Sunday, March 2, 2008

Development, Sprawl and Water

Sprawl: low-density, lacks mixed-use, separates residential from non-residential property, lacks mass transportation options, increases auto-dependence and commute times, consumes more and more green space, and lacks affordable housing.

I know suburbanites feel they can just continue growing outward, building more roads and sewer lines, paving over more and more green space, and this will have no deleterious effects. Yet the real debate we should be having over the Great Lakes Water Compact is that the suburbs (and sprawl) are a misguided, unsustainable pipe-dream. We don’t have enough money to take care of the roads we have now, yet some want us to continue sprawling outward. America has more paved mileage per capita than any other country. Sprawl is merely duplicating infrastructure we already have. People complain about taxes now, yet they want to continue sprawling, which will only require more police, more maintenance, more of everything, which includes more taxes.

White flight and the “screw the inner-city” attitude is what drove suburbanites outward in the first place. All of this was encouraged by the highway and home-building lobbies. Suburbanites turned their backs on the problems of the city. This was also aided by federal policies. The Federal Housing Administration provided government-insured mortgages to whites in the suburbs (while denying them in the inner-city). Policies have also kept gas prices artificially low, while reserving gas tax and highway toll revenues for road-building rather than mass transit, which subsidizes suburban commuters and continued sprawl.

Another much touted, yet becoming more so destructive, policy tool is tax incremental financing (TIF). These were initially established to bring investment to blighted, low-income areas. But nowadays, more states are loosening their eligibility requirements and allowing affluent areas to reap the benefits. TIFs allow a municipality to issue a bond to pay for part of the costs of the new development. The property tax revenue generated by the development is then used to pay off the bonds. Some municipalities also allow sales tax increments, where the sales tax generated by the new development can be diverted to redevelopment costs.

The City has the trump card in these negotiations. If suburbanites want access to the City's water: 1) move back to the city, 2) pay a ridiculous amount for the water (to offset the negative externalities of such development), 3) pay for mass transit improvements to link inner-city unemployed with suburban employment, or 4) make some effort and recognition to show that suburbanites understand their present water-deprived reality and are willing to work towards a long-term, sustainable resolution.

We cannot keep pretending that we can do whatever we wish and mold nature to our liking. The suburban land of strip malls and highways is a blight and cancer on our landscape. The idea that suburbanites can use Lake Michigan water, take it from the Great Lakes Basin, divert it west of the Subcontinental Divide, and never return it, or somehow return it through pipelines, does nothing to address the unsustainable nature of sprawl, which is devouring our green space and natural habitat nationwide. And, as Barbara Miner reports in her Milwaukee Magazine article The Politics of Water, "One of the world's oldest lakes took less than 50 years to shrink away...diverting the Aral Sea's tributary rivers in order to grow cotton in the desert - turned into a massive ecological disaster." In the last few decades the U.S. population has grown by roughly twenty percent, but urbanized land has grown by over fifty percent. This cannot continue.

The simple fact that certain localities are running out of water is Nature’s way of saying you were not supposed to be there in the first place. The sooner we realize that we can’t keep running from our problems and building over evermore green space with parking lots and highways, the better off we will be, and the better off the planet will be.

For Further Reading:
Fair Faucet
A Firm Hand on the Spigot
Great Lakes Deal Announced
Great Lakes Forever
Options Running Dry
State Struggles on Where to Draw the Line
Those who control oil and water...
Time to start paying waters real price

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