A More Objective Attitude Toward the Suburbs (Almost)

It is always encouraging to see greater objectivity in the treatment of the suburbs. In fact, the urban form includes not only the urban core, but also the suburbs and economically connected rural areas and exurban areas that are beyond the urban footprint. This fact has often been missed by some urbanologists who imagine no city extends beyond the view on the foggiest day from a central city office tower.

William Upski Wimsatt, author of Bomb the Suburbs, has now published an update called Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs. The title of Wimsatt's original book, focusing on grafitti and hip-hop culture, has a ring reflective of the irrational and ideological condemnation that has been far too typical of some of the urban planning community.

Wimsatt cites five myths about suburbs in a Washington Post opinion piece. To be charitable, he gets as many as four of them right. These include his discovery that suburbs are not white middle-class enclaves, that they can be "cool," that they are not necessarily politically conservative, and that suburbanites care about the environment.

However, Wimsatt still has some distance to go. His last myth suggests that suburbs are not the result of the free market. This general proposition is tenable, for example, given large lot zoning requirements, which have caused many urban areas to consume far more land than they would have if the market had been allowed to operate. The problem with Wimsatt's free-market analysis is his acceptance of three additional myths.

Myth 1: Smart Growth Reduced Property Taxes in Portland: Wimsatt cites an analysis indicating that property taxes in Portland dropped between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s while property taxes in Atlanta increased. He uses this "factoid" to imply that Portland's more restrictive land use planning regime ("compact development" or "smart growth") is superior to the more liberal Atlanta approach. Wimsatt does not note that during this period the voters of Oregon implemented their own Proposition 13 type property tax reduction (Measure 5), which lowered property taxes even as per capita revenue rose at a greater rate in Oregon than in Georgia. To be fair, Wimsatt cannot be blamed for this oversight, since the Sierra Club source he cited omitted this detail. We refuted a larger analysis by Arthur C. (Chris) Nelson that included this claim 10 years ago, in a paper for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation entitled American Dream Boundaries: Urban Containment and its Consequences.

Myth 2: Suburban Infrastructure is More Costly: Wimsatt claims that the cost of infrastructure and public services is higher in suburbs than in the urban core. Joshua Utt and I put this myth to rest in research covering all of the reporting municipalities in the US government database, which indicated no such higher costs (The Costs of Sprawl: What the Data Really Show). The claims of higher infrastructure and service costs in the suburbs are largely based on theoretical studies, which invariably suffer from the "length of pipe" fallacy, which fails to take into consideration the substantial differences in the costs of infrastructure construction in already developed areas versus greenfield areas. In fact, labor costs tend to be less in suburban areas. Moreover, much of the cost of suburban development is paid for by home owners, who reimburse developers who have already paid much of the sewer, water and street construction costs. These are not costs to the public or to society, they are costs that buyers voluntarily pay for what they consider to be a better lifestyle. Finally, Core city infrastructure is often obsolete and not able to adequately serve the higher demand that would occur from substantial population increases.

Myth 3: Consolidating Local Government Saves Money: Wimsatt presumes that consolidation of local governments is a way to reduce public expenditures. He cites the case of towns in New Jersey, which he would prefer to see combined. Despite the fact that ivory tower before-the-fact analysis routinely concludes that larger, consolidated local governments are spend less per capita than smaller governments, the record says exactly the opposite. Our research, using US government, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois state databases shows a consistent relationship between larger local governments and higher expenditures per capita and higher debt per capita.

This should not really be so surprising, since larger governments tend to be further from the people and by definition more remote from their control. Where voters are less important, as is the case with larger local governments, special interests fill the vacuum, generally to the detriment of taxpayers.

With this diluted control by voters, larger governments tend to get into financial difficulty, and a vicious cycle of excessive spending and debt can follow. Often unable to say no to spending interests, they raise taxes. When the electorate loses tolerance for higher taxes, larger governments tend to borrow, which increases expenditures even more. Finally, when they reach high debt levels, it is not unusual for there to be proposals to consolidate these governments with their smaller neighbors, which have been more fiscally prudent. If consolidation is implemented, the new larger local government is granted a new lease on fiscal irresponsibility, and per capita expenditures and debt is likely to rise even higher.

As if that were not enough, labor contracts and service levels are routinely "harmonized" at the highest cost, since employees will not be forced to take pay or benefit cuts and service levels will generally not be reduced for residents. This was cited by the Toronto Business Alliance after a theoretical $300 million in promised cost savings were transformed into substantially higher spending in the newly consolidated city.

Welcome: Wimsatt graciously ends his commentary by saying "Everyone with a prejudice against the suburbs will have to get over it. Even me." Welcome, Mr. Wimsatt.