elimination of subsidies that fuel sprawl
Myriad government policies encourage and even require suburban sprawl and urban disinvestment. These consist of subsidies, taxes, zoning practices and regulatory regimes at all levels of government. It is important to identify the many public policies that favor sprawl so that we can understand how sprawl is an artifact of very specific public policies, not a natural, inevitable condition of growth.

Although defenders of the status quo like to portray the issue as "free markets" versus government intervention -- with free markets being presumptively more efficient and responsible -- the real issue is which kinds of government intervention should prevail: policies that subsidize sprawl and reward short-term business investments? Or policies that support more affordable, environmentally sensitive, socially equitable and financially efficient patterns of development?

Myron Orfield's research into urban disinvestment and suburban growth in the Twin Cities showed how uniform regional pricing for sewers means that the city and older suburbs are subsidizing new infrastructure for developing suburbs. This pricing arrangement is not only grossly unfair to urban residents, it encourages sprawl. In the early 1990's a major independent study of infrastructure costs in the Twin Cities region showed that the central cities and older suburbs are indeed the biggest subsidizers of infrastructure in the affluent, developing suburbs.1

This pattern is common in many metro areas: a disproportionate share of money for new freeways, sewers, schools and other public services is channeled to the richest communities, and paid for by the city and older suburbs. 

Some local governments have begun to work together to develop regional strategies to counter sprawl-type development patterns.  Minneapolis/St. Paul is a good example of a regional approach that encourages investment in the central cities:

  • Under the Minneapolis/St. Paul regional tax sharing plan, every community in the region shares 40 percent of new property taxes. That way, the massive Mall of America pays taxes to more than just Bloomington, where the mall is located.  Of 186 communities, 137 have seen their tax base increase.  “The entire area is one economy and, for that reason, it supports a regional consciousness or spirit,” said Gene Knaff of the metropolitan council.  While Minneapolis has lost population, it has maintained  jobs and its economic base.  The downtown is noted for upscale shopping, pedestrian traffic and a twice weekly farmers’ market.2 

1 Myron Orfield, Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1997), p. 63.

2 Rusty Hoover, The Detroit News, April 4, 1999.