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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sustainability & First Ring Suburbs

A first ring suburb is an encircled city that has little or no expansion potential.
Every acre within every city/suburb produces revenue that sustains the whole. Every acre also has an average operating and maintenance expense that is a function of activity and age. This is critical to an encircled suburb with no land to annex. If it doesn’t understand the implications of its land use allocation it can’t plan for the future and learn to live within the limits imposed.
Think of it this way. Each land use category is a field. A crop has a yield per acre of field allocation. Income is a function of field area, crop yield in bushels per acre, and the value per bushel. In city planning, field area is land use allocation. Crop yield is the square feet of building area constructed per acre. Income is revenue potential per square foot of building area constructed.
Gross building area per acre of land consumed is development capacity. Development capacity and revenue potential can be measured at existing locations to understand the economic implications of a land use allocation pattern.
At the present time many cities have not done the homework and cannot forecast development capacity options. They know past income and expense but this is balance sheet accounting. It is not city planning. It means that a city may know its revenue and expense per acre but have no ability to forecast the adjustments required.
In these cases a fringe suburb will pursue the annexation of land to add new revenue, but it won’t know if the revenue will be adequate to meet its expense over time. It only knows that new revenue is needed to meet old expense and that new construction has little maintenance cost. The city’s economic future is wishful thinking at best under these circumstances and an unintended Ponzi scheme at worst. The result can be sprawl that consumes the environment or the decline of an encircled city.
There is a bigger picture that I should also mention. Our cities combine to form a Built Domain. The capacity, context, composition, and intensity of land use allocation and shelter construction within the Built Domain affects our quality of life, but sprawl threatens to consume our source of life – the Natural Domain. From this perspective we live in one world, threaten another, and must learn to live within limits to protect the gift we have been given.
First ring suburbs are being forced to live within limits. They have no annexation options and this has enormous implications. At the present time many slowly decay from within because they have not recognized that a city is a farm; but a farmer can change next year’s crop to improve his income. A city does not have this luxury, and any change is fraught with negative terms such as urban renewal, redevelopment, eminent domain, confiscation, and so on.
A new highway has an easier time because the objective is clear. The purpose of redevelopment is often debatable because the homework has not been done to build credibility. The immediate assumption is that redevelopment has nothing to do with public benefit and everything to do with private gain. This may be true for an individual project based on criminal intent, but in general the assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth in a free market economy. Revenue is needed to support public benefit shared by all. Suspicion concerns the justification of expense until the deficit becomes visual blight.
There is also an underlying political issue that prevents progress. A city’s budget problems become exacerbated when redevelopment is not an option and annexation is not a possibility. This raises the specter of property devaluation. Devaluation in its present form is a slow, gradual process that allows many to escape before the threshold of blight is visually obvious. This is a future that no one wishes to acknowledge before they leave, and a problem that city planning rarely has the power to address.
As if this weren’t enough, many school systems believe they protect property value with the quality of education provided. This can distract attention from the real problem. If a city’s streets are potholed; its curbs crumbling; its basements flooding; its safety compromised; its services inadequate; and its buildings in disrepair; its property value will decline. In other words, the quality of city services protects property value. A school system protects its rate of appreciation. Confusing the two benefits can distort priorities and place a city’s future at risk.
First ring suburbs represent ideal laboratories if they have the courage to undertake the relational database research and information required. Populations have the capacity to meet adversity when they recognize a challenge. A city that is able to define the challenge will inspire confidence. It is the unknown we all fear, and the reasons for sprawl and blight are a mystery surrounded by suspicion within a vacuum of knowledge.
First Ring suburbs can lead the way by helping us all learn how to live within limits without threatening our quality and source of life.

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