Note: This article is cross-posted at Strong Towns Network.
Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns recently posted an article titled ‘Detroit: An American Autopsy‘, inspired by the book of the same name by Charles LeDuff. Here is the gist of Chuck’s piece:
“I’ve long held that Detroit is not some one off place that we can discount but that it actually represents the logical outcome of the Suburban Experiment..”
Those of us familiar with Chuck’s blog and Strong Towns podcast will be familiar with some of these arguments: the maintenance costs of low-density urban growth are initially hidden as people happily buy up nice, big, car-dependent homes. Several decades down the line, the costs of supporting the extra miles of paved roads, sewers and electrical lines required to sustain suburban expansion become clear. These costs subsequently become a financial dead weight on the town. By extension, Detroit had no chance, because it overbuilt suburbs, in part reflecting its history as the birthplace of automobile culture. To use the jargon, Detroit had become ‘fragile‘- unable to respond adequately to events such as deindustrialization.
Of course, overbuilt suburbs were hardly Detroit’s only problem (and to be fair to Chuck, he did couch his piece with all the caveats typical of a Detroit post-mortem). Are suburban areas inherently fragile? Not necessarily. Silicon Valley is hardly an urban area, but it has reinvented itself through several ‘life cycles’, based on military research, semiconductors and now the web-based frenzy of Google and Apple. This ability to deal with seismic technological and economic shifts suggests resiliency, not fragility. Likewise, as Detroit has fallen apart, nearby Triple A-rated Oakland County is booming. This despite the county executive declaring, “I love sprawl. I need it. I promote it. Oakland County can’t get enough of it.”
The counter-argument is that Silicon Valley and Oakland County are running on borrowed time, and eventually will not be able to sustain their infrastructure costs. But it is also possible that a prosperous suburb can and will find the money to support low-density infrastructure. The question then becomes: to what extent does sprawl make a town ‘fragile’? This seems like a valid and urgent question. When evaluating the credit-worthiness of a municipality, should we factor in the extent of sprawl infrastructure? Is sprawl like a flood-prone river, or a seismic fault-line–something that predisposes us to disaster? Several commenters have already set out to quantify sprawl, using metrics such as total lane-miles of roads, and in the future we should be able to draw definitive links between suburban patterns of growth and fiscal solvency of towns and cities like Detroit.
Is ‘fragility’ a threat even to relatively-prosperous towns like Princeton, NJ? Chuck’s piece carried a clear warning:
“Our local governments are going broke. And I’m not just talking about the Harrisburgs, San Bernardinos and Detroits. I’m talking about basically all of them…”
When people think of Princeton, they usually picture the compact, walkable downtown around the University. But the vast majority of that historic downtown was built before the advent of a zoning code. Since Princeton adopted zoning, low-density sprawl-type development has been the norm. We are now fully engaged in our own ‘Suburban Experiment’. In the mid 1980s-1990s, 1,623 acres were zoned for just 1,410 residential units— a density of less than 0.9 units per acre. These sprawling large-lot neighborhoods have changed the character of the town and created a car-dependent population, including local residents like Paul Krugman, who used his column in the New York Times last week to rail against sprawl towns like Atlanta for diminishing social mobility.
Even factoring in the higher property taxes on large houses in our more suburban neighborhoods, it seems very likely that the town is running a loss on supporting the infrastructure to car-dependent neighborhoods. Are our suburban areas therefore putting us at risk of municipal insolvency? That seems doubtful to us. The costs may be high, and fall regressively on those living in more modest homes in the inner core of the town, but the current situation in Princeton is likely sustainable for the foreseeable future. However, there is no doubt that car-dependent zoning has increased the ‘fragility’ of the town, and that has meaningful consequences…
One measure of Princeton’s fragility is our limited ability to react to changing economic demands. We know that there is growing demand for compact, walkable homes. But we struggle to add those homes, because people have got used to the idea that Princeton is a low-density ‘burb, instead of the compact, walkable town that it was throughout most of its history. Worse, residents in more suburban neighborhoods are so dependent on cars that they tend to oppose walkable development based on the slightest possibility that it will reduce the availability of parking in the downtown. It might seem far-fetched that a lack of walkable homes could result in Princeton missing out on a generation of smart young professionals, but that is exactly the scenario facing Long Island communities today, many of which are racing to expand the supply of walkable housing for this very reason.
All of us in New Jersey were additionally given a very literal example of fragility last fall. Our electrical lines in Princeton are carried on a series of precarious poles (see image above). Even though we have been a Tree City for 18 years, we mutilate our trees to attempt to find space for these lines. Uwe Reinhardt, writing in ‘The Economist’ last year, drew particular attention to Princeton when mocking America’s ‘mid-20th century infrastructure‘. These electrical lines are quite literally fragile: the slightest storm sends them crashing down, closing roads and leaving local residents in the dark. And when Sandy came through last year, we were stranded without power for days and even weeks. Our seniors shivered in their homes, because we can’t provide infrastructure that’s fit for a world of increasingly severe storms. Why can’t we? Because we have built infrastructure that we can’t maintain at an appropriate level. In 2013, this inevitably must mean moving electrical lines underground, but that is particularly uneconomic in low-density areas.
Fortunately, we have the ability to make our town more economically solvent and ‘resilient’ to future natural disasters or unanticipated ‘Black Swan’-type events. Unlike what has been going on in Detroit, the solutions do not need to be drastic. By adding compact walkable housing in the downtown core, we can share the load of supporting our aging infrastructure, without putting undue further strain on the system. Many residents would welcome additional life around the downtown area, and the added support for local businesses. Others will object on the basis that additional density in the downtown is not compatible with Princeton’s history. However, it is the ‘Suburban Experiment’ that is the departure from our history; pre-war photos of the town show a compact built-up area surrounded by fields. Princeton is not going to become Detroit, but zoning reform to favor compact downtown development is the best guarantee of our future prosperity.
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