Infrastructure to nowhere – sowing the seeds of sprawl



Seriously folks, one would have thought that most people (politicians, professionals, and citizens alike) would have figured out this basic tenet of Sprawl 101 by now, but apparently not. When you build a new road, widen a road, extend utilities (water and/or sewer), or install an oversized utility line at or near the edge of your community, you are literally sowing the seedlings for more sprawl. There ain’t any two ways about it. You might as well say, “come and get it!”

Many zoning ordinances include rezoning criteria that includes consideration of the capability of existing road and utility infrastructure as well as previous public improvements. Who in their right mind is not going to note the presence a widened roadway or an extended/enlarged utility line? The applicant would be silly not to point it out, leaving the planning commission and/or governing body scrambling to find other reasons to say no (provided they are opposed to the rezoning).

Furthermore, in the case of expanded or enlarged utility infrastructure, what else is going to pay for the cost of the upgrades other than hook-up fees?…farms?…ranches?…fallow land?…recreation areas? I seriously doubt it on all counts. The only logical and economically viable option is new residential and/or commercial development. Otherwise, it is rather pointless to be building “infrastructure to nowhere” in the first place.

As the Sierra Club notes, we subsidize (sow the seeds of) sprawl in many ways:

  • “building new and wider roads
  • building schools on the fringe
  • extending sewer and water lines to sprawling development
  • extending emergency services to the fringe
  • direct pay-outs to developers.”

And this quote from Sprawl 101: How Sprawl Hurts Us All sums it up:

“Our tax money subsidizes new sprawling developments, rather than improving our existing communities. Sprawl costs our cities and counties millions of dollars for new water and sewer lines, new schools, and increased police and fire protection. Those costs are not fully offset by the taxes paid by the new users. Instead, sprawl forces higher taxes on existing residents and hastens the decline of our urban tax base.”

Planners need to regularly remind politicians, those in the engineering and public works disciplines, architects, realtors, and the community at large that the results of their individual and collective actions to not curb sprawl will be counter-productive to good land use planning, sustainability, and smart growth (there’s an oldie but goodie term). This, in turn, will inevitably lead one’s community down the same worn out path toward Sprawlville.

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4 Responses to Infrastructure to nowhere – sowing the seeds of sprawl

  1. Dave Kisor says:

    One Professor at CSU Northridge used to say a farmers most valuable crop is homes.


    • kavas kapadia says:

      Dave,this professor is probably talking about the crop in the outskirts of Indian metropolitan cities. Perhaps this phenominan is also true elsewhere. Advancing urbanisation and affordable housing ( in Indian metros)is creating a situation of complete new ‘Townships”-just outside the municipal limits of the large cities ( in the last decade there have been about 6400 such census towns)where the developer has a maximum potential to acquire land,build flats ,sell them and vanish leaving the residents holding the baby. The lack of infrastructure,absence of the municipal services and later integration of these areas in the master plan are the headaches of the development authorities. We are living with these problems.
      Kavas Kapadia-Architect Planner,New Delhi


  2. Ron Lee, retired city/town manager, former community planner in MI & NY. says:

    From my viewpoint, not all land use plans carry the same purpose. Some lup are nothing more than a”layout” of what your intended land use is supposed to be within a defined boundary. Other land use plans include expansion perhaps beyond itself. There are plans that accept the premise that not all businesses want to be in the downtown or core area. Secondly, it takes a special kind of developer willing to reinvest in an existing older building that may be 2 or 3 generations away from present bldg & fire codes. It is much cheaper to develop on vacant, developable land even if it means meeting all the “impact assessment conditions”. Because the developer may see that as a subsequent investment for adjacent land he may own.

    It used to be “people go where the jobs are and businesses follow because they go where the people.” Now that we are in a service economy, and business services can now function from anywhere, even the home, older infrastructure will become under utilized but continue to deteriorate while newer parts of the system operate very well. This has caused a number of communities to re-evaluate its utility rate structuring because they are finding the current rates inadequate for replacement of older sections of the system.

    Sprawl is a fact of suburban life. You can lament about it, or you can reconfigure your infrastructure and make it work. Very few policy makers would embrace what you are wishing.


  3. denese.neu says:

    Always provocative presentation of old and current planning idea/ideals! This entry prompted me to pull an old book off the shelf “Highways to Nowhere: the Politics of City Transportation” by Richard Hebert. Published in 1972, it reminds us that what is new is really an old problem…and perhaps just a problem for those who love urban spaces.


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