communities to transition to this style of governance. There will be, as there seems to have always been, haves and have-nots. I think it is too utopian to try and eliminate poverty, - and this type of policy will create big pockets of impoverished former suburbs. The scale of that impoverishment is going to depend on how we view poverty and wealth and how the local government reacts to its need to reign in long term maintenance obligations.

I feel like the transition is going to be managed with a "DIY rugged individual" branding that will help suburban households to integrate things like composting toilets, rainwater harvesting, grey water landscaping, intensive gardening, etc. These households will still require a few household members to get jobs but the idea is to allow people to extricate themselves from needing cash and goods to live a high quality of life. Unfortunately, this type of transition will not work for a lot of places - where housing was built in inhospitable locations to make a cheap buck.

As far as planning tools go, I think some permaculture experts developing a map of the areas most or least conducive to semi-independent suburban living (like a flood map or an earthquake hazard map) will help direct insurance companies, financiers, and local governments towards the areas that are most likely to succeed without municipal water, sewers, roads, etc.

This lifestyle will quickly be abandoned by a lot of people - but the ripples of formerly entitled people losing all their wealth as well as their self images and status in society could flip the ship of state upside down. I think the rhetoric needs to be honed to allow people to see the benefits of true independence and to downplay some of the very real downsides so that we can avoid the unrest that will continue to bubble up around the contracting of city services.

October 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJosef Bray-Ali

Charles: lack of fire protection has externalities. There's a reason we have to provide it nationally and universally -- even in national forests. (Though it's done a bit differently there, with controlled burns.) That was "Peter"'s point by making the link to the Guardian article: some things, like fire protection, some level of police, and communicable disease control, *must* be provided on a national, universal scale in order to work right. There are a bunch of other things in this category. (Local streets, local electrification, local utilities are not in this category -- if a guy in a rural area has a dirt road and a well, not a problem -- but fire protection *is*. If a guy in a rural area starts setting fires and they spread across the forest to the city, PROBLEM.)

You have some nastily stupid libertarian tendencies. Get over them. Hint: if you use the word "nanny state", you're probably being a complete and utter idiot.

October 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanael

Charles, when I worked for my state's Local Technical Assistance Program center, we used ~150 vehicles per day as the break even point for paving roads. It varies, of course, with soil types, weather, traffic, etc., but above that, a gravel road needs to be regraded every few months. A low volume paved road should last years between major work.

An important point you may be able to work into your message is it is far cheaper to keep a good road good through minor resurfacing or chip sealing every five years or so than it is to do major reconstruction every 20. Yet guess which strategy is more common?

October 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterZ Fechten

@Nathanael, I realize why the fire thing might be confusing to people outside of the US. We have volunteer fire departments here all over the place. In fact, my hometown has one. It is a fire department and so they respond to calls and have decent response times, but it is staffed by (paid) "volunteers" and not a full time staff. Where I live we can't afford a full time staff and so this works just fine. So, I'm envisioning an approach where they have fire protection, it is just provided differently (volunteer instead of full time, fee for service instead of communal tax).

I find it interesting when people throw out the word "universal" as if it has some functional meaning in a place that is bankrupt. Fire protection in Detroit is "universal" but if you read Charlie LeDuff's book Detroit you'll find that doesn't mean much. Tell me how you would economically provide "universal" in a Ponzi scheme and then we'll have a discussion.

And you can call me a complete and utter idiot -- you're reading my blog, ironically there -- but only someone with serious nanny state tendencies looks at a map/system where the vast majority of people live in a near communal situation and call that "libertarian".

October 29, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Chuck, I support your rational response of service areas. I track with your transect model of rural, urban, suburban. But your table doesn't seem to fit my metropolitan area. Are we that different from one another? Or is your table too specific to Brainerd? Am i misunderstanding it? My curiosity is piqued. To take this idea further, you might work with more "local experts" from various cities to flush out the model, draw the lines on maps, and apply the table criteria. That might help spread the Strong Towns Rational Response.

October 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLawrence Andre

Actually, we don't provide universal fire protection. In unincorporated areas of Ohio, the fire departments will try to reach any house fire, but if a house is not individually subscribed and paying for the service, they will only intervene to save people and to keep the fire spreading. They will not put out a fire that is not spreading. It's a harsh thing to do, but in a lot of Ohio the unincorporated status of many subdivisions has nothing to do with remote location and everything to do with developers cutting corners.

October 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOmri

To respond to Peter from Boston--recall the Law of Large Numbers, and the way it governs behavior as one approaches infinity. Two very small numbers (think x x 10^-n) divided by one another yields a large number; this is why rural areas, even with their limited absolute productivity, are highly productive relative to services required; the required services are also infinitesimally small relative to their urban brethren. It's like how (1x10^-2)/(1x10^-10) yields 1x10^8 (try it on Wolfram Alpha): two very small numbers, divided by one another, yielding a very large number.

October 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve S.

While I like the idea of turning the contrast back up between urban and rural lifestyles and the infrastructure required, the suburbs are still a grey area. I think the implementation and implications of fee-for-service fire and police coverage would have to be very carefully thought out to be humane, equitable, and financially sound. I am not sure that it can be. It might be better to have a sharp divide, and let areas either densify or space out.

I can imagine a fee-for-service structure being very bad for poorer dysfunctional households, where there is verbal and emotional abuse, and sometimes the kinds that leave marks on your skin. Say the abusee calls the police, only the police can't legally do anything, or the evidence isn't solid enough and the abuser returns to the household. The abuser will make the caller regret their action, or an abusee may be too leery of such a scenario to call in the first place. How much worse will these situations be when the household knows that every call to the police will result in a fee they can't afford and that the abuser can use as an excuse for more abuse?

October 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWyn
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