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Decentralization and Sprawl Development: Consequences, Causes, Solutions 

12-09-2015 17:35

I am going to talk about the major trends affecting cities and metropolitan areas in the United States, particularly the decentralization of economic and residential life. I am then going to address the consequences of these trends “why they matter” as well as show how existing government policies facilitate and subsidize these patterns “why they are happening.” Finally, I will discuss how “smart growth” solutions, including historic preservation, can help build more sustainable and competitive metropolitan communities.

The following trends emerge from the 2000 census:

First, cities are growing which is good news but metropolitan areas are still sprawling.

There is a resurgence of American cities. During the 1970s, the top 50 cities in the country lost population; during the 1980s they grew by about 6.3 percent. During the 1990s, by contrast, they grew by close to 10 percent. Several large cities like Atlanta, Denver, Chicago, and Memphis literally turned around in the 1990s. These cities moved from losing populations (in Chicago’s case for four straight decades) to gaining populations.

In spite of this growth, population decentralization, the out-migration of people, remains the dominant growth pattern in the United States. Suburbs grew almost twice as fast as cities in the 1990s, by about 17 percent to 9 percent. And every household type grew at faster rates in the suburbs than in the cities. The relentless pace of population decentralization was particularly present in metropolitan areas surrounding “turnaround cities.” Atlanta, for example, grew by 6 percent in the 1990s, a total of 22,000 people. Yet its suburbs grew by 44 percent or 1.1 million people. Similarly, Chicago saw 4 percent growth in the 1990s, or 112,000 people. Yet its suburbs grew by 15 percent or 650,000 people.

Second, as people go, so do jobs. That’s a cliché, but it is absolutely true. The suburbs now dominate employment knowlgrowth and are no longer just bedroom communities for workers commuting to traditional downtowns. Rather, they are now strong employment centers serving a variety of functions in their regional economies. The American economy is rapidly becoming an exit ramp economy, with office, commercial, and retail facilities increasingly located along suburban freeways.

A new spatial geography of work and opportunity has emerged in metro America. Across the largest 100 metro areas, on average, only 22 percent of people work within three miles of the city center. Incredibly, one-third of the jobs are located more than ten miles away from traditional downtowns.

This employment decentralization varies widely across the country. In places like New York, a substantial portion of the office market still remains within the central business district. But in places like Dallas or Atlanta or even Miami, office space, which is generally perceived as a central city function, is now finding its way out to the fringe of metropolitan areas.

In all metropolitan areas, the new geography of work is transforming our daily commuting patterns; the highest share of metropolitan commutes now begins and ends within suburbs. We are all literally stuck in traffic.

Finally, immigration and demographic diversity are transforming our social landscape— it is no longer “your parents’ city or suburb.” For example, the growth that occurred in central cities in the 1990s was dominated by immigration. The Hispanic population in American cities increased by 43 percent during the 1990s; the Asian population by 38 percent. By contrast, the black population grew about 6 percent and the white population actually continued to decline.

If not for immigration, several of the nation’s largest cities, particularly New York, would have actually lost population during the 1990s and continued their economic slide. As a result of these demographic shifts, America’s largest cities became majority minority for the first time in our history. The ratio of the largest cities shifted from about 53 percent white, 24 percent black, and 17 percent Hispanic in 1990 to 44 percent white, 24 percent black, and 23 percent Hispanic in 2000.

Nor is this just about cities. In many metropolitan areas, a majority of immigrants are skipping the city and moving directly to the suburbs. In Washington, D.C., for instance, about 87 percent of the immigrants who came to Washington—one of the biggest immigrant magnets in the 1990s—settled in the suburbs. Today more than one in four suburban households is a minority. Thirty-nine percent of African Americans now live in the suburbs, 55 percent of Asians, and 50 percent of Hispanics.

Despite this growing racial diversity, however, we are still seeing patterns of segregation and racial and ethnic separation. Race and ethnicity continue to shape metropolitan growth patterns in the United States in profound ways. Population decentralization and sprawl development on the fringe are, in many respects, the flip sides of continued racial and ethnic separation.

Consequences of Decentralization

What are the consequences of these trends? In the past, observations about decentralization and sprawl focused primarily on its effect on land, the environment, and air and water quality. But decentralization and sprawl also impose a series of costs that are important to recognize.

First decentralization is fiscally wasteful. It increases costs on communities and taxpayers. Low-density development increases demand for new schools, new roads, new public facilities, and new sewers and water extensions. It also increases the cost of delivering services, such as police, fire, and emergency medical help. In many places the bulk of these services are paid for by public dollars.

Decentralization also diminishes the economic competitiveness of our nation and the quality of life in our metropolitan communities.

The American economy is restructuring, making the transition from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge edge and innovation based economy. This transition makes cities and density important again. Dense urban areas are the places with the amenities that attract high-knowledge workers. This concentration of skills and talent leads to more productivity and innovation, and more growth and prosperity for the nation.

In many metropolitan areas, however, unbalanced growth is weakening the downtown cores, the older suburbs and urban places that we now know are critical to attract and retain the young workers who will fuel the next economy.

Decentralization is costly because it strains the transportation system and increases travel costs. Decentralization has increased the number of areas that need to be served by roads. It is generating more driving miles, adding to congestion. Decentralization is also adding to household costs. Transportation is now the second largest household cost behind housing. Decentralization is deepening a crisis, in state after state, concerning how to preserve and maintain the existing infrastructure while still having to add more infrastructure as well.

Finally, decentralization is costly because it isolates minorities and low-income residents from job opportunities. Decentralization and sprawling development patterns, especially the development of the exclusive communities at the fringe of metropolitan areas, exacerbates the social isolation of the core. It reduces educational opportunities in cities and distances low-income people from job opportunities. In many metropolitan areas, a pronounced “spatial mismatch” has arisen between neighborhoods where low income workers and minorities live and places where jobs are growing.

Causes of Current Trends

Why is this happening? Some believe that our growth patterns are inevitable, the natural result of demographic change, market restructuring, and consumer preferences. Some observers seem to believe that there is an American gene that makes each of us seek out that large plot of land 30 miles away from the city center.

Yet our research shows that major federal and state spending programs, tax expenditures, regulatory and administrative policies what we call the “rules of the development game” have also fundamentally shaped unbalanced growth patterns in metropolitan areas. These rules, taken together, facilitate sprawl, concentrate poverty, and basically give us the kind of greenfield development that exists throughout the country.

Our recent work in Pennsylvania showed how five kinds of policies are contributing to the decentralization of metropolitan areas:

1. Major state spending programs on roads, on economic development, on infrastructure skew funding to greenfields and away from older communities. In Pennsylvania, for example, 58 percent of transportation funding is going to newer communities, yet only 42 percent of the state’s population lives in these communities. Economic development spending lacks any kind of strategic discipline and goes to support the construction of industrial parks and office parks along new freeways rather than traditional arterials, contributing to the exit ramp economy.

2. State tax systems are biased against older cities and suburbs. City revenue bases are small, in part, because cities have so many tax-exempt properties such as nonprofit universities and hospitals. City expenses are very high because of concentrated poverty and aging infrastructure.

3. States do not have any coherent planning among all their disparate agencies. What the road builders do is separate from what the housing department does. And what the housing department does is different from what the environmental department does. In addition, most states do not require municipalities to have land-use plans that put smart, fiscally responsible growth at the center of new development.

4. There are many barriers to reinvestment. For example, it is hard to develop brownfields in the United States. It is hard to assemble financing for urban land projects because of the contamination on many of these sites and the expenses associated with remediation.

5. Fragmented governments are also contributing to decentralization. Many rustbelts states, in particular, have large numbers of local governments. In Illinois, for example, there are 2,824 local general purpose governments. We have sprawl, in part, because we have too many parochial governments, each of which tries to out-compete its neighbor for high-end retail, high-end residential, high-end industrial and commercial growth.

Solutions: A Smart Growth Approach

So what is the answer? In the past decade we have seen a new ethic emerge about growth and development in the United States. “Smart growth” the term primarily used to describe this new paradigm means many things to many people. The core of smart growth, however, involves efforts to change the rules of the development game that now facilitate sprawl and concentrate poverty, to change them in such a way that we can slow decentralization, promote the reinvestment of cities and older suburbs, and enhance access to opportunity.

To slow decentralization we need to:

  • Encourage collaborative regional governance between cities and suburbs.
  • Reform land-use policies for metropolitan areas, making sprawl hard and redevelopment easy.
  • Change our approach to infrastructure spending for roads, water, and sewers, which set the skeleton of these metropolitan areas.
  • Change our tax system, so we reduce the disparities between older and new communities and level the playing field.
  • Give low-income workers and minority workers access to opportunity.

Across the country, states, in particular, are adopting these strategies and taking steps to reduce sprawling development.

In Georgia, for example, a regional transportation authority has been created to consider alternatives to road building and combat air pollution and traffic congestion.

In Ohio, the Clean Ohio Fund, a new kind of city/rural coalition, unites rural land preservation interests with those who want to redevelop cities and communities.

In Maryland, there has been a major effort initiated by former governor Parris Glendening to weed the subsidy out of sprawl and target state investments to older communities.

In Minnesota, a fiscal disparities law allocates 40 percent of the growth in property tax revenues from commercial and industrial development (including the development of big box retail) to a regional pool, narrowing the tax inequities between central cities, older suburbs, and rapidly growing communities at the fringe.

The list goes on and on and on.

These state advances show that smart growth is politically potent. It is possible to knit together what has been, in the past, a theoretical coalition between city activists, elected officials, downtown developers, regional business leaders, environmentalists, and advocates of suburban livability and rural conservation. It is possible to move beyond traditional partisan and ideological divisions and create coalitions that cross jurisdictional, disciplinary, and racial and ethnic lines.

Historic preservation can be a critical component of these efforts to slow the decentralization and sprawling development that is so drastically changing the American landscape.

Publication Date: Winter 2005


Author(s):Bruce Katz

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