Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Fixing Cities and Paying for Sprawl

I am a big fan of the Strong Town organization. I have mentioned them many times on this blog. Recently I listened to a podcast between Andrew Burleson and Chuck Marohn and it had me thinking about the future of the cities in my region.

Here is the think to the podcast in case you wish to listen. 

Strong Towns for several years has been presenting a simple argument; the growth and development patterns since World War II are dramatically less productive and unsustainable and will bankrupt our cities and governments. At times it can seem very gloomy but they have done the math and can make the argument.

Here's a simplified version of one of Strong Town's key arguments. Consider you buy a house in a suburban cul de sac or crescent. On a brand new road with brand new pipes the city spends very little money to maintain or update the street. The property taxes are quite low. This works out for you, the owner, for many years. But at as the years tick by road gets worn down the pipes age and repairs are needed. The cost to resurface a road, lay fresh pipe, maintain sewer lines, etc. will be many, many times the value in taxes collected on that street. Infrastructure is incredibly expensive and by building at low densities it is difficult to maintain those costs.

Cities have confronted these budget shortfalls by relying on debt, transfer payments and new construction. The argument they would present is that new growth pays for old growth but the reality is that it never comes close to balancing.

With this premise Burleson sat down with Marohn, the founder of Strong Towns, to ask if he was a mayor how would he deal with a town about to face the sustainability crisis Strong Towns predicts. While Chuck Marohn in his speeches and writing has often given a hardline he was more diplomatic as the fictional mayor. Mayor Marohn would insist on frank talk, but he also laid out a dark future. Neighbourhoods would be surveyed and those deemed to be productive (covering their costs or providing the city with a surplus in revenue) would be preserved, but those living in inefficient neighbourhoods would face stark choices and difficult problems.

Suburban sprawl defines much of the Greater Toronto Area. How many millions, or billions of dollars of pipes and roads serve a comparatively few number of people? How many neighbourhoods are overdue for repairs but governments cannot afford them? How many areas are net losers for our cities?

In my home region of Peel this becomes a difficult problem to solve. Houses cost families hundreds of thousands of dollars. To turn around and tell people that the city will no longer be offering services to them would see the value of their homes plummet with unforeseeable consequences. In the podcast Marohn suggests that streets such as the one listed could be given options. One could be that the street could be privatized to the homeowners and the maintenance for it left to them, another suggested was that in return for continued city services the community could not impede developments to make it more productive, ex. increasing densities. Marohn added that with the second option that the neighbourhood still might not be savable and have to be abandoned.

However, cities defer these difficult discussions and choices by taking on debt, receiving bailouts from other levels of governments, or worse, taking from some neighbourhoods to pay for others. Ironically sometimes the poorest neighbourhoods are markedly more productive and valuable than wealthier ones. In the case of my hometown, Brampton, I wonder if we will reach a critical impasse. We already have a significant infrastructure debt, but as I bike through the western regions of the city it continues to sprawl out with strip malls and endless tracks of residential homes. People will not stand for property taxes going up a hundred times their current amount to begin to cover the cost of city infrastructure, so what then is the solution?

This is a question that will continue to dog all Canadian cities as almost all of them contain suburban neighbourhoods like this and these are the ones growing the fastest. Difficult choices lie ahead for city leaders, and delaying the discussion and doubling down on sprawl only makes it worse.

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