At a meeting earlier this year at city hall, an elderly woman stood up to voice her concerns. The woman had just listened to a man from Wasatch Choice for 2040 talk about increasing urban density, cutting sprawl, and broadly making Provo more urban. The woman clearly didn’t like that idea, and ended her comment with a question.
“What I want to know,” she said slowly, “is how much is all of this going to cost us?”
The woman’s concerns apparently were shared by many in the room, and are understandable. Increasing population density, adding more public transit, building up instead of out, and other developments are big changes from the status quo. And big changes usually come with a big price tag.
But as the representative for Wasatch Choice for 2040 explained at the meeting, the opposite ends up being true: the status quo is the more expensive option.
More specifically, low density development and sprawl is costly and benefits fewer people, according to William Fulton, former mayor of Ventura, California and current vice president of Smart Growth America. Fulton writes,
When sprawling new development happens, it’s easy to mistake that for prosperity. New buildings and wide roads look great when they first meet the eye. But over time, distant development costs more, gradually bleeding taxpayers and putting the hurt on municipal budgets.
Think about it. Every time a new, spread-out subdivision is built far away from existing infrastructure, somebody has to pay for a bunch of roads that serve a small number of residents. And sewer and water lines too. And fire trucks that must travel farther to serve fewer people. And police cars. And ambulances. And school buses. And dial-a-ride buses. And – in many parts of the country – snowplows.
Fulton goes on to describe sprawl as a Ponzi scheme that will eventually, sometimes sooner other times later, leave cities high and dry. That, he argues, is a major contributing factor in the recent rash of California municipal bankruptcies.
Curiously, the people in Provo most attached to sprawl right now seem to be citizens, not elected and appointed leaders. When the woman at that meeting expressed opposition to smart growth, for example, I got the sense that Laura and I were the only people in the room that didn’t agree with her (I’m sure we weren’t actually alone, but a lot of heads were nevertheless nodding.)
These are ultimately fairly radical changes and they won’t be easy to implement. But if cities are going to prosper and remain financially solvent the general public is going to need increased education about the extensive damage the status quo causes.