New Urbanists: No Economic Recovery Without Smart Growth

What happened to the United States over the past several years is most commonly described as a recession. By the technical definition of the word we’re two years into a recovery. But it sure doesn’t seem that way.

Meanwhile, a growing chorus of intellectual leaders says the country is experiencing something different than a normal cyclical fluctuation: the end of an epoch.

Leading urban thinkers, from Richard Florida to James Howard Kunstler, believe we have reached the limits of our fossil-fueled, double-mortgaged, McMansion-based economy. Relief won’t come, they say, until America begins confronting the systemic problems that produced the meltdown, including inefficient and unsustainable public infrastructure investments and housing development.

“What were seeing right now is an inability to look at how we live and how it relates to our problems, and financial problems,” said Kunstler Tuesday during a speaking engagement with the Congress for the New Urbanism. “Production homebuilders, mortgage lenders, real estate agents, they are all sitting back now waiting for the, quote, bottom of the housing market to come with the expectation that things will go back to the way they were in 2005.”

But despite massive government expenditures to restart the old economic engine driven by suburban homebuilding, recovery is elusive, Kunstler said. The author of “The Geography of Nowhere” and “The Long Emergency” argues that suburbanization has been a multi-decade American experiment, and a failed one.

Kunstler is joined in that perspective by Charles Marohn, the director of non-profit group Strong Towns. A new report from Strong Towns places blame for the lagging economy directly on policies that favor low-density housing, fossil-fuel dependence and publicly-subsidized overbuilt infrastructure.

In its new booklet Curbside Chat, Strong Towns asserts that since the 1970s, the suburban growth that powered America’s economy operated much like a Ponzi scheme. In towns across the country, politicians traded the short-term payoffs of sprawling development — namely increased taxes — for long-term maintenance obligations that are just now coming due. And they’re coming up short.

Is America's infrastructure policy our ticket to the poor house? Photo: ##http://www.steamboattoday.com/photos/2010/jul/02/30321/## Steamboat Today##

As evidence, the group holds up the fact that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the cost of necessary infrastructure maintenance at $2.2 trillion.

“Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability,” says Marohn in the report. “In the near term, revenue grows, while the corresponding maintenance obligations —- which are not counted on the public balance sheet —- are a generation away.”

The suburban sprawl bubble has now burst, he said.

“Our problem was not, and is not, a lack of growth; Our problem is sixty years of unproductive growth,” said Marohn. “The American pattern of development does not create real wealth; it creates the illusion of wealth. Today we are in the process of seeing that illusion destroyed and with it the prosperity we have come to take for granted.”

Strong Towns has taken it one step further, outlining 10 development strategies to help get the country back in the black. Among its recommendations are radically altering road and street standards, adopting form-based codes and tailoring capital investment plans to maximize public return on that investment.

“The way forward for our communities is to adopt a set of rational responses to the current situation,” says Strong Towns. “This will include shedding some ‘dead’ ideas from the recent past and embracing a broad set of strategies to start making America’s communities more productive. Local leaders need to position their communities for change if they want to be prosperous in the coming decades.”

“The project of suburbia is over,” said Kunstler to CNU attendees. “Even though the project of suburbia is still running. There’s no building going on. If you do see construction in these places, it’s just the last twitching.”

“We now have to do things differently.”

  • I’m a small-government fiscal conservative and that’s exactly why I’m an urbanist!

  • Excellent Ted talk.  We have to be careful with our use of the word “growth”, however.  Growth as we know it–an ever-expanding GDP based on an ever-expanding consumption of fossil fuel energy–is pretty much gone and we should all say good riddance as it did not mean increased health, happiness or life satisfaction, only an ever-increasing consumption of goods and services financed with ever-increasing debt.  (Just consider how over the past forty years our prime role in society morphed from “citizen,” or even “worker,” to one of “consumer.”)

    We are in a period of retrenchment. Unproductive infrastructure that is too costly to maintain will necessarily be jettisoned, and this is already happening as low-use asphalt county roads are returned to low maintenance gravel ones. If we retrench wisely, we can come out of this period with a new conception of what “growth” means and create healthy, productive communities based on healthy, productive economies that make efficient and creative use of the resources available to us. If we insist that our auto-dominated, energy squandering way of life is non-negotiable and maintain business-as-usual at all costs (and the costs have been so high–just how high will we let them get?), the retrenchment will not be temporary but rather a prologue to a very long slide down. 

  • Excellent Ted talk.  We have to be careful with our use of the word “growth”, however.  Growth as we know it–an ever-expanding GDP based on an ever-expanding consumption of fossil fuel energy–is pretty much gone and we should all say good riddance as it did not mean increased health, happiness or life satisfaction, only an ever-increasing consumption of goods and services financed with ever-increasing debt.  (Just consider how over the past forty years our prime role in society morphed from “citizen,” or even “worker,” to one of “consumer.”)

    We are in a period of retrenchment. Unproductive infrastructure that is too costly to maintain will necessarily be jettisoned, and this is already happening as low-use asphalt county roads are returned to low maintenance gravel ones. If we retrench wisely, we can come out of this period with a new conception of what “growth” means and create healthy, productive communities based on healthy, productive economies that make efficient and creative use of the resources available to us. If we insist that our auto-dominated, energy squandering way of life is non-negotiable and maintain business-as-usual at all costs (and the costs have been so high–just how high will we let them get?), the retrenchment will not be temporary but rather a prologue to a very long slide down. 

  • Anonymous

    Nice piece.  Let’s see more of this!  

  • Mwalsh

    I’m a big government social liberal, and that’s exactly why I’m an urbanist!

  • Benjamin Doyle

    This is wrong, and dangerous. Smart growth and urbanism are great ideas, and they’re  important for the long-term well-being of the American economy. But their are distinct from the present unemployment and general malaise.

    We’ve been building crappy neighborhoods with too much parking for decades. And that was a problem, but it didn’t mean 9% unemployment and near zero growth all that time.  The cause of these is inadequate aggregate demand, and the cure is fiscal expansion–government taking up the slack until the private sector can get back on its feet.

    People need to stop trying to take cheap advantage of the current troubles to promote their personal hobbyhorses. Even when they’re hobby horses I share.

  • Tom

    That’s not what the 2010 census said.

  • This is a compelling argument, and what I take from it is the need for citizens around the country to pay more attention to what public projects their government is working on. 

    How many times have we looked around at our towns and thought, “why are my tax dollars working for that?” or worse, “where are my tax dollars even going?” It’s amazing that if you were to ask a Californian what they most want to fund with their public dollars, they’d most likely say something like “parks” or “schools.” And yet those are the public goods that are getting cut. Citizens need to take charge of public spending and direct it to the public goods they want.

    Once you accept that the future isn’t going to look like the past because of problems with the past approach, you realize that you need to be a part of the solution. And that means paying attention to what’s going on around you, taking control over how your public dollars are spent, and directly sponsoring (either with money or with effort) changes in your home town that will act to preserve its future.

  • Mwalsh

    Russ, you raise a good point, but how do you think most people would answer the question “would you rather spend $5 million on Highway X that is the main road out of town to ease traffic and make more room for store or spend $5 to improve the park system”?

  • Anonymous

    Benjamin, I agree with you in principal that everyone is using the downturn to call for more of whatever their flavor of policy is (religion! drilling! corporate welfare! etc!), but I think there is a case to be made that if the physical shape of the civilization is dependent on a certain type of economy, and that economy no longer exists, the physical shape will have to change.  People love the invisible hand until it starts punching them in the face.  Farms became shopping malls and apartment complexes when those things made economic sense, but it looks like that trend is not irreversible.  I just saw photos from a friend who spent a couple of months “urban camping” in the outskirts of Detroit this summer, and it looks like a post-apocalyptic zombie movie, except there aren’t even zombies, or anyone else.  Whole cities have been literally shut down and abandoned to sink back into the earth.  They were wandering through a police station, scavenging the riot gear to build things with in their camp.  There is no copper wire or pipe left in any building.  Trees are growing out of the middle of the street.  Massive factories are empty shells, and there are no cars on the roads.  I didn’t really have an idea of how bad things have gotten living in my jaded bubble of NYC.  We think of ghost-towns as an anachronism, but they’re not.  now we have ghost-burbs.

  • Anonymous

    And meanwhile, New York State is talking about building an entirely new interstate highway. Thanks to Streetsblog NYC for the tip:
      http://blog.tstc.org/2011/10/05/a-4-billion-rooftop-highway-for-upstate-ny/

  • This is a good read, there really isn’t anything to pick at here other than to say this process won’t be easy.  It’s going to take a lot of convincing and even then, who decides which part of our existing infrastructure gets rebuilt and doesn’t?

  • Mr. Kim Gyr

    We’re long past due for a new paradigm – one that can provide 100% sustainability once its built! As I recovered the abilities to walk, speak and remember after my heart stopped for 10 minutes following a car accident in Kenya in 1980, my mind, less cluttered than before the accident, went to how the cars passing me on the road, as I staggered more than 330 miles over the next 20 months, might propel themselves when there was no more petroleum. Please view the results on my website at http://www.greenmillennium.eu

    If all of us are but the recombination of the genes of our parents, what will the components of our genes be doing in the Year 4000 when there has been no petroleum since 2015? Please, please, please improve on the designs at the website above, so that we at least have some way of providing energy, food and transportation without a drop of petroleum, before it is all gone!

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