Losing Essential Services to the Suburbs is Bad For Everyone

Now that my city’s downtown area is starting to thrive, we’re facing a new problem: the suburbs are trying to “steal” the best parts of downtown and move them to the outskirts. In the last several years, Provo, Utah has dealt with a barrage of attempts to move centrally-located public facilities to unwalkable, suburban (and even undeveloped) areas.

In 2016, the school board moved our downtown high school from a central location with a walkscore of 65 to the edge of suburban development with a walkscore of 3. The move had major consequences for the city and required the creation of new roads and infrastructure. (The old, centrally-located campus is now a parking lot.) Even after the public outcry that followed, we’ve been overwhelmed with similar attempts to relocate public facilities.

Last year, a group advocated to move the City Center (with administrative, municipal, and police departments) from its old home on the city’s main Center Street to the vacant Sears building in a struggling mall on the south end of town. Stopping the proposed move required a significant, months-long investment of time and effort from concerned citizens.

Currently, the Provo School Board is attempting to relocate yet another school, Dixon Middle School, from its central city location to a lot in an undeveloped area of the suburbs. Downtown students who can currently walk or bike to school would have to be bused to the new location or take on a treacherous route that includes a 7-lane intersection, 3 sets of active railroad tracks, and a tunnel under the interstate freeway. Some of these roads do not have developed sidewalks.

Some residents in the suburban area have argued that the situation is only fair. If suburban kids had to be driven to school before, why not require downtown parents to drive their kids now?

However, many families in both the suburbs and the downtown realize that this kind of tit-for-tat thinking is a mistake. Stealing public assets from the downtown isn’t a sustainable way to grow a community. It has lasting consequences that hurt the downtown area and also end up hurting the families in new suburban developments.

The Negative Consequences When the Suburbs "Steal" Services from the City

Here are a few of the outcomes of this "suburban stealing":

Downtown Provo. Photo by Jamie Littlefield.

Consequence 1: The loss of a strong downtown hurts everyone. A thriving downtown bolsters everyone, even residents who don’t live in the core of the city. Office, retail, and restaurants provide opportunities for all residents to work and enjoy themselves without a long commute. They also bring in a significant amount of tax funding that pays for city services like parks and crosswalks. Traditional, walkable downtowns consistently produce far more tax revenue per acre than outlying areas. And thanks to taxes paid by downtown businesses, property taxes are lower for everyone in the city.

Consequence 2: Stealing piecemeal hurts existing communities. Families who choose to live in in the downtown take on a special kind of bargain. As a downtown resident, I live close to an elementary and middle school, a rec center, the police department, and the municipal offices. However, I also live directly across the street from an eight-story courthouse on one side and an apartment complex on the other. I live near a transitional housing complex, the United Way offices, and a car repair lot. When groups lobby to move services from the downtown, they are highly selective. Their goal is convenient access to the services they like and use, and suburban areas are often able to exclude (usually through zoning) the services they don't want nearby. But, families choose to live in and support downtown because it is walkable to everything, not just walkable to the services the suburbs reject.

Consequence 3: It would be extremely difficult to purchase downtown properties for public facilities again. Proponents of moving city services to undeveloped areas often argue that the land can be purchased cheaply. However, abandoning existing school locations for a short-term discount lacks vision. Hundreds of new apartments are planned for the downtown area in coming years. When it becomes clear that another middle school must be built, it will be almost impossible for the school district to justify re-purchasing downtown land at a higher price point. Instead, we may end up with multiple schools in the suburbs and no downtown options for students.

Consequence 4: Stealing (rather than allowing for natural growth) disrupts the balance that makes the city work for everyone. A new middle school could be built in the school board’s chosen suburban / rural location when student growth justifies it. However, it’s unsustainable to accelerate the build-out of the suburbs by relocating essential services from the downtown. This growth strategy is likely to lead to higher taxes for all residents, the destabilization of downtown neighborhoods as longer-term residents relocate, and a decline in economic productivity for downtown restaurants, retail, and other businesses in the long term.

As with many other cities, suburban stealing is one of the biggest threats to sustainable urbanism in Provo. If we want our community to thrive, we must to build a stronger consensus. We must work towards the shared belief that a strong downtown benefits the entire community.  

(Cover photo: Provo City School District Superintendent via Twitter)

About the Author

Jamie Littlefield is the author of an upcoming book about placemaking—the wild and wonderful ways people are re-creating their cities. A former college English instructor, she is now traveling the world in search of inspiring stories from innovators working to create a sense of place and connection with the cities they call home. Follow her on Twitter: @writingjamie.