The Suburbs Will Die

Charles Marohn was a municipal engineer who maintained roads, upgraded sewer systems, kept up with state and federal building codes, and oversaw the spread of suburbs, until several events led him to realize that what he was doing was not in the best interest of communities and their futures. He started a blog, Strong Towns, to explain his views, which grew into a community of urban planners who believe there’s a better way to build communities than by expanding suburbia.  

Marohn primarily takes issue with the financial structure of the suburbs. The amount of tax revenue their low-density setup generates, he says, doesn’t come close to paying for the cost of maintaining the vast and costly infrastructure systems, so the only way to keep the machine going is to keep adding and growing. “The public yield from the suburban development pattern is ridiculously low,” he says. One of the most popular articles on the Strong Towns Web site is a five-part series Marohn wrote likening American suburban development to a giant Ponzi scheme.

Here’s what he means. The way suburban development usually works is that a town lays the pipes, plumbing, and infrastructure for housing development—often getting big loans from the government to do so—and soon after a developer appears and offers to build homes on it. Developers usually fund most of the cost of the infrastructure because they make their money back from the sale of the homes. The short-term cost to the city or town, therefore, is very low: it gets a cash infusion from whichever entity fronted the costs, and the city gets to keep all the revenue from property taxes. The thinking is that either taxes will cover the maintenance costs, or the city will keep growing and generate enough future cash flow to cover the obligations. But the tax revenue at low suburban densities isn’t nearly enough to pay the bills; in Marohn’s estimation, property taxes at suburban densities bring in anywhere from 4 cents to 65 cents for every dollar of liability. Most suburban municipalities, he says, are therefore unable to pay the maintenance costs of their infrastructure, let alone replace things when they inevitably wear out after twenty to twenty-five years. The only way to survive is to keep growing or take on more debt, or both. “It is a ridiculously unproductive system,” he says.

Infrastructure is more than just water and sewer lines. Low-density suburbs need more fire stations, longer school bus routes, more road maintenance, and more miles patrolled by police. Time tells Marohn’s story in an excerpt from the new book The End of the Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher. -via Digg 

(Image credit: Flickr user La Citta Vita)


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"The thinking is that either taxes will cover the maintenance costs, or the city will keep growing and generate enough future cash flow to cover the obligations."
This is the definition of a pyramid scheme. Things should not depend on a constant rate of growth.
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