Is urban sprawl good for state? Yes

This article first appeared in The Detroit News on April 2, 1998.

    It's a simple but effective comparison: During the last 35 years, Michigan's central cities lost one million residents while suburban communities grew by 20 percent. At the same time, Michigan experienced record land consumption rates, according to the Michigan Society of Planning Officials.

    In other words, "urban sprawl" -- the ongoing process of families moving outward to live on their quarter-acre lots in single-family, detached homes -- is gobbling up land and sapping central cities of people, especially in Metro Detroit. Stop sprawl, conventional wisdom says, and you help revitalize big cities.

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    Those who directly link sprawl to urban revitalization misunderstand the forces that shape the growth of new cities and the decline of traditional ones.

    Planners David Varady and Jeffrey Raffel analyzed the behavior of people who move from one suburban or central city neighborhood to another. The suburbs, they found, attracted families concerned about the quality of their children's public schools and who preferred suburban residential characteristics such as large lots, private yards or larger homes. Families with no children, without a college education and with a preference for urban attributes including proximity to their jobs tended to choose homes in the central city.

    This is an important lesson: If cities fail to provide the kinds of housing, neighborhoods and environments that residents and businesses want, cities won't be able to keep them.

    In fact, Detroit may provide one of the best examples of what can happen when a city fails to adapt. Its share of the regional population fell from 27.4 percent in 1980 to 23.0 percent in 1994. Detroit's population declined 17.5 percent during the same period.

    Meanwhile, city government spending and taxes increased. Although the number of people on Detroit's city payroll decreased, the number of city employees per resident increased 3.3 percent. A smaller tax base was supporting a larger government relative to its population.

    Detroit residential property taxes are high. A comparison by the District of Columbia government of 51 large American cities found that Detroit had the seventh-highest effective property tax rate -- 76 percent higher than the others. Detroit's total tax burden has been as much as seven times higher than that of other Michigan municipalities.

    Taxes are not the only hindrance to revitalizing Detroit. Among the nation's 20 largest cities, Detroit's violent and property crime rates are surpassed only by those of Baltimore.

    While recent charter school initiatives have created improved educational opportunities for a few children, most students in Detroit's public school system have no realistic option to choose a better school.

    Detroit also makes it difficult to begin a business. The Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice identified numerous obstacles to starting businesses, including caps on the number of taxicabs, excessive licensing and education requirements for businesses such as child care, and zoning rules that prohibit virtually any form of home-based business.

    According to The Detroit News, one new project's site plan review required approval from 22 different "stakeholders," political negotiations between the mayor and city council, and contending with city inspectors who disagreed with one another.

    Given this environment, city officials and state policymakers should not be surprised when job providers and residents choose more hospitable places.

    Detroit is, however, taking some important, positive steps to make itself more attractive. These include Mayor Dennis Archer's task force studying ways to reduce city taxes, and privatization of both Detroit Institute of Arts management and streetlight repair and maintenance. These steps are more likely to revitalize Detroit than anti-urban-sprawl laws that limit options for people seeking better schools, homes and neighborhoods, and glamorous stadium and casino projects that concentrate economic benefits in narrow geographic areas.

    Detroit and other large cities in Michigan will have to put out the welcome mat for all businesses and families to win their hearts, minds and pocketbooks. Central cities can compete with suburban livability and economic vitality by combining a high-quality education system with efficient local government services that support rather than hinder job creation. One of the most positive things Detroit could do is to embrace innovative school choice options. Bad schools alone are reason enough to keep many people from choosing life in the city.

    Individual choices and market forces drive residential and commercial development decisions. Too much city bureaucracy, politics and regulations only encourage citizens, job providers and private-sector investment to locate elsewhere.

    Ultimately, suburbanization is the result of a healthy economic and social process: families earning high enough incomes to exercise choice over their quality of life and housing. The task before cities is to provide competitive options for these families, not limit them in the name of "urban sprawl."