On Sprawl, Cities, and Creating Wealth

“We must avoid the oncoming campaign to sustain the unsustainable.” – James Kuntsler, Author, at CNU20

A recent trip to the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism (my first) has stirred my thinking about where we stand in this country regarding land development and economic growth in our cities. In states like Michigan, the pre-housing crash development patterns were largely headed in an unsustainable direction. Sprawl was the norm. Our major cities were viewed, often incorrectly, as unlivable. And we as a society had come to confuse land development with real economic growth, often mixing the two when discussing job growth strategies and formulating public policy.

The fact of the matter is that sprawling land development patterns are expensive to taxpayers, destructive to the already built environment, and often unhealthy for the local economy. Thoughtful growth, on the other hand, helps to create wealth, increase tax revenue, and make communities more competitive for jobs and talent.

The definitions below, as cherry picked by yours truly, describe the real differences.

  • Land development: (def.) altering the landscape in any number of ways — from Wikipedia
  • Economic Growth: (def.) A positive change in the level of production of goods and services by a country over a certain period of time. Economic growth is usually brought about by technological innovation and positive external forces — from Investopedia

With the economy showing real signs of a comeback and the housing and development market reemerging, it is important that we don’t simply go back to where we were and start-up again using the same destructive and expensive patterns as before. Too often we see local jurisdictions succumb to a crack-like addiction to short-term building gains, which act to trump long-term planning (what’s innovative about wider roads, cul-de-sacs, and strip malls?). The results can handicap a ‘place’ in its quest for real economic growth for the decades that follow.

A familiar site in 2012-- the empty exurban neighborhood carcass, complete with roads and signage

Local governments, along with their state and federal counterparts, must curb their fixation with bank-rolling this type of “progress” through tax incentives, infrastructure spending, and poor community design. Instead, they should opt for growth and development models that energize the economy and create great places for people to live, work, learn, and play.

A street scene in Grand Rapids

We all enjoy visiting great communities that have followed these long-term strategies for economic growth that fit nicely with the built environment. They’re bustling. They’re healthy. They’re energizing. It is about time we start demanding this in our own hometowns, too.