Divided We Sprawl

A call for the reinvention of the American city and suburb that would exploit the infrastructure of the one and mitigate the "frantic privacy" of the other.

THE metropolitanist policy agenda has four basic elements: changing the rules of the development game, pooling resources, giving people access to all parts of a metropolitan area, and reforming governance. These are interlocking aspects of how to create good places to live; they are closely related and can be hard to distinguish. To understand the cascade of consequences that policies can have, consider the policy chain reaction that would begin if the rules of the development game were changed to fit the metropolitanist paradigm. Those rules are mainly the policies that guide transportation investments, land use, and governance decisions, all of which are themselves entangled. Start at one end of the knot: transportation. Major highways, built by federal and state dollars, act as magnets for new development. This has been clear ever since the 1950s, when the interstate-highway system made the suburbs widely accessible and hugely popular. A metropolitanist viewpoint recognizes that these highways will probably pull lots of investment and resources away from the metropolitan core. New development, spawned by highways, will necessitate expensive state-funded infrastructure, such as sewer systems, water pipes, and new side roads. Meanwhile, existing roads, pipes, and sewers, which already cost taxpayers plenty of money, are either not used to the fullest or starved of funds for repair.

A metropolitanist transportation policy might eschew a new beltway and instead direct federal transportation dollars to public transit, which draws development toward rail stations rather than smearing it along a highway, or to repairing existing roads rather than building new ones. That is what Governor Parris Glendening, of Maryland, and Governor Christine Todd Whitman, of New Jersey, have proposed for their states, and what elected officials are working on or have accomplished in the metropolitan areas of Boston, Chattanooga, and Portland, Oregon. New businesses and housing developments will be steered toward where people already live and public investments have already been made.

At this point land use comes into play. "Land-use planning" may sound a little soporific, but it is simply a brake on chaos. It allows communities to prepare for growth in a way that avoids gridlock and preserves public resources. It connects the basic places of life: where people work, where they live, where they play, drop off their dry cleaning, check out a library book, buy a box of cereal. A metropolitanist land-use scheme would preserve open spaces and create parks and other public areas, thereby taking big parcels of suburban land off the development market. Where, then, would all the new development go? An enormous amount of vacant land already exists inside the boundaries of metropolitan areas, which generally have developed in leapfrog fashion, with big gaps between one subdivision or strip mall and the next. Parks and open spaces will not fill all those gaps, which could support development -- as could the abandoned urban properties known as brownfields.


Land-use decisions can affect how as well as where things are built. Zoning policies can call for transit-oriented development -- clusters of shops, apartment buildings, and offices around bus or rail stops, so that people will drive a little less. They can require or at least encourage varied housing near office buildings and supermalls, so that everyone who works there, from the receptionist to the escalator repairer to the middle manager to the chief financial officer, can live near his or her workplace.

Pooling resources is the second element of a metropolitanist agenda. In most metropolitan areas a new office complex or amusement park or shopping mall tends to confer benefits on a single jurisdiction by adding to its property-tax coffers. Meanwhile, neighboring communities are stuck with some of the burdens of development, such as additional traffic and pollution and the loss of open space. Pooling resources -- specifically, a portion of the extra tax revenue from development -- means that development's benefits, like its burdens, are spread around. The Twin Cities area has a tax-base-sharing scheme whereby 40 percent of the increase in commercial and industrial property-tax revenues since 1971 is pooled and then distributed so that communities without substantial business development are not overwhelmed by needs and starved of resources. In other parts of the country regional jurisdictions have agreed to tax themselves to support cultural and sports facilities; this makes sense, because the entire region benefits from those facilities.

The third element of a metropolitanist agenda is giving everyone in the metropolitan area access to all its opportunities. Access is easy for people with decent incomes and decent cars. They can live where they wish, and they can get from their houses to their jobs without enduring extraordinary hassles. Poor people do not have this kind of mobility.

There are three ways to solve the access problem: make it easier for urban workers to get to suburban jobs; provide affordable housing (through new construction or vouchers) throughout a metropolitan region; or generate jobs in the metropolitan core or at least near public-transportation routes. State and federal governments are now implementing programs that help people to overcome core-to-edge transportation problems, and through housing vouchers are giving low-income people more choices in the metropolitan housing market. Across the country churches and nonprofit organizations are running jitney services and private bus lines to get people to work. A group of Chicago business leaders has called on major employers to weigh affordable-housing options and access to public transit in their business location and expansion decisions. Businesses and nonprofit groups are also trying to bring jobs and people closer together. Housing vouchers administered by nonprofit organizations with a metropolitan scope allow low-income families to move into job-rich municipalities. The nonprofits counsel families about their options and develop relationships with landlords. In the Atlanta region BellSouth will soon consolidate seventy-five dispersed offices, where 13,000 people have worked, into three centers within the Atlanta beltway, all of which are easily accessible by mass transit. After studying where employees lived, the company picked locations that would be of roughly equal convenience for commuters from the fast- growing northern suburbs and from the less-affluent southern suburbs.

Presented by

Bruce Katz is vice president and founding director of the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, which provides decision-makers with timely trend analysis, cutting-edge research, and policy ideas for improving the health and prosperity of cities and metropolitan areas.

Jennifer Bradley is a fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and the co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution.

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