Better not Bigger

by Carolyn Chase


n the new book "Better NOT Bigger: how to take control of urban growth and improve your community," author and city planner Eben Fodor asks the question: Where are you on the growth spectrum? As if to illustrate the lack of candor and clarity in dealing with growth he asks us to take the following quiz:

1. How much more traffic congestion would you like in your community?

  1. There is already plenty of traffic, thanks.
  2. Just a little bit more, please.
  3. A whole lot more.

2. How much more air and water pollution would you prefer?

  1. We have too much already.
  2. Just a little more pollution, please.
  3. Give me toxic soup!

3. How much more farmland and open space do you want to be developed?

  1. It would be nice if we could save what we have left.
  2. I suppose we have to sacrifice this land in the name of "progress."
  3. I can't bear the sight of undeveloped land going to waste.

4. How much higher do you want your taxes to go?

  1. For what I'm getting, I think I'm paying enough already.
  2. I'm happy to pay more, even if I can't see any benefits.

5. How much more of your local natural resources (fresh water, electric power supply, forests, aggregates and minerals) do you want consumed?

  1. I'd like to conserve our natural resources and use them as efficiently as possible.
  2. We have to sacrifice our resources to create prosperity.
  3. We should sell all our natural resources for a quick buck.

6. Would you prefer that your city government continue to subsidize new development, or should they use the money to fund schools, extend library hours, offer day care at community centers, create cultural and recreational programs, and still have enough left over for a tax cut?

  1. I'll take the expanded services and the tax cut, please.
  2. Let's keep the development fire stoked with my tax dollars.

7. How much bigger do you want your community to be?

  1. It's already big enough.
  2. Let's just keep growing and see what happens!
  3. I love big cities but am too lazy to move to one.

Does this quiz seem absurd? Only because no one ever puts it quite this way before the public or the voters.

Fodor also tackles "The Twelve Big Myths of Growth." His main focus is in untangling the web around paradoxes of jobs, housing, the economy and environmental protection.

He sums up our growth spiral conundrum as: "increasing development leads to increasing population creates a demand for public services and infrastructure that is likely to offset the tax revenue gains."

Fodor cites study after study demonstrating how growth raises taxes. There are dozens of these studies that all come to the same conclusion. New growth reaches into the pockets of established residents to finance additional infrastructure and services - or the infrastructure or services are allowed to degrade.

Commercial and industrial developments sometimes pay more in taxes than they require in services, but the traffic and pollution they generate reduces nearby property values. New employees don't want to live near the plant, so they commute, adding both to the pollution, traffic and to the tax burden in other jurisdictions.

Fodor quotes Oregon environmentalist Andy Kerr, who calls urban growth, "a pyramid scheme in which a relatively few make a killing, some others make a living, but most [of us] pay for it." In her column "The Global Citizen," scientist Donella Meadows points out: "As long as there is a killing to be made, no tepid "smart-growth" measures are going to stop sprawl. We will go on having strips and malls and cookie-cutter subdivisions and traffic jams and rising taxes as long as someone makes money from them."

Fodor identifies the driving force behind the status quo as the "urban growth machine." "The benefits flow to a few while the costs (congestion, decreased quality of life, higher taxes) are spread among the many." Growth does benefit some people: landowners, real estate developers, mortgage bankers, realtors, construction companies and contractors and building suppliers - to name a few. While these players may disagree on some issues, they all have a common economic interest in promoting local growth, offloading costs, and working the political system to maintain their benefits.

Meadows further observes: "We can't blame those who make the money. They're playing the game according to the rules, which reward whomever is clever enough to put any cost of doing business onto someone else. They get the profits, we build the roads. They hire the workers (paying as little as they can get away with, because the market requires them to cut costs), we sit in traffic jams and breathe the exhaust. They get jobs building the subdivision, we lose open lands, clean water, and wildlife. Then we subsidize them with our taxes. That, the tax subsidy, is not the market, it's local politics.
Collectively we set out pots of subsidized honey at which they dip. We can't expect them not to dip; we can only expect them to howl if the subsidy is taken away."

Fodor identifies the growth subsidies that are ultimately borne by taxpayers and suggests growth-neutral policies "to get local government out of the business of stimulating growth" and to establish policies for development to pay its own way." He also reports on a survey of growth measures in all of California's 443 cities and counties which showed that "cities that enacted growth controls also enacted more affordable housing incentives than cities without growth controls" and that these cities also showed "no racial or income class pattern in the enactment of the many growth controls. . . .A good growth policy should result in broadly distributed, long-term benefits to the community."

Available from New Society Publishers, Better NOT Bigger is an important primer explaining and exploding the myths of our more is better political culture and provides basic tools for those seeking to deal fairly and - yes, smartly - with growth.