Suburban Sprawl: A Ponzi Scheme?
One of the deepest critiques of expansionary American growth patterns comes from a surprising quarter: Minnesota fiscal conservative Charles Marohn. He even blames suburban sprawl for our current financial crisis.
"The great experiment of suburbanization that America embarked on following World War II has no precedent in human history," Marohn writes in his Strong Towns blog. "As it enters its third generation, the flawed assumptions that were overlooked are now coming back to bite us in a cruel way. Like any Ponzi scheme, there is only one way this ends."
As Marohn acknowledges, this is an extremely dark vision of a problem for which there is "no solution," only "rational and irrational responses." And he minces no words in his disdain for an autocentric social order built on "two-ton prosthetic devices" and "snout houses" with garages sticking out the front. Even schools these days are designed with "drive-thru lanes" where motorists can pick up their "McChildren."
The heart of his argument is that our increasingly spread-out built environment, nurtured by flawed government policies and cheap oil, is financially unsustainable because life-cyle maintenance costs of supersized infrastructure far exceed the revenue sprawl can produce. "Our places do not create wealth, they destroy wealth," he writes. "Our development pattern ... creates modest short-term benefits and massive long-term costs."
Proof of this can be seen in official projections of a $50 billion long-term shortfall for Minnesota's trunk highways, most of it for necessary maintenance and reconstruction, or in any city council debate over deteriorating streets. Some policymakers are facing up to the problem. Where Twin Cities planners once envisioned another ring road far beyond the 100-mile Interstate Hwy. 494-694 beltway, the Metropolitan Council now focuses transportation resources inside the suburban freeway system.
Marohn would probably call this a "rational response," albeit one that will be painful for many. At least it attempts to short-circuit a vicious cycle he describes thus:
"Suburban development entices communities to take on long-term liabilities in exchange for near-term cash advantages. But as those liabilities cost the community more than the development creates in overall wealth, the approach ultimately results in insolvency. To forestall the day of reckoning, more growth is induced, setting up a Ponzi scheme scenario where revenue from new development is used to pay liabilities associated with old development. This is unsustainable, but that has not kept us from trying desperately to keep it all going."
Borrowing from author Richard Florida, Marohn also draws economic lessons from America's Long Depression of the 1870s and the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The former he blames on overdevelopment of railroads and corresponding real estate speculation, along with greater access to markets for farmers that led to a crash in commodity prices. The bust ended with what Florida calls a "spacial fix," the growth of industrial cities drawing masses from the agrarian landscape. "For many people of that era, this was a painful transition," Marohn writes.
The Great Depression arose from a financial bubble that tried to compensate for a "lack of fundamental growth in the real economy" and "huge gains in productivity, production-capacity that actually outstripped our consumption-capacity," Marohn writes.
World War II provided "a temporary recovery, but economists at the time were concerned that the end of war spending would send the United States back into depression," he adds. "What happened next was another spacial fix: suburbanization. We ... created the greatest economic advancement the world had ever seen. It was a very painful transition, especially for our major cities."
Marohn was born in 1973 in Brainerd, Minn., and grew up on a farm in adjacent Baxter, now a sprawling, big-box suburb where he lives today. He bemoans what suburbanization has done to both cities. He has illustrated one of his blogs with a picture postcard of Brainerd's West Front Street bustling with pedestrians and horse-drawn wagons in 1894. "Today this street looks like Dresden in 1945, an empty wasteland of parking lots and low-value, partially-abandoned buildings," he writes.
In Baxter, he sees a different wasteland of local, collector, arterial and major arterial roads, large setbacks, excessive parking lots and "separation of uses through a Euclidean zoning model."
Tough times lie ahead for this sort of development, he warns, and it will be "far messier than the urban decline of two generations ago." Abandoned structures in the future Suburgatory will be used for salvage, he predicts, as gasoline prices rise, road maintenance falls further behind and public safety services atrophy.
What to do? "The answer is another spacial shift, a change in the pattern of development moving away from mass-suburbanization," he writes. This includes a focus on walkability in city and suburban neighborhoods alike scaled for people, not for cars. For example, he says, a small part of Baxter could accommodate 10 times its current population "without significant investments in additional infrastructure."
Strip malls can be redeveloped with extra stories and broader footprints for neighborhood-focused uses, he suggests, reducing "the vast amount of wasted space between structures ... These things can be built into each neighborhood incrementally over time."
Not every Wisteria Lane, especially those on the far edges of development, will survive this shift, Marohn says. But many can if they downsize roads to neighborhood standards, prioritize maintenance of existing infrastructure and build transit connections with other neighborhoods.
"This will certainly be much more cost-efficient for everyone than the ridiculous dial-a-ride system currently being used," he writes. "Maturing neighborhoods will create demand for more frequent and reliable transit service, which will build more demand for neighborhood life, which will build more transit demand, and on and on in a virtuous self-reinforcing loop.
"The neighborhood approach requires no oversizing, no large up-front bet, no stifling congestion if the system doesn't respond as predicted, no more building multimillion-dollar industrial parks to gamble on attracting offices and churches. Instead of looking for one business with 50 jobs, Baxter can now find success adding one job to [each of] 50 businesses.
"This is the true essence of a Strong Town. A local economy that is resilient in the face of outside shocks. A place that has built-in vibrancy, sense of place and community cohesion. A town that is designed to grow stronger, incrementally over time. And a people not dependent on what happens in St. Paul, Washington, D.C., or Saudi Arabia but fully in control of their own destiny."
Right-wing sprawl apologists will fight this blueprint at every step. But when the money runs out to keep propping up the great suburban experiment, Minnesotans will again gather together in Strong Towns scaled to people, not cars.