The Growth Ponzi Scheme

A great series of 5 posts from Charles Mahron at Strong Towns on how the suburban growth pattern we’ve seen in the US for the last 60 years is indistinguishable from a growth Ponzi scheme.  We use federal (or sometimes state) money to make capital investments, but leave the maintenance and operational costs to local governments, which usually have no revenue source sufficient to fulfill that obligation — because this type of development does not come anywhere close to being economically productive enough to pay its own way in terms of tax revenues.  For a while you can continue this by making ever larger capital transfers for more growth… but like all Ponzi schemes, it eventually collapses in ruin.

Reject the Annexation of Hogan-Pancost

Dear City Council,

I strongly urge you to reject the annexation of the Hogan-Pancost property.

A huge proportion of Boulder is already zoned for low-density single-family residential land use. This type of land use — especially when it is at the very margin of a city — is virtually impossible to serve with mass transit, and tends to be overwhelmingly car dependent, placing further development of this type in direct conflict with our goals as laid out in the city’s Transportation Master Plan and Climate Action Plan.

Low density single-family residential developments also tend to be made up of intrinsically energy intensive buildings — detached housing is expensive to make energy efficient because it has a lot of surface area compared to the volume enclosed, and most energy efficiency upgrades to buildings go into their envelopes. This type of development also tends to have a very large amount of floor area per person housed, which also increases per-capita energy usage. This, again, is in directly conflict with our Climate Action Plan goals.

This type of housing is also intrinsically expensive to produce. If it is to include affordable housing, it can only do so with large subsidies. Any such affordable housing will also end up being car dependent, which will serve to erode its affordability, since according to the AAA, the average American household currently spends close to $9000/year on car-related expenses. Thus, this annexation and the eventual development of the property into low-density residential is also at odds with our affordable housing policies.

I am strongly in favor of more of the right kind of development in Boulder — low-rise walkable mixed use density that’s accessible to transit and bike facilities, intrinsically affordable because it’s small, and easy to make highly energy efficient because it has lots of shared walls. Hogan Pancost does not fit the bill. Please reject the annexation proposal. Boulder is already too suburban.

Open space monies would be far better spent preventing the development of this property than ensuring that the Long’s Garden property remains agricultural in perpetuity.

For more information on the links between building types, transit accessibility, and overall household energy use, see the EPA sponsored study Location Efficiency and Housing Type: Boiling it Down to BTUs.

For an exploration of the ways in which cities and neighborhoods have been both successful and unsuccessful at increasing housing supply and affordability within the existing built environment, please see Unlocking Home, a white paper from Seattle’s Sightline Institute — especially the section on ADUs.

Thank you for your time and attention,

Zane Selvans (Transportation Advisory Board member)

If you agree with the above, please send City Council a note to that effect and CC the planning board: and Also consider coming to the public hearing on October 3rd.

Quantifying the Cost of Sprawl

Sprawling single-family suburban development is more expensive than compact land use.  There’s more infrastructure per capita and per unit area (pavement, power lines, water and sewage lines, etc), in conjunction with much lower tax revenues per unit infrastructure.  This is true if you look at either the capital (up front) costs or the ongoing operational costs.  Most subdivisions aren’t actually prepared to pay their own way when the bill comes due.

Shifting Suburbs

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) has put together a study of suburban densification strategies called Shifting Suburbs: Reinventing Infrastructure for Compact Development.  I haven’t read it yet, but based on my experience of Belmar in Lakewood (which is one of their case studies) I’m not particularly optimistic.  Maybe Belmar is better now than it was a few years ago — further built out, etc… but back then it seemed like a weird Disneylandish island lost in a sea of cars.  Like a mall on steroids, ringed with parking structures.  Dunno.  Should be interesting reading.

Suburbs == Ponzi scheme

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns on Grist, explaining the way in which American suburbs are a giant Ponzi scheme.  Essentially, since WWII there have been several rounds of up-front financing for suburban expansion, including federal dollars, and debt leveraging supposed future increases in tax revenues resulting from the growth.  Along with these capital investments come long-term O&M obligations.  Unfortunately, the obligations are too large, and we’ve only been able to meet them with new influxes of capital, but that’s flamed out.  Sprawl is inherently expensive to build and maintain, and doesn’t create enough real value to support itself in the long run.  How long will it take to internalize this reality culturally?

How Green Was My Lawn

The NY Times has an OpEd on how we need to enlist the suburbs in the fight against climate change: How Green Was My Lawn (not very).  The author notes that the environmentalist movement of the 1970s arose largely from within the ranks of the suburbanites, and that the modern climate movement does itself no favors, politically, by consistently pointing its many fingers at the sprawling, car and oil dependent developments in which many to most Americans live today.  No doubt.  Unfortunately, the persistence and proliferation of suburbia precludes so many cheap and effective means of reducing emissions that it’s insane to take it as a given.  It’s not just oil for the cars.  It’s the need to go far, and go fast, in a large private vehicle, regardless of what it runs on.  It’s the expense of making suburban homes a factor of 10 more energy efficient compared to doing the same with row-houses that share walls.  It’s the inability to share almost anything in a suburban context — the per-capita need for stuff is enormous when you have to own it all instead of accessing it as a service. It’s the unnecessarily vast amounts of concrete, steel, asphalt and copper in all the infrastructure required to support those dispersed dwellings.

And all for what?  To support a transient cultural expectation.  A particular ephemeral vision of affluence, which is itself largely born of government subsidies of and mandates for the creation of sprawl over the last 60 years.  A century from now, if we successfully meet the climate challenge, we’ll look back at how we made a fetish of the single family home with the three car garage, and lump it in with the widespread use of DDT that inspired Rachel Carson, or the cancer-causing X-ray machines we used to have in shoe stores, or the way Victorian women would wear corsets so tight they couldn’t breathe, even sometimes having a couple of ribs removed to enhance their narrow waists.  Suburbia is a fad, a phase, a peculiar addiction with very serious side effects that we can no longer ignore.  It may be politically inconvenient, but the imperatives of the suburbs are almost entirely at odds with the imperatives of addressing climate change, and you cannot argue with the sky.

Location Efficiency More Important than Home Energy Efficiency

How important is Location Efficiency?  Median US home price: $175k.  With a traditional 20% down 30 year mortgage, total loan payments amount to about $350k.  Utilities over the same timeframe are around $75k.  And the cost of commuting from suburbia?  Roughly $300k!  This is in general agreement with the energy (as opposed to financial) analysis recently published by the EPA.

The American suburbs are a giant Ponzi scheme

Suburbia as Ponzi scheme.  We have subsidized suburban growth through debt and taxes, and reaped the short-term financial rewards of that growth, but at the expense of taking on ever larger long-term liabilities in terms of infrastructure maintenance and a very energy intensive transportation system.  I disagree with Strong Towns on the appropriate overall scale of habitation (more people and a much larger fraction of our overall economy live in cities, not towns), but this is (another) good critique of the American Nightmare.