Pain at the Pump, Suburban Blues and the Resurgence of Compact Growth

A paradigm shift is occurring in the development patterns of American cities -- even the inner cities that have struggled for decades with decay and abandonment, writes Kofi Sefa-Boakye of the Compton Community Redevelopment Agency.

 Kofi Sefa-BoakyeIn his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Thomas Kuhn coined the classic iron law of social change -- paradigm shift: One theory supersedes another primarily because it proved better at explaining the empirical observations that remained anomalous in terms of the earlier theory. The defeat of sprawl and the resurgence of compact development -- the use of smart growth strategies to revive urban America through development of sustainable patterns of mixed-use, walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods -- is an empirical manifestation of Kuhn's theoretical construct.

Over the past three decades, urban professionals from various disciplines within and outside academia have finger-pointed suburban sprawl as the key culprit for the continued decay of many inner cities. Metropolitan Los Angeles is an unfortunate example. Businesses that decamped Watts, and Boyle Heights and Compton, for the suburbs, the argument goes, also saddled these communities with empty storefronts, buildings and polluted lots requiring expensive cleanup investments. Massive redevelopment efforts unveiled to stem urban decay in these neighborhoods failed to reverse urban exodus.

Fast forward to 2008. Today these very communities, left for dead, are suddenly enjoying an unprecedented comeback. Like the Phoenix rising from its ashes, Compton last year unveiled an unprecedented $80 million shopping center at its southern fringes and a $40 million residential development to boot right in the heart of its downtown. Boyle Heights to its credit is steadfastly putting finishing touches to a proposed $2-billion upscale commercial and residential development in an area that has been blighted for decades. Watts, a community that has struggled for decades with grinding poverty and crime has become the venue for market rate residential developments. And the list goes on!

Question: Why this sudden back-to-the-city frenzy? What happened to the almighty sprawl? Undoubtedly, a confluence of several factors might have something to do with it. Yet, truth be told, compact growth is trouncing suburban sprawl not because the destructive environmental consequences of the latter have made it unacceptable development policy. Compact growth is flourishing simply because high commuting costs exemplified by oft-cited "pain at the pump" are demagnetizing the suburban mystique and suddenly catapulting compact development into the forefront of urban revival.

Sprawl, the antithesis of compact growth, gained prominence in the LA metropolis and other regions during the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s simply because powerful developers and the apostles of the unfettered free market model deemed sprawl the consequence of market choices and hence the epitome of economic efficiency, freedom and property rights. Ironically, during the same period, others took an opposite view of sprawl by arguing that Los Angeles and its haphazard land use portfolio had transformed the metropolis into an unplanned, unchecked, profit-driven growth machine (Calthorpe 1993, 2000). For example during the early years of the current decade, a classic paper from the USC Southern California Studies Center and the Brookings Center on Urban Metropolitan Policy demonstrated the environmental inequities of sprawl by showing graphic evidence of unequal concentration of air pollution and health hazards in LA.'s inner cities (Sprawl Hits the Wall, 2001).

Yet such warnings were not enough to dethrone the politically entrenched proponents of sprawl because sprawl was deemed economically, scientifically and politically good at this specific time – as long as energy is cheap. However, as Kuhn equally pointed out, conventional wisdom, may become subject to question, as facts inconsistent with them come to light. The questioning intensifies as such facts accumulate through time. And conventional wisdom is rarely overthrown unless some alternative theory that accounts for those facts is advanced. Such is the scenario behind the rise and fall of sprawl.

Smart growth developments that enable people to live within walking distance of such amenities as workplaces, shops, schools, parks and transit stops have become a land use reality of the 21st century. Suddenly, the once 'market'-poor communities have become strategic locations for compact mixed use developments that are not auto dependent. Transportation projects that had historically turned inner city communities into dumping grounds for the region's NIMBY projects (highways, freeways and transit routes) have ironically become diamonds in the rough. Transit systems like the Metrolink and the MTA's Blue Line that were once considered symbols of inner city blues have now become symbols of inner city boom – and are enjoying the envy of auto-dependent suburbanites. Along the major corridors of these inner-city communities is a proliferation of mixed-use transit oriented developments (retail, residential and entertainment centers).

As the affluent neighborhoods of L.A.'s Westside shudder and resist the intrusion of the so called Manhattan-style dense mixed-use developments in their fortress-like neighborhoods, distressed urban communities on the other side of town are having the last laugh. If affluent L.A. is giving 'Manhattanization' a luke-warm reception, smart growth is earning a front row seat in the theater of inner city revitalization- a paradigm shift in L.A. land use policymaking indeed.

Kofi Sefa-Boakye is the Redevelopment Director of the City of Compton, California. He holds master degrees in Economics and Urban Planning from the University of Southern California, a doctorate in Policy, Planning and Development from USC, as well as a Knight Fellowship in Community Building at the University of Miami (Florida, 2003). Additionally, Kofi has authored several op-ed articles in the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Business Journal.



Excellent article

This is an excellent analysis, and it raises some good questions. Doesn't the low gas tax also subsidize sprawl? And, is sprawl the expression of "free market" forces in light of low gas taxes, underpriced parking, and land use and tax policies that skew development to far-flung places?

Indeed, it may be that the high cost of low gas taxes is currently a burden on urbanism precisely at a time when an auto-free lifestyle is a great choice for many people in many cities. What would the cities of the world be like if public policy favored human-centered cities?

Smart Taxes for Smart Growth

Excellent article and observation that high transportation costs will encourage compact growth.

Besides taxing gasoline and carbon pollution another way to encourage compact development would be to remove taxes on building property values while increasing taxes on the rental value of the land beneath the buildings. Property taxes are actually two different taxes - one on the building and one on the land the building sits on. It is easy for property tax assessors to calculate the rental value of the land and charge for the exclusive use of this land. This tax shift would encourage people who are sitting and speculating on vacant lots to either make use of them or sell them. This would, in turn, lower the cost of urban space and encourage redevelopment. The builders or landowners who want to redevelop their crumbling buildings would no longer be punished for fixing up their properties.

The idea that society should not tax enterprise or work but, rather, should charge a fee for the use of our common natural resources such as raw oil coming out of the ground or unimproved space in our cities, is not new. The concept goes by several names including Geo-Classical Economics, Geoist philosophy, Geonomics, or Earthrights Democracy. When property taxes have been removed from buildings and applied to the rental value of sites beneath buildings cities have prospered with more compact development. Bottom line, we as a society need to implement tax reforms that will create cities and nations with less wasted resources and space while encouraging enterprise and work.

Save your business, save your job, save your planet: Tax Waste, Not Work

Examples of Geo Taxes??

"When property taxes have been removed from buildings and applied to the rental value of sites beneath buildings cities have prospered with more compact development."

Can you give examples of cities where this has been done, with links to more info if possible?

I completely support your basic idea of a green tax shift.

Charles Siegel

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