Sprawl, Like Elvis, Won’t Go Away
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Lindy Davies under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Sprawl – like Elvis – is everywhere
by Lindy Davies
Today’s economy offers certain guidelines to those who set out to build a house, shopping center, restaurant or office building:
- Always choose the remotest possible location. Stay as far from the center of town as possible. Make suburban sprawl come to you.
- The best place to build is the site that requires the most public investment in roads, sewer and other infrastructure.
- Farms outside of urban areas should be replaced, whenever possible, by residential subdivisions.
- Remember that grading for new construction maximizes groundwater pollution, so never use an existing site if a new one can be cleared.
- Above all, never, ever design a community that lets people walk to work or shops. Driving is always better.
The funny thing about sprawl – in the United States anyway – is that when we had plenty of land, when we had a whole empty continent to expand into, towns didn’t sprawl. Transportation was difficult. It took the miracle of Personal transportation to make people willing to travel large distances to buy a loaf of bread, go to work, or visit their neighbors.
The rise of the automobile was the first great cause of the social and ecological catastrophe of suburban sprawl. The second was the chronic decline of cities. In city after city, soaring costs of public services have driven taxpayers to flee. Developed land, richly provided with public infrastructure, is left to decay, leap-frogged by new development eating up fertile farmland and demanding ever more roads, sewers, power lines and parking lots.
The “guidelines” mentioned above are mandated by our tax policy. It’s as if an omnipotent sovereign decided that suburban sprawl is the very best way to plan a society and set out unerringly to achieve it. Here’s how:
- Land speculation makes it profitable to hold the best, most valuable land out of use, for as long as possible, and develop marginal land. This is enforced by high taxes on buildings and other improvements, and very low taxes on the value of land.
- Productive workers are taxed to raise revenue for public infrastructure; when it is provided, it raises land values. So, if you build out past the existing roads and other amenities, you create a demand for the community to build new facilities, which will raise the value of your land.
- Suburban sprawl makes the value of land for residential subdivisions far greater than for farming, creating an often- irresistible pressure on farmers to cash in.
- Groundwater contamination through runoff creates ill effects that are often remote, in both time and place, from the original source of the runoff; hence such “nonpoint” pollution can be engaged in with virtual impunity.
- Federal investment in highways and a national commitment to low oil prices have made gasoline-powered automobiles so cheap and convenient that public transportation cannot compete; the car’s stranglehold on US culture remains unthreatened.
There is a common thread in all of these problems, and the search for a solution should focus on it. In every case, the value of land – of locations, natural resources, clean air & water – is created by the entire community. Yet it is collected by a few “owners” who have inherited a so-called right to this unearned rent. So, to raise public revenue, we have resorted to a tax system that penalizes production and rewards waste and pollution.
We can reverse the pervasive trend toward sprawl. Collect the value of land for public revenue, and make land speculation unprofitable, taking away the incentives that lead to urban sprawl and its unconscionable waste of resources, energy and habitat. Want to know more?
This article appears courtesy of The Henry George Institute