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I grew up on a street to nowhere, lined with starter homes for young families like ours. It was 1980s Arlington, and this was our American dream.
Twenty years later, the dream had faded. Empty strip malls floated in oceans of asphalt. Weeds grew like they were reclaiming suburbia to nature. Our neighborhood was bought, used and thrown away in a single generation. A disposable suburb.
Still, the North Texas growth machine rumbles on, churning out exurban subdivisions that now lie closer to the Red River than to downtown Dallas. Meanwhile, the suburbs in between have exploded in size. Plano’s population doubled and then doubled again since 1980; now nearly every square inch of its 72 square miles is built out.
Suburbs either grow up or die — except they don’t die, not really. Many stagger on, zombielike, as bills pile up for their aging roads and malls. Neighborhoods with names like Hearthstone Manor are filled with homes that were never built to last.
How can today’s thriving North Texas suburbs — the Friscos, Prospers, and Flower Mounds — avoid the trash heap of urban history? Their older suburban neighbors enjoyed similar growth once, and though they remain intact, in many cases their residents are saddled with the surprising costs of unmitigated sprawl.
The answer is to price in the cost of suburbia. Suburban neighborhoods become disposable not simply because they have been designed poorly. They also have been priced poorly. When the bill comes due for cheap homes and sprawling infrastructure, the ROI just isn’t there for the renewal and repair needed for a truly sustainable city. So people move on and places deteriorate, leaving the bill for future generations.
Suburbs look good when they are new, and they remain affordable as long as they grow. The mayor smiles, a ribbon is cut, and property tax revenue appears. Cul-de-sacs and parking lots pop up alongside structures that are cheap to build, affordable to own, and relatively popular — at first. These disposable suburbs can be built so quickly and cheaply that communities lose sight of financial sustainability and physical longevity.
Michael Hogue/DMN Staff
Those quickly built neighborhoods of vinyl homes on the edge of town, that gas station and strip mall down the way, aren’t worth much and they don’t make much, either for their owners or the town. But installing the roads, pipes, and wires required to build the subdivision isn’t cheap, so the town scrounges up what money it can and goes in search of state and federal money. These dollars are multiplied into debt that’s poured into infrastructure that will hopefully be paid for by yet more new residents.
As long as growth begets growth, and fixed costs are spread over more assets, these suburbs survive. But when sprawl runs out of fuel, or the housing assembly line stops (such as in a financial crisis), virtuous cycles of growth can quickly devolve into vicious cycles of decline.
What some suburbs are left with, as groups like Strong Towns have pointed out for years, is an "infrastructure hangover" of roads and strip malls that rack up enormous bills as they age. In reply, local leaders often defer maintenance, trim public services, or hike taxes. But many residents and retailers may simply move on to the next new neighborhood, taking their taxes and leaving structures like vinyl villages and big-box stores that prove to be incredibly hard to adapt or reuse for shifting demand.
Disposable suburbia is what happens when residents and business owners use up a neighborhood’s best years and then leave, whether to another neighborhood or a completely different town, when the upkeep bill lands on the civic credit card. The homes, shops, and infrastructure that are left behind don’t go away, but now residents both new and old are left to stare at blight or fix potholes along a sprawling maze of roads. And more importantly, they are the ones that must pay.
People in every suburban neighborhood, especially ones that have grown into cities, believe they have escaped disposability. But the towns and cities to which they belong, just like the markets they are tied to, go through periods of boom and bust. Arlington was once a boomtown; now it’s places like Frisco that grow. When the shine wears off and growth slows, what will be left behind?
This is why America’s suburbs must be accountants first, and planners second. They should know the long-term costs (and benefits) of building and maintaining their public and private investments in things like roads and housing. Conservatively and obsessively calculating expenses vs. revenue and assets against long-term liabilities will help localities understand what they are investing in relative to what the market is providing.
A suburb’s leaders may still decide to build big, fast, and far, but they will know the choices they are making and the costs they will entail. Public leaders should be honest with their constituents about the return on public investment from different kinds of development. Neighbors can then make informed choices about the future they want for their hometown.
Fully accounting for the cost of disposable suburbia will likely encourage localities to build differently. Less low-density sprawl, for one thing; after all, the amount of public investment needed is high while the private value created is low. More traditional main streets, on the other hand, tend to be the opposite. Downtown Midlothian, southwest of Dallas, takes up 95% less acreage than its neighboring Walmart while generating more than four times the value per acre. Such small-scale developments are also far easier to adapt and reuse than a big box store or single home.
Encouraging local leaders to pay for amenities like roads from local tax bases should keep them honest, too, rather than looking to Uncle Sam to paper over shortfalls. We are more likely to see suburbs invest conservatively, building public infrastructure incrementally from revenue overflowing out of larger, more diversified pools of private wealth. This in turn offers incentives to public leaders to pursue more local economic growth and job creation rather than depending on far-away downtowns, and private owners who will see a thriving local economy as reason to reinvest as neighborhoods age.
Suburban sprawl has afforded recent generations the American dream. But developing in this way often buries long-term costs that are not fully accounted for, at least at first. So many people move on while the suburb ages in place, just as my family did more than a decade ago.
Disposable suburbia is not an inevitable price we pay, and it’s time to do the math.
Michael Hendrix is the director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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