Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Chuck Banas: This Is Sprawl

[ I stumbled across this incredible post via a link from Buffalo Rising. The author, Chuck Banas, posted it on his blog, Joe the Planner, which has only a few posts, but boy do they pack a wallop. Chuck, who is an urban planning consultant and community activist in Buffalo, New York, and chairs the SmartCode Committee at the New Millennium Group (of Western New York)., kindly gave me permission to repost. – Aaron ]

Sprawl is a word familiar to most people, but few can tell you exactly what it means. Even experts don’t always agree on a precise definition.

The term itself is somewhat ambiguous, and often divisive. This is especially true when the word is preceded by the modifiers suburban or urban, which is commonly the case. Then the term is really loaded. Political discussion of the topic regularly provokes the already contentious relationships between cities and suburbs. This needlessly causes communities that should be cooperating to take sides against each other.

Here in the Buffalo-Niagara region, only one other word is as divisive: regionalism. Yeah, I said it. First the s-word, and now the r-word. Good thing I’m not a politician, because my career would probably have just ended. The r-word, as I shall call it from now on, became a four-letter word in this area just shy of a decade ago, after a certain County Executive decided to make city-county consolidation his focus. He got pretty far, too, before allegations of political corruption, a county bankruptcy, and public dissension finally killed the idea. Too bad.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The intent of this post is to provide some conceptual clarity regarding the concept of sprawl, both nationally and locally. I’ll also be explaining what sprawl and the r-word have to do with one another, and why this is fundamentally important to the future of everyone in the Buffalo-Niagara region. As usual, I’ll do this by providing a big-picture narrative combined with some statistics and visuals.

A Case Study for Sprawl

No matter what the wording, sprawl refers to the spreading-out of a population of people and its effects—effects that are often harmful to our individual lives and counterproductive to our shared goals. Of course, sprawl is not unique to us in Western New York, or even to the United States. It occurs everywhere throughout the world in varying forms, but we Americans arguably lay claim to inventing a most peculiar and pernicious strain of it. This has resulted in the virtual trashing of our traditional cites and towns, along with the paving-over of agricultural lands and other countryside that surrounds them.

But the argument against sprawl is not simply an aesthetic one; some of the most debilitating effects are social, cultural, and economic. You might wish to check out my previous post for a provoking take on sprawl as a national phenomenon.

As it turns out, the Buffalo Metro area is a nearly ideal case for the study of sprawl and its effects. This is for two main reasons: (1) the region has well-established pre-World War II, pre-automobile cities and towns, and (2) the metro population has essentially remained unchanged since the end of WWII.

Yep, you read that right. Buffalo’s metro population has essentially remained unchanged for the last 60 years. With all the talk about population loss, it seems that many people don’t realize this. Buffalo hasn’t shrunk; it’s just spread-out. This makes the effects of sprawl quite obvious because there’s been no significant statistical muddying caused by changes in population.

Same Number of People, Three Times the Stuff

What does this mean? Put simply, the same number of people spread over an area over three times larger means there is three times the amount of stuff that the same number of people have to pay for.

Most visibly, that’s over three times the infrastructure costs: three times the roads, power lines, water lines, sewer systems, gas service, schools, fire stations, police, etc. This stuff doesn’t get magically built and maintained on its own; the money has to come from somewhere. And it does: it comes out of all of our pockets directly or indirectly through higher local, county, and state taxes and fees; through the personal requirement to own and maintain one or more automobiles; through the wasted time and money of longer commutes to/from work, shopping, and entertainment; and from chauffeuring the kids back and forth to hockey practice or piano lessons.

All of this extra space we occupy has precisely the effects you’d predict. We in Erie and Niagara Counties now drive 53% more miles per year than we did in 1980. Nationally, the effects are even more stark: from 1977 to 2001, the number of miles driven every year by Americans rose by 151%—about five times faster than the growth in population. Americans spend four times as much on transportation as Europeans. It costs over $7,000 per year to maintain a single car. And, if you can believe it, the average American household today makes 14 individual car trips per day. (An interesting study found that if only one car trip per day were eliminated, this would result in an annual savings of about $1,100 per household.)

Statistics aside, all of these additional obligations in time and money make us poorer—both individually and collectively. Over the last 60 years, we’ve been too busy trying to keep up with basic infrastructure maintenance to invest much in our future. Individually, people have less to spend on housing, food, transportation, health care, entertainment, etc. There are fewer public resources available for schools, parks, cultural institutions, and other public services. There is less disposable income at all levels, and little capital left in society to invest in new business and new forms of wealth creation.

The cycle goes like this: We spread out and build more stuff. Costs go up. Taxes go up. Services get cut. Institutions languish. The quality of everyone’s life diminishes. Citizens complain about the corruption and inefficiency of government. And it repeats in a vicious cycle.

That’s not the only cost. In this zero-sum game, every winner in the region creates one or more losers. As we’ve subsidized new development in the region, older neighborhoods have suffered. Every new house built on a greenfield means a house somewhere else blighted, abandoned, or demolished. Every new square-foot of retail space devalues or destroys a square-foot elsewhere. Poverty and crime grow like a cancer, which are huge economic drags on the region. Without the resources for proper maintenance, older roads, bridges, sewers, and other infrastructure deteriorate. And that cycle repeats itself, too.

The result is we’re less able to compete against other, growing, lower-taxed areas. We have a hard time attracting new people or new investment because we’re continually burdening ourselves with new costs that add no real value to our region.

In fact, it’s not too much to say that virtually all the so-called ‘growth’ that we’ve seen here in the last half-century has been an illusion. Sure, it kinda looked like real growth—new roads, new homes, new strip malls, new schools—but because there has been no increase in population, it’s really a rigged shell game. For the last three generations, we’ve spent the greater part of our collective regional wealth moving about a third of our population further and further out into the countryside.

“So what?” you say? “People voted with their feet.” But if you think this has been solely a matter of consumer choice, a free-market phenomenon, think again. It is well documented that sprawl is driven mainly by destructive public policy, bad planning, and a lack of municipal coordination (again, read my previous post).

There is another significant cost to the low-density, auto-oriented living arrangement we’ve constructed. Vitality, be it economic, cultural, or otherwise, requires a critical mass. If too many elements of the economy and society are spread too thin across the landscape, then even a million people can’t create a healthy, dynamic economy, let alone pay for the required infrastructure. Economic and social capital don’t work if spread too thin. Markets don’t work if too many ingredients are isolated from each other.

The result? We end up exactly in the type of situation we find ourselves today. Surprised, anyone?

The Big Picture

At this point, all of this blather about strip malls, taxes, and blight might have you a bit glassy-eyed. It’s often easy to get lost among the details, so sometimes it helps to step back and look at the big picture.

Specifically, I’m referring to the picture below, which may help bring the issue of sprawl into even sharper focus. This map tells the story of our region’s problems perhaps more clearly than any of the reams of reports issuing from governments or foundations. The diagram also suggests a obvious solution to our regional problems.

Shown on the map at left is the extent of urbanized area in Metro Buffalo in 1950 and 2000 (yellow and red, respectively). The wording of the official U.S. Census Bureau definition is a little tricky, but for these purposes urbanized area refers to just about any census block within Erie and Niagara Counties that has a population density greater than 1,000 people per square mile.

What does this simple measure mean? Well, a high-ish population density of 1,000 or more implies an urban or suburban settlement—and all of the infrastructure required to support it; namely, roads, sewers, electric, schools, police, etc. All that stuff we covered above. So as the map shows, we’ve now got over three times the amount of stuff to maintain for the same amount of people we had in 1950.

If this isn’t a shocking call to action, I don’t know what is. This shows the vital critical mass of people and money and ideas diffused and squandered. This shows our region bleeding to death.

In simplest terms, this is sprawl. This is arguably our area’s essential problem, summarized neatly in a single picture. And bear in mind that this is only a snapshot of a ongoing trend. When the 2010 figures are released, there is sure to be a bunch more red on this map.

The R-Word

What’s the solution? Well, in a word: the r-word. Some people call it regional government (which for me is way too close to the r-word). Others call it metropolitan government or inter-municipal coordination. Whatever the term, it refers to a layer of governance and planning at the regional scale, so that all of the region’s resources can be coordinated effectively.

Currently, there are 64 separate municipalities in Buffalo-Niagara, with virtually no coordination or cooperation between them. Towns poach development from each other. Villages plan independently of their surrounding towns. Developers know the game, and play government entities against one another for public subsidy. There is duplication of services and unnecessary waste. And no one is steering the big ship.

In short, we spend most of our time fighting one another instead of working to compete effectively against other regions—many of which already have their metro-government acts together. If we want things to change, we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done. More of the same old self-inflicted harm won’t turn things around.

There is hope, however. The city-county merger almost came to a vote before county bankruptcy, a control board, and the events of 9/11 put a stop to it. Metro Buffalo already includes respected regional government entities that address certain cross-jurisdictional functions, including an excellent metro transportation system (NFTA) and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system.

Also, it must be noted, most other regions have leadership that’s just as slow and incompetent as ours seems to be. Nationally, the bar isn’t set that high.

Suffice it to say that, as a region, it is our choice to work together. Or not. We have it within our power to shape our own future, but only if we see that all of us—all the cities, towns, and villages in this thing we call Buffalo-Niagara—are in this together.

The metropolitan area is the only meaningful social and economic unit that exists in this region. We share the same history, culture, climate, sports teams, and cultural assets—and we all ultimately share the same fate. Perhaps, after decades of declining fortunes, we’ve forgotten this fact. Fear has made our politics dysfunctional and turned our leaders into insular cowards. Decades of tough times will do that.

The good news is this: some of the groundwork is already laid. The good ideas are out there. Most people in this area would agree that we need to change how we do things, and a significant number would advocate a regional approach to governance.

But we must choose to govern not based on fear, but on the faith in our ability to shape our future. And each new day hands us the same choice.

This post originally ran at Joe the Planner under the title “Sprawl and the r-word, a Buffalo-Niagra Case Study.” Reprinted with permission of the author.

Topics: Public Policy, Regionalism, Sustainability
Cities: Buffalo

21 Responses to “Chuck Banas: This Is Sprawl”

  1. Curt says:

    He has a way with words. You can’t craft it in a more understandable way. Thanks for the repost Aaron

  2. chuck s says:

    Banas had me until he proposed his solution. Where is the evidence that regionalism is a solution? Nashville and Indy have city-county mergers AND sprawl. Ditto Kansas City. Portland does not have city-county merger, but it has a layer of regional government (Metro), AND sprawl, high property taxes, and expensive homes on tiny lots. Out west, counties are huge and are able to serve this “regionalism” function. Yet King Co., Maricopa Co., Salt Lake Co. and the rest still have sprawl.

    I just don’t believe governmental formalism is going to reduce sprawl.

  3. Buffalo Denizen says:


    No, regionalism isn’t the be-all, end-all of curbing sprawl.

    But I certainly like to think of it more as a tool or mechanism, that if used properly, can do a much better job than fragmented municipalities when it comes to things like collecting, organizing and directing regional resources toward projects that can strengthen the region as a whole over time.

    Also, the sprawl you mention in those areas is a result of many decades of economic and cultural inertia that afflicted the entire nation. These metros have the tools in place to start doing things right if they haven’t already started doing so. Just think of how much a pain in the ass it would have been for Portland to built its multi-municipality, multi-county light rail system without an centralized mechanism in place to make each unit play together as a coherent whole.

  4. Many of the more regionalized governments have been busy encouraging sprawl–while they can reduce inter-municipal competition, there still is the pressure from developers and others to build and expand. Even in Portland, where Metro (which is politically dominated somewhat by the City of Portland) has a strong anti-sprawl agenda, many of the suburban municipalities openly oppose Metro’s initiatives, and want more land and more roads.

    And there are only two real cures for sprawl: infill, or contraction. Infill is highly unpopular due to the NIMBY affect, and requires in-migration to work; contraction (such as Detroit has been thinking of–the essential abandonment of far-flung areas) is even politically more difficult, especially if you don’t pay for people to relocate.

  5. DaveOf Richmond says:

    “Buffalo hasn’t shrunk; it’s just spread-out.” That’s true only if you compare today with 1950. The Buffalo metro reached its peak population in 1970, and has shrunk about 17% since then, which I think is a rather significant loss.

    Like others here, I also question his solution of regionalism. I’m not against the idea, but I’m baffled as to why some city/density advocates think they’re going to be the big winners in such a setup. The people you’re incorporating into your regional government are not going to suddenly become dedicated urbanites – they’re going to be the same people that are there now. Why won’t the more numerous suburban/exurban folks simply dominate the new regional government?

  6. aim says:

    “Why won’t the more numerous suburban/exurban folks simply dominate the new regional government?”

    They likely will. Aaron has talked about how the suburban interests have worked the Indy city-county consolidation to their advantage at the expense of less advantaged parts of the city. Regionalism provides the opportunity to share costs and develop services, like transit, that are less likely to happen under fragmented government units. But it’s no guarantee that it will happen. In the US, I think the Minneapolis tax-base sharing model may be a better approach. Where it lacks the strong central control aspect of some other models, the shared tax base approach gives the suburbs a much bigger incentive to work with the core cities at keeping them healthy and contributing to the shared resource.

  7. Thanks for the comments.

    I think regional government has its pros and cons. Nevertheless, I through this was a well reasoned piece. The bit on regionalism is not integral to the description of sprawl if you don’t like it. Also, I like to present a diversity of thoughtful positions as I don’t think anyone can claim they’ve truly figured out the One True Answer for urban America. Different things might work in different places.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Well-written article. I’d love to see pre/post-1950 development maps for other cities.

  9. DaveOf Richmond says:

    Aaron, yes I agree that his description of sprawl is a good one and thanks for posting this item as I would not have seen it if you hadn’t.

    As you indicate, there are so many ideas out there about how to make cities better and what the priority should be that it can be difficult for an interested amateur such as myself to wrap his head around it. Thank you for presenting a civilized space where I can offer a comment or two.

  10. cdc guy says:

    Dave, it’s sometimes difficult for an engaged professional (who started as an interested amateur) to wrap his head around this stuff, too.

    I agree with you that Aaron provides a place for thoughtful and civilized interaction from a variety of perspectives. I’ve learned much from him and his guest bloggers and posters. Plus he’s a cool guy to have a beer with. :)

  11. Great piece. Chuck really has a way with the words, something that rings especially true after reading his other work. I am going to take a few of these sentences with me and use them for future arguments. So thank you for that, ha!

  12. AmericanDirt says:

    Banas seems to do a darn good job at de-aestheticizing sprawl, which is critical, because so many planners are fixated on the aesthetics of sprawl. But planners are a coterie that is almost unanimously enamored with old urban forms, which, as evidenced by our migration patterns over the last 70 years, mean little to most people. The fact is, most metropolitan residents don’t care what sprawl looks like–it’s not that it’s ugly or beautiful…the appearance is simply irrelevant, much like the interior hallways of hotels. No big deal, as long as where we sleep is comfortable and appealing.

    As tightly worded as Banas’ argument is regarding the inefficiencies of sprawl, I still agree with chuck s in terms his questionable solution. Truth be told, I still wonder if sprawl is as profound of a problem as he makes it out to be, at least when it pertains to fast growing metros. Banas’ post is Buffalo-centric (he makes no bones about it) and in a flat or shrinking metro, greenfield development most frequently equates to urban abandonment, which is not necessarily the case in fast growing metros. And the cities with the least amount of sprawl, either geographically induced or by regulatory fiat, overwhelmingly suffer from low housing affordability–an issue which often transcends everything else, if the sunbelt migrations are any indicator. If sprawl (or “decentralization” as I prefer to call it) is the status quo without some sort of regionally enforced regulation, could it be, as one instructor of mine put it–and I have quoted her frequently–that sprawl is the democratization of the urban landscape?

  13. cdc guy says:

    Sprawl is only the decentralization of the urban landscape and the substitution of one urban form for another.

    What we today consider “urban” (neighborhoods like those in Detroit that Aaron featured in his recent post) were considered suburban 80-100 years ago when they were developing.

    Non-urban land has always been available for those who really want to live, work, or sell goods on the outskirts of town, and it has always been converted for those purposes.

    I hate to go all “urban planner” on you, but really the ability to live further and further from the city center is the result of the “democratization” of the automobile and truck. (That much of the urban planners’ bible is true.)

    One consequence has been that decentralized commercial/office/industrial nodes sprang up in greenfields to replace less-efficient central-city factories. It just keeps feeding on itself, as people flee the congestion and traffic of the decentralized nodes…then build new ones closer to home.

    It’s almost as if the end of WWII was the big bang in urban development, setting into motion an ever-expanding universe in each metro. Buffalo is not alone, except it is one kind of case…non-growth, or even shrinkage. The expanding metros of the last 30 years are a different kind of case.

    Artificial UGB’s and other rule-fiats are not the solution. Large impact fees probably are, as they would internalize some of the externalized (by developers) current and future costs of sprawl.

    In economic terms, instead of marginal cost pricing of new homes, the price would be closer to a net present value of the future stream of costs created by those who seek the benefits of living in the newly-bulldozed beanfield.

    If and when the costs of sprawl are built into the price of new suburban development, then we will see if the choice of suburban living is really “democratic” or simply a (structurally inefficient) market at work where lots of costs can be externalized.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    Artificial UGB’s and other rule-fiats are not the solution.

    They worked fine in Hong Kong.

  15. Sprawl may be the result of democratization of space. It might also even be preferred. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real costs. Same number of people, three times the stuff sums it up well.

    I think you’ll find that most cities, even growing ones, have had abandonment in the core and increasingly in inner ring suburbs.

    The sprawl model in my view is not troubled to much because people drive or because they spread out, but because it is built on the notion of disposable communities, where you build new, wait a generation, and when it falls apart you just abandon it to the state and build fresh a little further out.

  16. cdc guy says:

    Alon, Hong Kong is tiny in comparison to even a mid-sized US metro; its land area is smaller than Indianapolis’ core county. It is also a polyglot world trade city with a complicated history. It is not surrounded by plains and farmland, and perhaps most importantly, HK is not a democracy.

    For these reasons, I don’t think its lessons about land-use regulation are particularly applicable to the US heartland.

    Aaron, I fully agree regarding “disposable” suburbs and that’s why I support your “mother of all impact fees” concept. Building the capex into the purchase price instead of kicking the can down the road should realistically provide a bit of a disincentive for new sprawling suburbs.

    I just read in a news story today that 70% of Carmel, Indiana households do NOT have school-age children. This implies an aging-in-place population, though we will have to wait for the Census to confirm it.

    That’s surprising news; 70% is well past the tipping point where additional school levies might be resisted by those who care more about keeping their property taxes down than about maintaining or raising the school system’s quality.

  17. To add to cdc guy’s comments on Hong Kong: Until recently, it had to be utterly self-dependent for resources such as water (prior to 1997, the chances of getting so much as a drop of H2O from mainland China were practically zero)–the fact that the interior of the Kowloon Peninsula is largely off-limit to development (a key issue in the high densities along the coast) is due to practical necessity.

    While HK’s transit system is excellent (density, again); it’s also busily expanding its freeway network as well.

  18. Alon Levy says:

    Hong Kong’s population would make it the sixth or seventh largest metro area in the US. The small urban footprint comes from Hong Kong’s choice to keep most of its area off-limits to urban development.

    Democracy has nothing to do with it. Hong Kong is not Singapore. It has a weird system of government where the people get to elect half the legislature and business leaders get to elect the other half. It gives the people input, which among other things killed congestion pricing. And it’s arguably more democratic than the US, where 100% of politicians are in the pockets of their major contributors.

  19. Alon;

    You write:

    And it’s arguably more democratic than the US, where 100% of politicians are in the pockets of their major contributors.

    While I would put the actual figure of captured elected officials at well less than 100% (I can think of plenty of counter-examples), certainly a significant fraction (and quite likely a majority) are sufficiently beholden to political contributors that they act in ways which aren’t in the best interests of their constituents.

    But what about HK? The composition of the legislative council is indeed interesting; but how is capture of the “people’s half” by elites avoided? Public financing? Strict limits on campaign contributions? Or is enough capturable political power vested elsewhere so that elites need not bother?

    While I’ve spent a great deal of time visiting Hong Kong, I have never lived there and am rather clueless about local politics–and the above-reference Wikipedia article doesn’t shed any light on this particular issue.


    How are elections

  20. Alon Levy says:

    The influence of money on politics is a uniquely American thing. Elsewhere there are limits on political contributions, political commercials, etc. Different countries’ practices vary, but the billion dollar campaign is unheard of outside the US. The same is true for lawyers; the notion that success in a trial boils down to how much you spend on a top-tier lawyer doesn’t exist in any country I know anything about other than the US.

    Hong Kong’s plutocratic half of the Legislative Council is globally unique as well. Most likely, the Hong Kong elites started out with the British system and never figured out the power of unlimited campaign contributions.

  21. Tom says:

    I was born in Buffalo in 1943. I used to ride the IRC trolley cars “Downtown” to Lafayette Square at Broaday and Main. The Lafayette Theater was right there. Around the corner on Main eastboung were the Century, and Center theaters. Westbounb toward Lake Erie was the Palace Burlesque theater. Downtown was the center of Buffalo. There was some neighborhood shopping centers around the city. I lived near the City Limits of Buffalo at Bailey and Broadway where the old IRC trolley termminal was, and they turned around to go back downtown.
    The point is that Buffalo, by todays standards was very compact, and vibrant. The first “PLAZA” was the Thruway Plaza at Walden and Harlem. The NYS Thruway has just reached Buffalo. City line ended where the trolleys ended and it was mostly rural from there out.
    It is evident that Buffalo lost it’s beauty and uniequeness due to urban sprawl and expansion. It has not been for the better.
    I believe an example of a region that made a success of a “regional” government was Toronto. Each individul municipality gave up their sovereignty and eliminated a multitude of duplicious services i.e.fire, police, sanitation etc. There was better coordination.
    – Buffalo Tom

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