What if federal, state and county governments were to end the cycle of sprawl by coming up with a system that is more fair… one that charges appropriate impact fees to developers who choose to tear down trees and build new housing developments that require more roads and infrastructure. Perhaps some of those fees could go to rewarding developers who choose to undertake the often more expensive and challenging task of rehabbing current building stock in older and more established urban (and closer-in suburb) neighborhoods and districts that already have existing infrastructure in place. This might provide a more level playing field between struggling city neighborhoods and the endless sprawl that continues to suck life out of our urban core.
What do you think?
A level playing field for cities
By Edward L. Glaeser
The Boston Globe
February 29, 2008
FROM ATHENIAN philosophers to Florentine painters to Chicago
architects, cities have long been wellsprings of collaborative
invention. In the past, urban creativity was an interesting sideshow,
not the main economic event, but today, the rebirth of Boston and New
York and London has been built on the increasingly important urban edge
in connecting innovative people. The same economic forces that did so
much to harm industrial cities in the 1970s – globalization and
technological progress – also increased the returns to being smart and
you become smart by being around other smart people. We are in a great
urban age, because urban connections forge human capital and create
the special role that cities play in the economy and society mean that
cities need special treatment from state and national governments? No.
Cities are strong. Give them a level playing field and they can compete
robustly. However, cities shouldn’t have to face a policy deck stacked
against urban living. Urban firms and residents shouldn’t have to pay a
disproportionate share of the taxes needed to care for disadvantaged
Americans. Suburbanites shouldn’t get a free pass on the environmental
damage created by a car-based lifestyle.
How are city residents
unfairly taxed? For centuries, cities have disproportionately attracted
the poor. In the 2000 Census, 19.9 percent of city residents were poor;
only 7.5 percent of suburban residents lived in poverty.
poverty does not reflect urban failure, but rather the enduring appeal
of cities to the less fortunate. Poor people come to cities because
urban areas offer economic opportunity, better social services, and the
chance to get by without an automobile. Yet the sheer numbers of urban
poor make it more costly to provide basic city services, like education
and safety, and those costs are borne by the city’s more prosperous
residents. Taking care of America’s poor should be the responsibility
of all Americans. When we ask urban residents to pick up the tab for
educating the urban poor, then we are imposing an unfair tax on those
residents. That tax artificially restricts the growth of our dynamic
Cities also face an uneven playing field because suburban
residents do not pay for the full environmental costs of low-density
living. Henry David Thoreau was right about caring for our environment,
but wrong about how to achieve that end. People who live surrounded by
green space often do much more harm to that green space than people who
live in dense cities. In 1844, Thoreau’s outdoor lifestyle was itself
responsible for destroying 300 acres of Concord woods, which caught
fire as a result of the great naturalist’s attempt to cook chowder
Next week, a conference jointly sponsored by the
Harvard Center for the Environment, Rappaport Institute, and Mayor
Thomas Menino’s office will explore the phenomenon of green cities. As
we face the prospect of climate change encouraged by vast quantities of
man-made greenhouse gases, we should rethink those decisions that lead
to more energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Is it wise for
American development to be so concentrated in low-density,
car-oriented, energy-intensive suburbs?
According to the National
Household Travel Survey, suburban households in Greater Boston buy 85
percent more gas at the pump than households living within 5 miles of
downtown. That amounts to about 6 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each
year. Suburban households in Greater Boston also consume about 20
percent more electricity than city dwellers. This is responsible for an
extra 2 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per household per year.
we should be encouraging development in dense, urban areas that use
less energy, many of our policies work exactly in the wrong direction.
Our land use restrictions push development away from dense areas, with
plenty of NIMBY-ist neighbors, toward empty spaces with fewer noisy
abutters. Our transportation policies fail to charge people for the
full social costs of driving long distances on crowded highways. Our
localized school system encourages prosperous parents to flee urban
poverty. Just think of how the 1974 Supreme Court decision that limited
busing to within city boundaries encouraged mass suburbanization to get
beyond those city borders.
No region should receive special
favors from the federal government; no city should get special
treatment from Beacon Hill. But our cities deserve a level playing
field. A level playing field requires that urbanites should not bear an
undue burden of caring for the poor and that suburbanites should pay
for the environmental costs of energy-intensive lifestyles.