Is Sprawl to Blame for Municipal Bankruptcies?

As the fear of more local government bankruptcies rises, William Fulton argues that sprawling development patterns play a key role in leading cities to run in the red.

It's become unquestionable that sprawl is unsustainable from an environmental point of view. But what about fiscal sustainability? Former Ventura, California Mayor William Fulton, and current Vice President for the policy and programs at Smart Growth America, opines on sprawl's role in the increasing financial woes facing many U.S. cities. "When sprawling new development happens, it's easy to mistake that for prosperity," he says. "New buildings and wide roads look great when they first meet the eye. But over time, distant development costs more, gradually bleeding taxpayers and putting the hurt on municipal budgets."

In California, especially, where sprawl ran rampant in places such as the now-bankrupt cities of San Bernardino and Stockton, revenue strategies focused that are focused on perpetual low-density development put a strain on municipal budgets once the tap runs dry. For example, "[w]hen a real estate bust hits – as it did starting in 2008 – there's no more new development to subsidize sprawling development, and cities start to run in the red," says Fulton, calling such development strategies a "Ponzi scheme."

To solve this problem, Fulton advocates for denser development, "[w]here businesses go, where houses go, where roads go, where sidewalks go, where farms and natural spaces go – all of these things collectively affect a community's economic performance and the cost of providing services there. Put things closer together, the services cost less."

"What seems cheap on the one hand isn't always when you look at it over the long haul," writes Fulton.

Full Story: The cost of America’s inefficient sprawl

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