Minnesotans For Sustainability©

 

Sustainable:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.

 

 

 

Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community
 

Eben Fodor
1999

Two reviews:
    By Annie Faulkner
    By Sharon McCloe Stein
 

Review by Annie Faulkner*

New England residents are beginning to seriously question the growth and sprawl plaguing many parts of our region. In the past several years, conservation groups have put together some of the facts that demonstrate how urban sprawl, population growth, and the conversion of wildlands to human uses are harming the quality of life and the natural environment in New England. Fortunately for activists, organizers and policy makers, Eben Fodor has come along to help us look squarely at the economic, social and environmental costs of growth and explore equitable and reasonable alternatives to growth.

Fodor's new book, “Better Not Bigger,” recognizes some of the benefits of growth, such as increased shopping choices, expanded educational and cultural opportunities, and greater social diversity. But he demonstrates unequivocally the economic and other costs of growth, including higher taxes and local debt, increased crime and cost of living, and the diversion of local spending away from basic services such as schools and libraries. Fodor, who describes himself as a "public interest community planning consultant," analyzes the economic forces and political alliances that drive local growth, and exposes the truth behind the Twelve Big Myths of Growth). From arguments about tax revenues and public services to jobs and housing costs, Fodor shows us how growth benefits a few but costs us all. These findings corroborate recent studies of New England communities that demonstrate how development increases, rather than reduces, per capita property tax burden.

The Census Bureau estimates that New England's population grew by 58,000 people from 1997 to 1998. According to some studies, new home construction and other development gobbles up about an acre per new US resident. "Better Not Bigger" addresses the roles of population increase, larger houses, and longer commuting distances in promoting local growth. It also highlights the willingness of local planners to plan for growth. He finds, for example, that while local population growth fuels new home construction, urban infrastructure also expands in anticipation of population growth, suggesting that, "if you plan for it, they will come."

One example of this planned growth is the now popular "smart growth," which, according to Fodor, anticipates and accommodates growth, but does not question what amount of growth is desirable. Fodor says that even the best-planned and best-looking growth can have negative impacts on the community and the natural environment. Fodor thinks that "smart growth" and less growth are compatible and complementary: if we do a lot less growing, and do it better, then we have a chance at improving our communities, minimizing costs, and protecting the natural environment. In calling for less growth, he challenges us to think of no-growth communities as potentially "stable" and "balanced" communities, rather than "stagnant and recessionary." Can we envision a human and natural landscape in New England that is vibrant, healthy and prosperous, though stable and not growing?

Fodor also demonstrates how carefully planned controls on growth can improve people's lives and protect the environment without driving the poor out of town. The latter half of the book explains how to measure the real costs of growth in our own communities and describes how citizens can effectively put the brakes on local growth. He describes numerous mechanisms that can be implemented locally to slow or limit growth and ensure that the costs of growth are borne fairly. He outlines a wide range of choices that communities have when making zoning and permitting decisions and planning for infrastructure, local employment, housing, education, and land protection.

This book comes at the right time for New England residents, local officials, and policy makers concerned about the impacts of population and economic growth on our communities, landscape, and quality of life. Whether it's stopping proposed new highway projects, blocking new strip mall development, questioning other new infrastructure projects, revising zoning ordinances or updating a master plan, this book will give activists and local planners the information, tools and inspiration to effectively control local growth. For those working at the state level, the book is a rich source of insight and ideas for understanding how urban sprawl and other forms of economic and population growth affect communities, the natural environment, and the quality of life.

As government agencies and non-profit groups begin developing and supporting new anti-sprawl and/or "smart growth" initiatives around the region, this book will help us all understand what approaches are needed to create a better and truly sustainable New England.
 

Twelve Big Myths of Growth
 

·        Myth 1: Growth provides needed tax revenues. Check out the tax rates of cities larger than yours. There are a few exceptions but the general rule is: the larger the city, the higher the taxes. That's because development requires water, sewage treatment, road maintenance, police and fire protection, garbage pickup—a host of public services. Almost never do the new taxes cover the new costs. Fodor says, "the bottom line on urban growth is that it rarely pays its own way."

·        Myth 2: We have to grow to provide jobs. But there's no guarantee that new jobs will go to local folks. In fact they rarely do. If you compare the 25 fastest growing cities in the U.S. to the 25 slowest growing, you find no significant difference in unemployment rates. Says Fodor: "Creating more local jobs ends up attracting more people, who require more jobs."

·        Myth 3: We must stimulate and subsidize business growth to have good jobs. A "good business climate" is one with little regulation, low business taxes, and various public subsidies to business. A study of areas with good and bad business climates (as ranked by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the business press) showed that states with the best business ratings actually have lower growth in per capita incomes than those with the worst. Fodor: "This surprising outcome may be due to the emphasis placed by good-business-climate states on investing resources in businesses rather than directly in people."

·        Myth 4: If we try to limit growth, housing prices will shoot up. Sounds logical, but it isn't so. A 1992 study of 14 California cities, half with strong growth controls, half with none, showed no difference in average housing prices. Some of the cities with strong growth controls had the most affordable housing, because they had active low-cost housing programs. Fodor says the important factor in housing affordability is not so much house cost as income level, so development that provides mainly low-paying retail jobs makes housing unaffordable.

·        Myth 5: Environmental protection hurts the economy. According to a Bank of America study the economies of states with high environmental standards grew consistently faster than those with weak regulations. The Institute of Southern Studies ranked all states according to 20 indicators of economic prosperity (gold) and environmental health (green) and found that they rise and fall together. Vermont ranked 3rd on the gold scale and first on the green, while Louisiana ranked 50th on both.

·        Myth 6: Growth is inevitable. There are constitutional limits to the ability of any community to put walls around itself. But dozens of municipalities have capped their population size or rate of growth by legal regulations based on real environmental limits and the real costs of growth to the community.

·        Myth 7: If you don't like growth, you're a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) or an ANTI (against everything) or a gangplank-puller (right after you get aboard). These accusations are meant more to shut people up than to examine their real motives. Says Fodor, "A NIMBY is more likely to be someone who cares enough about the future of his or her community to get out and protect it."

·        Myth 8: Most people don't support environmental protection. Polls and surveys have disproved this belief for decades; Fodor cites examples from Oregon, Los Angeles, Colorado, and the U.S. as a whole. The fraction of respondents who say environmental quality is more important than further economic growth almost always tops 70 percent.

·        Myth 9: We have to grow or die. This statement is tossed around lightly and often, but if you hold it still and look at it, you wonder what it means. Fodor points out, quoting several economic studies, that many kinds of growth cost more than the benefits they bring. So the more growth, the poorer we get. That kind of growth will kill us.

·        Myth 10: Vacant land is just going to waste. Studies from all over show that open land pays far more—often twice as much—in property taxes than it costs in services. Cows don't put their kids in school; trees don't put potholes in the roads. Open land absorbs floods, recharges aquifers, cleans the air, harbors wildlife, and measurably increases the value of property nearby. We should pay it for to be there.

·        Myth 11: Beauty is no basis for policy. One of the saddest things about municipal meetings is their tendency to trivialize people who complain that a proposed development will be ugly. Dollars are not necessarily more real or important than beauty. In fact beauty can translate directly into dollars. For starters, undeveloped surroundings can add $100,000 to the price of a home.

·        Myth 12: Environmentalists are just another special interest. A developer who will directly profit from a project is a special interest. A citizen with no financial stake is fighting for the public interest, the long term, the good of the whole community.

(Adapted from Donnella Meadows, The Global Citizen, February 25, 1999, "Urban Growth Means Lower Taxes—and Other Myths").

This article was reprinted by permission of the author from NECSPNews, Fall 1999 issue. NECSPNews is the newsletter of the New England Coalition for Sustainable Population.
_____
Courtesy of New England Coalition for Sustainable Population.

 

Review by Sharon McCloe Stein*

American attitudes toward growth reflect a great deal of ambivalence.  Many see economic and population growth as good business, more consumers, more workers, more prosperity ÷ a rising tide that lifts all boats.  For those who directly profit, growth is an engine of expanding wealth and power, with many politicians seeing it as the ticket to re-election and just as importantly a well-funded war chest.  For most others, growth is a fact of life, something to be endured, the inevitable price of progress.  For most ordinary American families living in sprawl ravaged communities, however, growth has a dark underside that has, until recently, received far too little exposure.

Now, Eben Fodor, who describes himself as a "public interest community planning consultant (i.e., not a development planner)," has written a book for those who want realistic alternatives to the prospect of never-ending growth.  Better Not Bigger is a thoroughly accessible, information- filled, action guide that definitively exposes the myth that growth is an unalloyed good.  His analysis of the money, economic forces, and political alliances that drive growth clearly delineates who are the real winners and losers.  As Fodor follows the money, we find that it is not the long-term well being of American communities but an unwritten and too often unexamined mantra "In Growth We Trust" that drives the local politics of growth.  Whether it is community activists or the increasing number of local decision-makers who are looking to battle the powerful and well-funded development interests, this is a book that provides the answers and arguments necessary to be an effective advocate for rejecting the growth imperative and moving toward truly sustainable communities.

Just as growth consumes communities piece by piece, Fodor meticulously takes apart the growth machine and exposes its inner workings.  At the heart of this machine are what he describes as the "The Twelve Big Myths of Growth."  One by one, he addresses and carefully provides a detailed refutation of growth's core ideology, myths such as: "growth provides needed tax revenues, we have to grow to provide good jobs, we have to ‘grow or die’."

Fodor pays special attention to one of today's most prevalent myths ÷ that "smart" growth is the answer.  If only we do a better job at planning, create some green space, revitalize the urban cores, "smart growth" can provide it all, good jobs, affordable housing, an increased quality of life and a healthy environment.  He calls this "The Catch 22 of Growth: the better you make your community, the more people will want to live there, until it is no better than any other community."  Far too many communities have been seduced by the belief that they can have their cake and eat it too, that they can somehow manage growth, mitigate the worst impacts of sprawl and still preserve quality of life and the environment.  This book is a powerful exposition of the fundamental contradictions that underlie the rhetoric and often self-serving promises of smart growth apologists.

Much of the hard-hitting analysis on the costs of growth came from a groundbreaking study that Fodor did on the infrastructure costs to local communities of single family homes in Oregon. In what is perhaps the best in depth examination of the costs of growth to local communities available, Fodor's detailed analysis is a virtual activist primer on determining the costs of growth to any community across the country.

This book is far more than just a critique of growth.  Its greatest value is to grassroots organizers, environmentalists, and other activists who want to get involved and do something to help their local communities put the brakes on growth.  Much of the latter half of the book is a detailed nuts and bolts look at what local communities can do to control and in many cases stop growth on the local level.  Unlike the growth accommodation masquerading as smart growth so fashionable among some national and state political leaders, Fodor recognizes that simply making the best of a bad situation is not enough.  He is keenly aware that the main battles over growth are won and lost in thousands of local communities across the nation. This book also provides the analysis, information and resources to successfully take on the growth machine.

This emphasis on the local is both a strength and weakness in the book's approach to growth issues.  If there is a shortcoming, it is in a failure to put local growth control efforts in the larger context of national economic and population growth.  While he details effective strategies and tactics for controlling or stopping growth on the local level, Fodor never quite comes to grips with the extent that national population growth drives both economic expansion and ultimately growth on the local level.  As long as the national population keeps growing, the additional people will need jobs, houses, transportation and resources to consume.  Populations may grow nationally, but they impact is most acute in the local community.  No matter how well you manage, mitigate or minimize, additional humans means additional impacts on quality of life and on the environment be it locally, nationally or globally.

Likewise, Fodor never really examines how much more effective the measures he advocates would be if population growth pressures were alleviated.  Good planning and design, economic and tax incentives, effective and innovative land use regulation, preserving undeveloped land, and citizen involvement are all important parts of controlling growth and moving toward sustainability.  But, no matter how effective these measures are they are not by themselves sufficient for lasting gain.  From a long-term perspective, the only sound foundation for ending growth is a stable and stationary national population, ideally at an optimum level much smaller than today's.  Better Not Bigger gives much needed insights, analysis, practical tools and activist resources for those working for "smart" growth.  Were these efforts combined with national efforts to lower immigration and eventually stop national population growth, the approaches presented in this book could be the basis for achieving truly livable and sustainable communities.

_____

* Courtesy of Negative Population Growth (NPG).
Sharon McCloe Stein is Executive Director of Negative Population Growth (NPG).
© Copyright 1999 by NPG.

Fodor, Eben. 1999; Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community. New Society Publishers, PO Box 189, Gabriola Island, BC V0R 1X0 Canada. See original at < http://www.newsociety.com/bookid/3662 > and < http://www.npg.org/footnote/better_not_bigger.htm >.

 

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