Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Guest Post: Steven Branca On Regionalism, And A Few Other Things

Long-time urbanist, city planner and sustainability expert Steven Branca offers commentary which I am glad to put up as a guest post.

(Note: A shorter version of Branca's commentary ran as a Letter to the Editor in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 5th, 2007; the debate began with a Journal Sentinel report about remarks Barrett gave to a regional meeting of environmental activists in support of the amended Great Lakes Compact.)

Writes Branca:

There is a significant fallacy in your 2/27/07 editorial about Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s 2/21/07 comments on urban sprawl.

Nowhere is there any acknowledgement that suburban development comes at great cost, and it is not the cost of building houses, or the cost to taxpayers for highways and infrastructure.

There are indeed “definitions” of sprawl, but accepting these definitions requires the acceptance of the concept of sprawl to begin with, and this is something the Journal Sentinel and suburban leaders will not do.

Some of the definition can be found in the costs.

A simple and obvious cost is reflected in new suburban neighborhoods, at the expense of destroyed city neighborhoods. A little-known fact is that freeways are much more efficient at moving land value than they are at moving cars.

What were solid neighborhoods in the central cities – poor, maybe, but cohesive and culturally-rich – are now poor and unattractive. How do you justify destroying neighborhoods in one place to build spiffy new ones elsewhere, especially at taxpayer expense?

Following from that, you can look at sprawl as an economic justice issue. (This may be another concept that goes unacknowledged by the community.) Winners and losers fall along racial, age, and economic lines. Public policy that creates such a gap in opportunity or quality of life is by definition bad public policy.

Sprawl is that public policy.

Another way to look at sprawl is the rate of land development versus the population growth rate. The Milwaukee region is in a no-growth mode, but that hasn’t stopped massive consumption of land.

One need look no farther than to the regional data on the Milwaukee 7 website to see the reality of this. More to the point, no one county has grown to any significant degree, while losing economic activity with the loss of farm and forest land. Suburban development is not growth, it’s building stuff.

Whatever “growth” may come of it is in the developers’ bottom line, and they’re in it only for the short term with no interest in long-term value.

Citing “the market” as the final arbiter of urban development is specious. The distortion of the land development market is the primary factor in its momentum and self-perpetuation.

From the original federal Housing Act of 1949, the GI Bill, and the mortgage interest deduction, the financial markets have been given extraordinary incentive to invest in suburbs.

Highways built solely with taxpayer money are, according to research as well as observation, the principal drivers of sprawl, even though the losers pay that tax, too.

That is why “growth will continue whether [Mayor Barrett] wants it to or not.”

As if this isn’t enough, the assertion that Milwaukee will reap wonderful economic gains from selling water is also false.

Whatever revenue Milwaukee gains will be overwhelmed by the development that the suburbs realize. This is like selling the key to your house.

No, Milwaukee has given enough: it’s population, cohesive neighborhoods, school quality, land value and more. Draw the line at water.

The region has done little or nothing to make central cities more attractive. A true regional partnership would be predicated on equity, and even try to make up for past inequities.

There has been a 50-year history of one-way “partnerships” in which the city loses its assets to the suburbs without so much as a thank you. Given this region’s competitiveness at a national level, what is the purpose of continuing on the same business-as-usual path?


citydem said...

Much of Waukesha is still beautiful. But it won't be much longer if development there keeps getting subsidized. Waukesha needs to get off welfare and pay its own way.It should look to solve its water problem through conservation not sucking H2O out of the Great lakes to build more crap like Pabst "farm".

Anonymous said...

Funny, Chicago sells water to almost all suburbs and they are still thriving. Maybe we should look at that model.

How can taking the position to not sell water be good for regionalization. If we want regional cooperation, let's start with water, who knows, transportation may be next. Then we can improve the City of Milwaukee.