Sprawl: ‘Suburbia is a massive experiment…it doesn’t work’

Credit: Strong Towns“Suburbia is a massive experiment, and millions of Americans are finding out that it doesn’t work. The numbers don’t add up for these families, and suddenly they’re behind on their mortgage, barely able to put gas in their cars and living in poverty.”Strong Towns

That quote is from an article on the geography of poverty. It is part of a series by Strong Towns on suburban poverty, which Strong Towns indicates “is a growing problem in the United States, one that is often hidden in plain sight. The immense cost of suburban infrastructure (built upon the Growth Ponzi Scheme), high transportation expenses and a disconnection from resources have combined to put millions of suburban residents into poverty.”

I live in a suburban Henrico County neighborhood (circa 1950-60s), so my hands are dirty here too. Once the neighborhoods have been built, the damage has been done. Much of the area surrounding my neighborhood has been urbanized, but we don’t have bus service within 2 miles and most of the development around our part of the region is very car-centric.

It is classic suburban sprawl and as our infrastructure ages, our localities are going into debt paying for the upkeep. Heck, we’re all going into debt, not just government.

The story takes readers back to the 1960s where a “developer has a big idea: He’s eyeing a piece of land on the edge of his city. It’s just empty fields right now, but he wants to fill it with new houses.”

He pours hundreds of thousands of dollars into new roads, Strong Towns imagines. Next come the pipes, laid out in neat lines to each empty plot—more dollars spent. “You can smell the money that the developer’s going to make on these homes, plus the new tax dollars that will fill the city coffers, all without the city paying a dime for the roads or pipes.”

Once the houses are built and down payments are paid (thanks to subsidies and credits from the federal government), the families start moving in. One family comes from the inner city: growing up, they never had a yard, much less a swimming pool. But now they’ve got acres of space, plus a little playground on their quiet cul de sac where the kids can play. It’s perfect.

As the years go by, everything begins to deteriorate:

Hundreds of dollars from the family’s budget are going to lawn care, to pool cleanings, to water bills every month—water that’s running through those pipes recently built just for their home. Dozens more dollars each month pay for the family’s weekly visit to the gas station, which fuels their trips into town for work on those recently paved roads. They knew their mortgage payments would go up when they moved into this house, but they didn’t realize how many other expenses would be added to their monthly budget out in this suburb. Twenty years later and we’ve got millions of private dollars spent to build the homes, millions of individual dollars spent to live in the homes, and it’s time for the public dollars to start rolling in. The roads need to be repaved, some of the pipes have burst, the playground looks outdated…

This article didn’t even mention the extension of services such as police, fire, emergency responders, garbage, recycling, power, gas, etc. We build more roads, it costs more to maintain them.

As I read this article, it echoed many of the thoughts I’ve had watching more and more exurban development ruin countrysides all over America. Wetlands, forests, river banks, mountain sides, farmlands — all taken so people can live further away from everything they want to do and must sign their lives away to drive everywhere. We are so addicted to the automobile. We lost how important of walkability is to maintaining community.

Curbing and discouraging further developments into the undeveloped exurban wooded areas and farmlands would be great for our sustainability. Let’s leave Mother Nature alone and preserve the remaining undeveloped land from being spoiled by man’s desire to pave over the countryside.

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