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How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community

By Eben V. Fodor



Growth Survey


Chapter 1: The Endangered Landscape

Chapter 2: Meet the Urban Growth Machine

Chapter 3: The 12 Big Myths of Growth

Chapter 4: The Truth About Jobs, Housing and Growth

Chapter 5: Discovering the Real Cost of Growth in Your Community

Chapter 6: Putting the Brakes on Growth - What Works?

Chapter 7: The New Millennium Community

Appendix A: Selected References on Urban Growth
Appendix B: Organizations Concerned with Land Use

About the Author

    Growth is good, they say, reciting like an incantation the prime article of faith of the official American religion: Bigger is better and best is biggest. Growth, they tell us, means more jobs, more bank accounts, more cars, more people, leading in turn to the demand for more jobs, more economic expansion, more industrial development. Where, when, and how is this spiraling process supposed to reach a rational end - a state of stability, sanity, and equilibrium?
                     - Edward Abbey, Learning to Listen to the Land

A February 5, 1998 article appearing in a major Oregon newspaper was headlined: "Inevitable growth worries small towns." The article reported that 13 of 16 communities in southern Oregon "have expressed a desire to remain small towns, but growth is inevitable." Residents are concerned that growth will destroy the character of their communities and cause them to merge together in a "seamless" mass of urban development - and they feel powerless to do anything about it.

In these circumstances, the standard refrain of many public officials is that "growth is a given." It's not a question of whether we'll grow, they say, but how. This sort of resignation that growth is inevitable is simplistic at best. At worst, it shows a callous attitude toward the legitimate concerns of citizens and a reckless disregard for the long-term consequences of endless urban growth.

As a citizen who is wondering about the effects of growth on your community, you undoubtedly have many unanswered questions. You may find yourself asking: Is continued growth really desirable? Are the benefits attributed to growth realistic? Have all the costs been accounted for? If growth were found to be undesirable, would we be able to stop it? If we were able to stop growth, what would the alternatives look like?

To some extent, the answers lie in uncharted territory. We have accepted the necessity of growth in such an unquestioning manner that there has been little serious consideration of growth alternatives. There is an astonishing lack of good information about the real impacts of growth on our communities. There is very little awareness of the strategies and policy options for slowing or limiting growth. And good role models for stable communities are hard to find.

This book is intended to be a resource for individuals and groups who want to get off the treadmill of urban growth. It provides insights, ideas, information, tools and techniques to make the transition away from growth-oriented and growth-addicted communities and toward stability. This book brings together some of the best available information on these topics. It is written for those who are seeking a more balanced, informed and productive discussion about growth. Overall, the message is intended to be one of optimism and empowerment. Responsible policies toward growth will foster strong, healthy communities that will remain great places to live for generations to come.

This book grew out of my own involvement in community growth issues and my frustration with the lack of good information about the real impacts of urban growth and the apparent lack of good policy options. In an effort to answer my own questions about this fascinating and complex subject, I have found many contradictions and surprising insights. I have uncovered excellent resources and references from all over North America. And I have found that effective policy options for curbing growth do exist.

Is Growth Making Your Community Better or Just Bigger?

My family's farm in rural Maryland was a wonderful place to grow up. As a kid roaming nature's playground, I formed a strong bond with the land and fell in love with the beautiful rural landscape of rolling hills and valleys covered with pastures, cornfields, streams, and woods. The wide-open spaces, fresh breezes, and deep quiet of nature at work provided a constant source of pleasure and refreshment. Sometimes we rode our horses on the lightly-traveled rural roads that were as likely to carry a tractor as a car. Crime was unheard of, doors were never locked and we could go for five years without even seeing a police car.

Our family farm is still much the same as it was in my childhood. But the surrounding hills and valleys are now covered by "view homes" on five-acre lots. There is only one other farm left nearby - a dairy farmer - and he will be gone soon. The dirt roads that had served people well for two and a half centuries became too dusty for the heavy traffic and were paved. The neighbors drive great distances for the privilege of living in this "rural" environment. Many spend three to four hours a day commuting to and from work in, or near, Washington, D.C. The Interstate 270 route to the District was a brand new four-lane highway when I was a kid. Now, its 14 lanes are routinely filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic stretching 10 or 20 miles.

As a witness to this transformation of the landscape, I have a sense of tragic loss. No future generation will enjoy what I had. But other communities have seen far worse. This scenario of urbanization has repeated itself a thousand times in a thousand places.

Most of the physical changes resulting from urban expansion are permanent. We make irreversible commitments of resources - land, energy and water. We create social and environmental impacts on the existing community. And we incur economic costs, many of which are not paid by the new development itself. Urban growth often has profoundly negative impacts on the existing community. Yet we hear that growth will provide us with benefits that offset these impacts. And we hear that even if we wanted to slow,
or stop growth, there is little we can do.

Our cities and towns keep growing and growing. "To what end?" you might ask. Are big cities so much better than small cities that we should strive to convert every small city into a bigger one? It seems clear from looking at many of the world's largest cities that we have little reason to envy them. Maybe there is some ideal size where all the best qualities of a community come together to reach an optimal state of urban harmony? If there is such a size, would we know when we've reached it? Would we be able to stop growing once we were there? The reality is that we just grow and grow, regardless of our community's size or whether further growth is good or bad for us. Endless growth is the only plan on the table.

There are certainly benefits associated with urban growth. At a minimum, it produces a temporary income to those associated with the development - the developers, contractors, and construction workers. Other beneficiaries of development may include the sellers of the land, realtors, lawyers, bankers, and so forth. The public may enjoy some benefits too from the increased diversity growth brings. There will be more shopping opportunities, more restaurants, and more movie theaters. Growth may also bring individuals with new ideas and talents who enhance the life of the community. But how high are the costs we pay in exchange for these benefits?

Understanding the Urban Growth Machine

One reason local efforts to control growth have not been more successful is a failure to recognize the influence of the urban growth industry. Powered by common economic interests, this group of businesses works together like a machine to perpetuate growth and divert local resources to accommodate growth. As you will see in Chapter 2, the urban growth machine is a fixture in many communities and often becomes a powerful force in local politics. It funds candidates for city council, fights citizen ballot measures and runs
public relations campaigns. Where growth machines are well-entrenched, citizens may face major barriers to change on growth issues.

Many of our local governments are on a growth "autopilot." Citizens seeking responsiveness and accountability from their governments find that there doesn't appear to be anyone at the controls. These governments have become a part of the growth machine whose primary function is to build roads and infrastructure and to provide development services for an ever-expanding mass of subdivision, industrial parks, and shopping centers.

The influence of the growth machine often produces public policies that benefit a select few at the expense of the rest of the community. One result of such policies is an increasing number of citizens who are dissatisfied with their government. This dissatisfaction has manifested itself in citizen tax revolts all across the U.S. Two decades of rapid growth in California led up to the passage of the famous Proposition 13 in 1978 that slashed revenues for local governments and dropped that state's school system from one of the best in the U.S. to the bottom of the pack. Many other fast-growing states have faced similar anti-government tax reforms.

The solution, described in Chapter Two, is to get the growth machine out of local government and to enact the kinds of reforms that keep it out. These reforms build on the principles of a democratic government that serves the general public interest over narrow special interests. Switching off the growth machine requires a truly representative local government and active public participation in local land use issues. You can help switch off the growth machine simply by becoming informed and active in your community.

Uncovering the Big Myths About Growth

How much is urban growth really linked with economic growth and prosperity? Does urban growth foster economic growth or is it the other way around? Can we have a prosperous local economy without urban growth? What is the relationship between population growth and urban growth? Do the benefits of continued growth outweigh the costs? These are important questions our society is only just beginning to address.

We will start to answer some of these questions by shattering the myths surrounding growth and its relationships with jobs, housing, and economic prosperity. Growth issues are often highly distorted by platitudes about the alleged benefits of growth or the dire consequences of not growing. We can debunk the growth mythology with facts, logic, and common sense. Good decisions about growth start with good information.

There is what can only be called a giant public relations campaign being waged in our cities, counties,and states. This campaign is primarily the work of the real estate development industry - the engine of the urban growth machine - that doesn't want you to question the benefits of continued growth nor be aware of the costs it creates. The development industry's public relations efforts have resulted in a great deal of confusion, inaccurate information, and empty rhetoric about growth. The rhetoric includes statements like: "Growth creates jobs", "You have to grow or die", "Growth generates new tax revenues," and many more. As you will see in Chapter 3, such statements have fundamental flaws in the context of urban growth. These kinds of statements must be evaluated more critically and many should be rejected outright.

Right now, the development industry is at work in Oregon, and possibly your state or province too, trying to convince policymakers that growth controls will have negative effects on housing affordability, and therefore should be abandoned. They have found the affordable housing issue to be a convenient pry bar to take apart existing growth controls and fend off new ones. The public's penchant for good jobs has been used as a similar excuse for perpetuating growth. Both the jobs and the housing issues - involving two of the biggest growth myths - are addressed in more detail in Chapter 4.

How Much is Growth Costing You?

When I first issued my study, "The Real Cost of Growth in Oregon," in July 1996, it was greeted with excitement by many citizens who were eager for credible information on growth impacts. I sold hundreds of copies across the U.S. and eventually published it in the journal Population and Environment. But the business community in Oregon greeted the report with disdain, skepticism, and worse. The report summarized the professional and academic literature on the cost of growth and calculated an approximate cost for providing public facilities to a single new house at $24,500. At first, newspapers refused to print the findings. Various homebuilder associations around the state viewed the report as a mean-spirited attack on their industry and did their best to discredit the study and its author in editorials, letters to the editor, and even paid advertisements. But as more attention is given to growth costs, the study's conclusions are being confirmed.

The "Cost of Growth study" was done with very limited resources (my own!), and the report was never intended to be the final word on growth costs. Rather, it was meant to show that urban growth does involve real net costs to the community, that these costs can be quantified, and that they are quite high. (Much of this information is reported in Chapter 5.) I had hoped to encourage local governments to analyze growth-related costs and provide the public with better information about how growth is impacting their communities.

The response has been slow, but it seems to be taking effect in Oregon and elsewhere. Portland has just begun to take its first close look at growth-related costs. Oregon's governor convened a task force to examine the fiscal impacts of growth statewide. In the two years since my study was done, I have continued researching the literature on growth costs and have collected many more references from all over the country. The findings of municipal reports, academic literature, and professional studies over the past 25 years are generally consistent with those in my original report.

As you will see in the chapters that follow, the high costs of growth are well documented. This is in spite of the surprising fact that the fiscal impacts of growth remain one of the most understudied aspects of our economy. A researcher in this field might conclude that there is a vast conspiracy of intentional ignorance at work. How else can one explain the apparent lack of concern for how billions of hard-earned tax dollars are spent every year?

City officials often tell us that growth is good for us, that it will increase our tax base, and provide needed jobs. But what is the benefit of a bigger tax base if growth places even greater demands on the tax base than it contributes? And what is the benefit of more jobs if the act of creating those jobs attracts more people to the community seeking work than there are jobs to be filled? The evidence of past growth tells us that the net result of growth is to increase the local tax burden and to produce a larger population that has even more unemployed people than before. How can we continue to count these as benefits when they are more often liabilities?

The municipal cost-benefit balance sheet on urban growth rarely has anything listed in the "costs" column. While the new tax revenues resulting from growth are tallied, the associated costs of expanding pubic facilities and services are ignored. If a private company had a business plan that looked only at revenues and ignored costs, it would quickly be out of business. Why should the public tolerate such one-sided accounting by local governments? We make tremendous expenditures of public resources to support growth, yet fail to account for these costs in terms of the impact on existing residents and taxpayers.

When we fully understand the social, environmental, and economic costs of growth, it should be clear to everyone that there are advantages to controlling growth. This book summarizes the best available information on the cost of growth and provides tips for estimating the real cost of growth in your community.

Finding the Right Growth Controls for Your Community

While surveys reveal that most people are skeptical about the benefits of further growth, an entirely different conclusion seems to have been reached by policymakers in most communities. These policymakers have concluded that citizens want more growth, and they want it so badly it should be publically subsidized at taxpayers' expense. Urban growth is publically subsidized in at least ten different ways in cities throughout the U.S. The result of this subsidization is that we have the growth accelerator pedal pushed firmly to the floor. Those who say there is nothing we can do to slow growth fail to recognize or acknowledge that we are actively encouraging it. Chapter 6 describes how growth is being encouraged and suggests
growth-neutral policies to remove growth subsidies and incentives.

Growth problems are rearing their heads at increasing rates in communities across the U.S. Many of these communities are realizing that it is no longer merely a question of how to grow but whether to grow. Instead of smarter growth these communities want less growth. Civic leaders, environmentalists, astute planners, and public officials all over North America are looking for that perfect community that has solved its growth problems. But the Shangri-La of growth management eludes us. We haven't yet created this model community that has successfully addressed growth in a responsible, long-term manner.

There are, however, many effective strategies in use today that will moderate or restrict growth in desirable ways. These strategies can directly reduce the negative impacts of growth and preserve the quality and character of a community. An extensive collection of proven growth controls and case studies are described in Chapter 6. The emphasis here is on those policies that will actually slow growth in your community. Keep in mind that these growth controls are still a relatively new area in public policy and techniques are still evolving.

Create a Better Community

Can slowing growth actually improve your community? The answer is a resounding "Yes!" By controlling growth, communities can take charge of their future. Stable, sustainable communities have the potential to reach new heights in virtually every area of community endeavor. These include opportunities to:

  • improve local quality of life;
  • improve public services (without new taxes);
  • maintain or improve environmental quality;
  • protect local agricultural and resource lands;
  • preserve the community's cultural and historic heritage; and
  • provide economic security and well-being for all residents.
It is not a question of whether we should have stable, sustainable communities, but when and how. Our choice is between either a community that grows until it is ultimately forced to stop by intolerable conditions, or a community that takes charge of its own destiny by identifying an ideal or optimal population size and setting goals towards reaching and maintaining that size. It is undoubtedly easier to obtain an optimal size by starting sooner rather than later.

The stable, sustainable community offers intriguing possibilities. Far from being a place where people are poor, life is dull, and nothing changes, the stable community is likely to be strong, dynamic, and prosperous. Individual liberties should be greater, not fewer. The local economy can operate more efficiently without the constant turmoil of expansion. Employment levels may be higher and local government can provide better services that cost less.

Better, Not Bigger provides convenient access to the broad range of information and ideas citizens need in order to be effective participants in the urban growth debate. The information is practical and includes many useful concepts and insights. Growth issues and solutions are illustrated with case studies from around the U.S. Helpful references and resources are provided in the appendices. For some people, this book may validate much of what they have personally observed about urban growth, but could not confirm from other sources.

I hope that every reader concludes this book with a strong sense of optimism about the future of their community as it enters the new millennium. And I hope that you will take with you, into your next city council or neighborhood meeting, some new ideas about how to solve the nagging problems of urban growth and make your community a better place to live.

Copyright © 2002 by Eben Fodor.  All rights reserved.


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