BLIGHT and SPRAWL: Just the way it goes?

Cities everywhere are taxing themselves out of existence. Even as residents revolt against the property tax, cities struggle to keep schools open and streets repaired.

Nobody seems to want to build anything in once-proud downtowns like Cleveland, Camden, Hartford, St. Louis... it's a depressingly long list. Cities decay while new development gobbles up the surrounding farmland.

Our society seems to offer perverse guidelines for economic development:

  1. Always choose the remotest possible location. Make suburban sprawl come to you.
  2. Farms outside of urban areas should be paved over. Our food should come from very large farms, very far away.
  3. Never use an existing site if a new one can be cleared.
  4. Never design a community that lets people walk to work or shops. Driving is always better.
New Mexico: is this really necessary?
The funny thing about sprawl in the United States is that when we had a whole empty continent to expand into, towns didn't sprawl. Transportation was difficult. Only with the mass production of cars and highways did people become willing to travel large distances to buy a loaf of bread, go to work, or visit their friends.

The rise of the automobile was the first great cause of the social and ecological catastrophe of sprawl. The second was the chronic decline of cities.
Connecticut: more parking lots than buildings.
In city after city, soaring costs of public services (and the troubles of left-behind poor people) drove taxpayers to flee. Developed land, richly provided with public infrastructure, was left to decay. New development ate up fertile farmland, demanding ever more roads, sewers, power lines and parking lots.

The "guidelines" mentioned above are mandated by our tax policy. Here's how:

  1. We penalize buildings, wages, and all kinds of commerce with high taxes and we reward land-hoarding, warehousing and blight with very low taxes on land value.
  2. Suburban sprawl creates demand for new subdivisions, creating an irresistible pressure on farmers to cash in (and for cities to spend your tax dollars on new infrastructure).
  3. Sprawl vastly increases groundwater and greenhouse-gas pollution. The polluters benefit; the whole community pays the costs.
  4. A national commitment to highways and low oil prices have made automobiles irresistably cheap and convenient.
There is a common thread in all of these problems. The value of land locations and natural resources is created by the entire community. It is greatly increased by public infrastructure investment. Yet this value is pocketed by private investors and to fund public investments, we resort to taxes that penalize production and reward waste and pollution!

We can reverse the pervasive trend toward blight and sprawl. We can take away the incentives that lead to an unconscionable waste of resources, energy and habitat.                 Want to know more?