A Fable About Sprawl

Michael Lewyn's picture

Once upon a time, there was a city called City. And everyone living in City voted in the same elections and paid taxes to the same government.

And then 5 percent of the people decided that they wanted to live in an new neighborhood that was opened up for development by the highways. And they called it Richburb, because they were, if not rich, at least a little richer than many of the people in the city (since even if there wasn't zoning to keep the poor out, new housing usually costs more than old housing anyhow).

Because there weren't any poor people in Richburb, Richburb had a stronger tax base than the city, which meant it could provide more and tax less. And for the same reason, Richburb had more appealing schools; the Richburb teachers could focus on the average and above-average students, rather than having to focus on students who were slower (and sometimes less disciplined) because their parents were less educated.

So Richburb was on balance a better deal for a lot of people than was City: just by being newer and richer, it had lower taxes, better services and better schools.

So because Richburb was a better deal than the city, another 5 percent of the people left the City for Richburb. These 5 percent weren't that wild about leaving City, but what could they do? Richburb was just a better deal: better taxes, better schools, better services.

With 10 percent of its people gone, City began to suffer. Its tax base was eroded, so it had to raise taxes. And the neighborhoods vacated by the people who moved to Richburb were filled by people who were a little poorer and a little less well-behaved, thus making them less desirable neighborhoods. And when those people left poorer parts of town, their houses just stood vacant, totally ruining the poorer side of town. So crime and disorder multiplied.

As a result, another 10 percent of the people left City for Richburb. They wanted to stay in their old neighborhoods, but what could they do? Their taxes were going up and their neighborhoods were becoming unsafe.

And with 20 percent of its people gone, City suffered even more. After all that migration out of City, even the best part of town was a few blocks from rough neighborhoods instead of a few miles as it had been a decade or two earlier. And because the residents of the good part of town were so close to bad neighborhoods, their children were in the same school attendance zone as the children of the bad neighborhoods- which, for reasons discussed above, made those schools less appealing.

So another 10 percent left the City for Richburb. They wanted to stay in their old, once-fancy neighborhoods, but what could they do? Their neighborhoods were becoming less safe, and their schools were deteriorating too.

And because so many people had moved to Richburb, jobs started to follow the people - which meant that some people would have shorter commutes if they lived in Richburb. They wanted to stay in their old neighborhoods, but what could they do? Their taxes kept going up, and their neighborhoods were deteriorating, and their commutes kept getting longer and longer.  And because a lot of the Richburb jobs weren't transit-accessible, transit accesibility, City's biggest advantage, didn't mean as much as it used to.

And so after a few decades, City had lost half its population, and no one but a few hipsters and a lot of poor people lived there (and more recently, a few yuppies colonizing its glittering, redeveloped downtown).

Then another highway opened up a new suburb called Richburb-2 for development. And a few of the better-off people in Richburb moved to Richburb-2, and were replaced by some people trying to get out of City's ghettoes. And City's cycle of decline started to happen all over again in Richburb. The revolution of sprawl was starting to devour its own children.

So half a century from the first highway into Richburb, City had become a pretty poor place, and Richburb was following it into the dustbin of history. All because a long time ago, 5 percent of the people wanted to move. And of course, the local paper said that all of this must have happened because everyone wanted to move to the suburbs.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



the real villain

Interesting, but I think you missed your real "villain" - technology, particularly in the transportation category.

Looking at old cities, it's pretty clear that those with means have tried for many, many years (probably centuries) to separate themselves from the have-nots. I'm not aware of any city that doesn't have some areas with high-end homes, other with much more modest dwellings. They may be close to one another, but they're not completely intermingled. Is this an attractive trait? Probably not, but it appears to be human nature (there are exceptions, of course, but they're rare). The only "egalitarian" type community (on a city scale, not a smaller living unit) I am aware of is where the populace is universally poor, and hence have few options other than subsistence living.

However, people were limited in how much they could move away due to the practicalities of being able to conduct daily business. Indeed, for wealthy residents who relied on the labor and products of those with less, this may be reduced to just walking distance. Transportation innovations (people traveling farther, faster, cheaper, easier) changed this, and people have moved accordingly. This migration was accelerated by an increasingly prosperous society - whereas the have-nots used to hugely outnumber the haves, this is not the case anymore.

If I had to pick a villain in this, I'd choose instead bad annexation laws. Laws that allow suburbs to carve off chunks of affluent suburbanites and call them self-supporting municipalities does not further the overall good. If a central city is able to annex these areas - and of course their tax bases - then it is more able to remain strong and vital through the various (inevitable) waves of in- and out-migration. But this doesn't generally happen, at least in most regions. And that's not to mention the tremendous waste of resources from duplicating governmental structures over and over and over again...

The Heck With The Burbs.

I hope Chicago is charging the suburbanites and their school age children a handsome penny when they come here to enjoy the museums, symphony, and beach.

Did you know, I'm not, as a Chicago resident, allowed to use the beach in Evanston, IL, a wealthy North Shore suburb of Chicago?

This is why calls to "patriotism" ring tin in my ear.

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