Living in a Boom Town:
by Richard Navas
For centuries, Americans held an unquestioned belief that growth is good. From the founding of Jamestown, VA, in 1607 to the sudden fortunes of Silicon Valley in California, this nation was raised on the legend of El Dorado and the lure of boom towns. Tens of thousands of European settlers swept across North America to dig, farm and harness the continent’s riches and seek the promise of the next boom town. Expansion, wealth and jobs seemed to always appear together.
Following World War II, however, two decades of unprecedented expansion, wealth and job opportunities exposed serious problems with growth. The new cities were filled with noise and foul air. They were expensive to run and ate up tax revenues. The hidden costs of growth, such as huge tax increases, could no longer be ignored. A backlash prodded governments to investigate the social and economic drawbacks of growth.
In 1974, the Real Estate Research Corporation published a study titled The Costs of Sprawl.… It is one of the most frequently cited growth studies ….
Sprawl is disorganized, unplanned growth at the edge of urban boundaries. Typical features of sprawl are low housing density, large lots and an emphasis on automobile transportation …. As a city grows, the distances between homes and work places and shopping tend to grow as well. Pipes, wires and roads that connect homes, stores and utilities become more expensive because they have to be longer …. Fewer people live in each square mile, yet municipal services must reach each home. Garbage trucks, for example, travel more miles in a suburb to pick up the same amount of rubbish.
Planning and growth management can reduce many problems of growth. But the huge price of urban transportation based solely on automobiles is difficult to fix. … 40-50 percent of the land in major cities is devoted to cars. In Los Angeles, 66 percent of the land is used for cars, and that is still not enough to avoid serious congestion …. On average, a middle-income Californian will spend more than a quarter of a million dollars on automobile transportation during his or her life … When they are new, freeways often provide quick, pleasant transportation. Also housing in distant suburbs is frequently more affordable.
Growth, however, is not the bargain it appears to be. A common justification for growth is jobs …. In Whatcom County wages have plummeted while the population has risen .… While growth and the suburban pattern of development do provide benefits, many costs are either put off until the future or indirectly paid by both suburbanite and inner-city inhabitants. Eventually, someone will pay the full price for development.[…] Three types of expenses consume county and city revenues: capital improvements, operating costs and maintenance. Impact fees place the costs of growth on those who profit from growth — the developers. Developers do not like impact fees, so everyone in Whatcom County will help pay for the improvements through higher taxes. [And] developers do not need to worry about whether the cities they create are expensive to operate. They expect someone else to pay … the total cost … can easily reach $100,000 and 30,000 hours of wasted time … once growth has occurred, little can be done to reverse the damage ….
… if we spend a little time and money now to plan our cities, we will save immense amounts of time and money. In the long run, everyone — including developers — benefits from the wealth saved by forethought and planning.
Reprinted from the Winter 1996 issue of The Planet, the quarterly magazine of Huxley College of Environmental Studies.