Photo by  Nathan Rupert

Photo by Nathan Rupert

It’s 1962. A new developer has a big idea: He’s eyeing a piece of land on the edge of his city. It’s just empty fields right now, but he wants to fill it with new houses.

So the land is platted and the construction crew begins building roads out to these future developments. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are poured into these new roads. Next come the pipes, laid out in neat lines to each empty plot—more dollars spent. You can just imagine the beautiful homes that are about to be built, and you can smell the money that the developer’s going to make on these homes, plus the new tax dollars that will fill the city coffers, all without the city paying a dime for the roads or pipes.

Once the houses are built and down payments are paid (thanks to subsidies and credits from the federal government), the families start moving in. One family comes from the inner city: growing up, they never had a yard, much less a swimming pool. But now they’ve got acres of space, plus a little playground on their quiet cul de sac where the kids can play. It’s perfect.

Ten years later, the children are entering middle school. Hundreds of dollars from the family’s budget are going to lawn care, to pool cleanings, to water bills every month—water that’s running through those pipes recently built just for their home. Dozens more dollars each month pay for the family’s weekly visit to the gas station, which fuels their trips into town for work on those recently paved roads. They knew their mortgage payments would go up when they moved into this house, but they didn’t realize how many other expenses would be added to their monthly budget out in this suburb.

Twenty years later and we’ve got millions of private dollars spent to build the homes, millions of individual dollars spent to live in the homes, and it’s time for the public dollars to start rolling in. The roads need to be repaved, some of the pipes have burst, the playground looks outdated…

Where is the money to pay for these fixes though? The suburban government was counting on big tax dollars coming from all these new homes, but it hasn’t played out that way. Local leaders thought they were getting free roads and pipes from the developers, but now they’re looking at maintenance bills they can’t possibly afford.

So they kick the can down the road a few more years— they patch the biggest potholes and remove the defunct playground equipment. The families with wealth—who are dissatisfied with the direction the neighborhood's headed in—pick up and move to the newer subdivision one town over, taking their tax dollars with them.

Just as the neighborhood is beginning to seem less desirable and a little more shoddy, an opportunity comes along for the city: A grant from the federal DOT will allow the municipality to build a new four-lane road that runs near the sub-development and around the center of town. It’s a win-win for the government because they get new infrastructure for a very low price (they just have to contribute 20% of the construction costs) and this new road will surely induce development along it. Their concerns about the maintenance of existing streets, pipes and public spaces are quelled by this windfall, and the costs for maintaining the new road surely won’t materialize for several decades. By then, all that new highway-oriented development will be paying the bills, right?

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

The Growth Ponzi Scheme in Action

This is the Growth Ponzi Scheme in action. The Suburban Development Pattern paints this illusion of wealth—new homes and fancy lawns for the residents, new tax dollars for the government—but in the end, it actually robs the community of its wealth.  

For many suburban residents, as we’ve demonstrated this week, that means a decline into poverty. What happens to the family in our little story? The kids grow up and move out of the house—away to more prosperous places we hope. Meanwhile, the parents are left in a big house that they don’t have the energy to maintain. Their modest incomes during their working years (after all, this development was billed as “affordable luxury”) have left them on a tight budget in retirement. Plus their property taxes are increasing in a last ditch attempt by the local government to start paying for overdue infrastructure maintenance.

When the father loses his driver’s license because his vision has deteriorated, he’s left relying on rides from his wife or the unreliable bus system just to get groceries or visit a friend. One day soon, this couple would like to sell their house and move into a senior home, but the value of the house has decreased so much that they’re don’t think they’ll be able to afford it. So they’re stuck.

Their neighbors—young and old, new residents and long-time residents—are having the same struggles, and local government and nonprofits offer little help. As property values decline, these suburban homes become more affordable to low-income families, and we reach a concentration of poverty in a place that is designed with none of their needs in mind, while wealthier Americans have moved on to a shiny new suburb or a revitalized urban core.

Suburbia is a massive experiment, and millions of Americans are finding out that it doesn’t work. The numbers don’t add up for these families, and suddenly they’re behind on their mortgage, barely able to put gas in their cars and living in poverty.

What’s more, none of the surrounding neighborhoods or towns realize what’s going on. The disconnected nature of the suburbs—winding streets detached from one another, few public gathering spaces, little interaction with neighbors on the sidewalk or in public transit—makes it hard to see the poverty that might be affecting a family just blocks away from you. And that family might be in denial about it anyway.

A Strong Towns Approach

A glance at The Strong Towns Approach shows just how many ways our suburbs are failing at strength.

  • A Strong Town relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects… Subdivisions are the definition of large, transformative projects. They take an empty field and pave it, shove it full of pipes, and plop down house after house on it in a matter of months.
  • A Strong Town emphasizes resiliency of result over efficiency of execution… A great deal of American suburbs were never built with the future in mind. They were built to satisfy an immediate desire—new homes—in an efficient manner—insert identical houses here—with no plan for how they could live into a resilient future.
  • A Strong Town is designed to adapt to feedback… Exactly what sort of feedback is present in a system where you build new roads and pipe before homes or buyers exist, let alone have a plan to pay for them in the long run?
  • A Strong Town is inspired by bottom-up action (chaotic but smart) and not top-down systems (orderly but dumb)… Post-war suburbs are the very definition of top-down; a collusion between the top-down federal government subsidizing the creation of new single-family homes and top-down large developers doing the work to get them built, with municipalities putting their stamp on all of it.
  • A Strong Town is obsessive about accounting for its revenues, expenses, assets and long term liabilities (do the math)… See our Growth Ponzi Scheme series for insight into just how little math has been done on the suburban development pattern.
The suburban development pattern promises to make us rich, but in the end, makes us poor.

The suburban development pattern promises to make us rich, but in the end, makes us poor. And what’s worse, that poverty is happening in an environment without affordable housing options, without affordable transportation choices, without nonprofits or government agencies to assist.

It’s an environment built for one type of person: a middle class family with time, energy and reliable finances. 

It’s an environment built for one type of America: an America with economic prosperity, cheap gas and endless government money for infrastructure.

That America may have been real once, but it isn’t the case in most of our nation today.  In order to start moving towards prosperity and offering a better option for those stuck in suburban poverty, we need to start building Strong Towns.

If you value our our in-depth of analyses of the forces at work in this nation of suburban decline and poverty, please support us by becoming a member of Strong Towns or making a donation so we can continue this important work.