An engineering firm (McClure Engineering) recently conducted a study in the Des Moines suburb of Norwalk which led them to conclude that suburban-style, auto-oriented development is not fiscally sustainable. Of course, this is something that we, at Strong Towns, have been saying for years. But it's good to see others (especially engineers) are waking up to it too.
With infrastructure crumbling, and limited resources to repair and replace it, decisions about which projects have highest priority and how to pay for them loom large for many cities.
For years, experts have been warning that catastrophic failures in roads, bridges, dams, sewers and water mains are inevitable without dramatic increases in capital spending, and many believe the low-density suburban landscapes we've created over the past 50 years are rapidly becoming unsustainable as infrastructure repair costs begin to exceed the tax revenue generated by these neighborhoods.
At first glance, a neighborhood with fewer large homes valued at $600,000 to $900,000 might look more fiscally sustainable than a neighborhood with more modestly priced homes.
But Jeff Schug, director of transportation services for McClure Engineering, said a study his firm conducted in Norwalk, Iowa, (a suburb of Des Moines) suggests the opposite is true. In fact, a more expensive, less dense, development will find it much more difficult to generate enough property tax revenue for maintenance and replacement of its infrastructure over time, when compared to a high- or medium-density neighborhood of more modest homes.
Indeed. Under our spread-out style of development which requires extensive pipes, roads, electric lines, and every other type of infrastructure needed to sustain a city, property taxes generated by the homes and businesses in these neighborhoods are typically unable to pay for the enormous costs of maintaining that infrastructure. As the Sustainable City Network article points out, this is contrary to what many people think. Bigger, more expensive homes, and bigger, more expensive developments should be creating more value for our towns than small buildings and homes, right? Not when you look at that data on a per acre scale.
"I was surprised to see that our neighborhood was so much more valuable on a per acre basis when compared to the neighborhood with the big-dollar homes.” People tend to think, incorrectly, that very large homes and commercial development are the key to sustainable growth, Schug said.
“That is why I advocate looking at the value of a development based on the value per acre, or the value per dollar of infrastructure. There is only so much land available, and cities need to maximize their income from that land to operate the city,” he said.
Schug's report fixates a bit on density, a metric we, at Strong Towns, find flawed. But nonetheless, to hear an engineer recognize and publicly state that the suburban development pattern is not sustainable and won't pay for itself is significant.
(Top photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)