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Sprawl Costs Money

by Lynne Jackson

ALBANY: Dr. Gary Kleppel, professor of biology at the University of Albany, outlined the economic and environmental costs of sprawl at Save the Pine Bush’s June veggie lasagna dinner at the First Presbyterian Church in Albany.
Dr. Kleppel opened his presentation by challenging conservation groups with the most important mission, “curbing urban sprawl.”

What makes urban sprawl particularly important now is the increase in the technology sector which will lead to a proliferation of development.

One of the activities Dr. Kleppel and his wife enjoy is traveling around the country looking at healthy and unhealthy cities and towns. The factor that makes the difference between healthy and unhealthy cites and towns is that money runs through healthy towns. However, growth is often likely to increase sprawl and traffic.

According to the Sierra Club, Austin, Texas is the second most sprawl threatened city in the country. 1000 people a month move to Austin. Austin has doubled in size from the 1980s to now.

Dr. Kleppel outlined his hypothesis:

The Capital District is susceptible to urban sprawl (demographic patterns suggest a propensity for sprawl).

The Capital District is capable of avoiding sprawl.

The goal is not to talk about how to impede growth, but how to use the assets of the community for growth.

Tonight, Dr. Kleppel will describe the trends in the nations, explain the impacts of suburban sprawl, answer the question Can it be stopped? and How can it be stopped?

Data from the US Census show a dramatic change in the percent of people living inside and outside a metropolitan area. The growth in Albany, Rensselaer and Schnectady counties has been flat, but Saratoga has increased rapidly.

According to information prepared by Todd Fabozzi of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission show that from 1960 to 1995, people in the Capital District have moved from the cities to the suburbs. The Capital District is not unique, the national trend is the same.

The population density in Troy in 1950 was 14 people per acre. In Clifton Park and Guilderland today, there are 1 to 2 people per acre, and the pavement has increased 200 to 300%. Are we unique? No, in Dorchester and Berkeley counties in South Carolina, the population increased 116%, and the urban land use increased 770%.

Dr. Kleppel showed photos of some of the communities that he has visited. One photo showed the main street of Brunswick, Maine, which Dr. Kleppel described as a bustling community. The density in Brunswick is 23 people/acre, and there is no feeling of crowding. Crowding has to do with how we build our communities.

Places built before World War II, were built traditionally. To compare, in the traditional community building, roads connect and are easy to get around. The land is mixed use, government buildings tend to be at the center, commerce and government buildings are mixed, and the residential areas are closely tied to the center of town.

Today, the suburbs are built with a sparce hierarchy of roads. Roads are not connected, making getting around more difficult. These roads have wide curves. (As an aside, Dr. Kleppel told us that a planner explained to him once that the reason the curves in the road had to be wide was so that a drunk person driving a car could make it around the curve and stay on the road.) Single-purpose zoning is the rule. Government, commerce, and housing are all separate. The sparce hierarchy of roads creates traffic congestion because there is only one way to get from here to there. In a traditional town or city, with a grid pattern of roads, there are many ways to get from one place to another.

The traditional growth pattern is to grow in a connected way.

51% of the people in the world live in an urban setting. In the United States, there is a shift from the central city to the suburbs. Modern subdivision design urbanizes large tracts of land.

Dr. Kleppel described the impacts of suburban sprawl. First, he mentioned aesthetics. We need a pleasing environment to live in. Traditional villages such as Saratoga Springs are so pleasing that they are places where people go to vacation.

Next, suburban sprawl causes taxes to rise. Eighty-five studies, funded by the American Farmland Trust, showed that the cost of providing services (snow plowing, roads, sewers, water, etc.) to suburban residential developments were greater than the taxes received from the residences. The average cost was $1.16 for every $1 paid in taxes. Contrast this to rural land, which costs $.30 for every $1 paid in taxes.

Some suburban communities are even more expensive. The ratio in Myrtle Beach was $1.25 for every $1 received in taxes, for Richland County, South Carolina, it is $1.50 for every $1 received. Dr. Kleppel argues that sprawl is more expensive than we can afford.

Using the cost of $1.16 for every $1 in taxes paid on a residential development, the residential development proposed Woodlawn Area would cost the city of Schenectady $156,000 per year, based on 240 houses, paying an average of $4000 a year in taxes.
Sprawl uses up massive amounts of habitat and natural resources. In Austin Texas, between 1982 and 1992, 35% of their open space was lost.

Species richness changes. In the fastest growing communities of South Carolina, 12% of the biodiversity is lost, with the growth of less than 2 people per acre. With traditional development, less than 1% of the species are lost.

Sprawl increases traffic congestion and degradation of water quality. For example, traffic congestion increased 754% since 1960 on the major highway through Austin, Texas, I35. Water quality declines. The conductivity of water in watersheds near traditional is lower than the ones near suburban development. One of the major causes of conductivity is road salt. Suburban development has many more roads per person than traditional development, increasing the need for road salt. On several measures of water quality, traditional development has less effect on the water quality than suburban development.

Dr. Kleppel offered reasons why zoning laws encourage sprawl. Current zoning laws are based on outmoded 1920s department of commerce legislation which were attempting to reform problems from the industrialization of the late 1800s.

There are many approaches which can be taken to stop sprawl. First, we must reinvest in cities. Bring back businesses to cities. Restore the urban middle class.

Dr. Kleppel suggested strongly that we invest in local production, especially in the local production of food. Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), where people sign up with a local farm. Each week, for the growing season, the person gets a share of the produce grown on the farm. Patronize the Troy Area Farmer’s Market, every Satu, 9-1, to support local farmers and buy organic and natural produce.

We need to re-organize our transportation systems by not building any new roads, live where you work, and restore the existing road grid. “Preserve what you’ve got” was the advice of the City of Austin on SEMETECH expanding to the Capital District.

We need to engage the business community in the process of reinvesting in our cities, we need to bring back retail and break up the slums. We need to engage the government, agriculture, and the conservation movement in this process.

In closing, Dr. Kleppel said we can and should stop sprawl.

To find out more information, he suggested two books, Suburban Nation — The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zybeck, and Jeff Speck and The Power Broker — Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro.

This page last modified January 12, 2008
Contact Save the Pine Bush at pinebush@aol.com.