Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sprawl and the r-word, a Buffalo-Niagara case study

A short prologue: I apologize that I had to take an extended hiatus—some personal matters intruded. Although I did say from the beginning of this blog that I'd emphasize quality over quantity, this is certainly not what I had in mind! I'm not sure how triumphant my return will be, but hopefully for those that read this, the wait will be worth it.

Sprawl is a word familiar to most people, but few can tell you exactly what it means. Even experts don't always agree on a precise definition.

The term itself is somewhat ambiguous, and often divisive. This is especially true when the word is preceded by the modifiers suburban or urban, which is commonly the case. Then the term is really loaded. Political discussion of the topic regularly provokes the already contentious relationships between cities and suburbs. This needlessly causes communities that should be cooperating to take sides against each other.

Here in the Buffalo-Niagara region, only one other word is as divisive: regionalism. Yeah, I said it. First the s-word, and now the r-word. Good thing I'm not a politician, because my career would probably have just ended. The r-word, as I shall call it from now on, became a four-letter word in this area just shy of a decade ago, after a certain County Executive decided to make city-county consolidation his focus. He got pretty far, too, before allegations of political corruption, a county bankruptcy, and public dissension finally killed the idea. Too bad.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The intent of this post is to provide some conceptual clarity regarding the concept of sprawl, both nationally and locally. I'll also be explaining what sprawl and the r-word have to do with one another, and why this is fundamentally important to the future of everyone in the Buffalo-Niagara region. As usual, I'll do this by providing a big-picture narrative combined with some statistics and visuals.

A case study for sprawl

No matter what the wording, sprawl refers to the spreading-out of a population of people and its effects—effects that are often harmful to our individual lives and counterproductive to our shared goals. Of course, sprawl is not unique to us in Western New York, or even to the United States. It occurs everywhere throughout the world in varying forms, but we Americans arguably lay claim to inventing a most peculiar and pernicious strain of it. This has resulted in the virtual trashing of our traditional cites and towns, along with the paving-over of agricultural lands and other countryside that surrounds them.

But the argument against sprawl is not simply an aesthetic one; some of the most debilitating effects are social, cultural, and economic. You might wish to check out my previous post for a provoking take on sprawl as a national phenomenon.

As it turns out, the Buffalo Metro area is a nearly ideal case for the study of sprawl and its effects. This is for two main reasons: (1) the region has well-established pre-World War II, pre-automobile cities and towns, and (2) the metro population has essentially remained unchanged since the end of WWII.

Yep, you read that right. Buffalo's metro population has essentially remained unchanged for the last 60 years. With all the talk about population loss, it seems that many people don't realize this. Buffalo hasn't shrunk; it's just spread-out. This makes the effects of sprawl quite obvious because there's been no significant statistical muddying caused by changes in population.

Same number of people, three times the stuff

What does this mean? Put simply, the same number of people spread over an area over three times larger means there is three times the amount of stuff that the same number of people have to pay for.

Most visibly, that's over three times the infrastructure costs: three times the roads, power lines, water lines, sewer systems, gas service, schools, fire stations, police, etc. This stuff doesn't get magically built and maintained on its own; the money has to come from somewhere. And it does: it comes out of all of our pockets directly or indirectly through higher local, county, and state taxes and fees; through the personal requirement to own and maintain one or more automobiles; through the wasted time and money of longer commutes to/from work, shopping, and entertainment; and from chauffeuring the kids back and forth to hockey practice or piano lessons.

All of this extra space we occupy has precisely the effects you'd predict. We in Erie and Niagara Counties now drive 53% more miles per year than we did in 1980. Nationally, the effects are even more stark: from 1977 to 2001, the number of miles driven every year by Americans rose by 151%—about five times faster than the growth in population. Americans spend four times as much on transportation as Europeans. It costs over $7,000 per year to maintain a single car. And, if you can believe it, the average American household today makes 14 individual car trips per day. (An interesting study found that if only one car trip per day were eliminated, this would result in an annual savings of about $1,100 per household.)

Statistics aside, all of these additional obligations in time and money make us poorer—both individually and collectively. Over the last 60 years, we've been too busy trying to keep up with basic infrastructure maintenance to invest much in our future. Individually, people have less to spend on housing, food, transportation, health care, entertainment, etc. There are fewer public resources available for schools, parks, cultural institutions, and other public services. There is less disposable income at all levels, and little capital left in society to invest in new business and new forms of wealth creation.

The cycle goes like this: We spread out and build more stuff. Costs go up. Taxes go up. Services get cut. Institutions languish. The quality of everyone's life diminishes. Citizens complain about the corruption and inefficiency of government. And it repeats in a vicious cycle.

That's not the only cost. In this zero-sum game, every winner in the region creates one or more losers. As we've subsidized new development in the region, older neighborhoods have suffered. Every new house built on a greenfield means a house somewhere else blighted, abandoned, or demolished. Every new square-foot of retail space devalues or destroys a square-foot elsewhere. Poverty and crime grow like a cancer, which are huge economic drags on the region. Without the resources for proper maintenance, older roads, bridges, sewers, and other infrastructure deteriorate. And that cycle repeats itself, too.

The result is we're less able to compete against other, growing, lower-taxed areas. We have a hard time attracting new people or new investment because we're continually burdening ourselves with new costs that add no real value to our region.

In fact, it's not too much to say that virtually all the so-called 'growth' that we've seen here in the last half-century has been an illusion. Sure, it kinda looked like real growth—new roads, new homes, new strip malls, new schools—but because there has been no increase in population, it's really a rigged shell game. For the last three generations, we've spent the greater part of our collective regional wealth moving about a third of our population further and further out into the countryside.

"So what?" you say? "People voted with their feet." But if you think this has been solely a matter of consumer choice, a free-market phenomenon, think again. It is well documented that sprawl is driven mainly by destructive public policy, bad planning, and a lack of municipal coordination (again, read my previous post).

There is another significant cost to the low-density, auto-oriented living arrangement we've constructed. Vitality, be it economic, cultural, or otherwise, requires a critical mass. If too many elements of the economy and society are spread too thin across the landscape, then even a million people can't create a healthy, dynamic economy, let alone pay for the required infrastructure. Economic and social capital don't work if spread too thin. Markets don't work if too many ingredients are isolated from each other.

The result? We end up exactly in the type of situation we find ourselves today. Surprised, anyone?

The big picture

At this point, all of this blather about strip malls, taxes, and blight might have you a bit glassy-eyed. It's often easy to get lost among the details, so sometimes it helps to step back and look at the big picture.

Specifically, I'm referring to the picture below, which may help bring the issue of sprawl into even sharper focus. This map tells the story of our region's problems perhaps more clearly than any of the reams of reports issuing from governments or universities or foundations. The diagram also suggests a obvious solution to our regional problems.

Shown on the map at left is the extent of urbanized area in Metro Buffalo in 1950 and 2000 (yellow and red, respectively). The wording of the official U.S. Census Bureau definition is a little tricky, but for these purposes urbanized area refers to just about any census block within Erie and Niagara Counties that has a population density greater than 1,000 people per square mile.

What does this simple measure mean? Well, a high-ish population density of 1,000 or more implies an urban or suburban settlement—and all of the infrastructure required to support it; namely, roads, sewers, electric, schools, police, etc. All that stuff we covered above. So as the map shows, we've now got over three times the amount of stuff to maintain for the same amount of people we had in 1950.

If this isn't a shocking call to action, I don't know what is. This shows the vital critical mass of people and money and ideas diffused and squandered. This shows our region bleeding to death.

In simplest terms, this is sprawl. This is arguably our area's essential problem, summarized neatly in a single picture. And bear in mind that this is only a snapshot of a ongoing trend. When the 2010 figures are released, there is sure to be a bunch more red on this map.

The r-word

What's the solution? Well, in a word: the r-word. Some people call it regional government (which for me is way too close to the r-word). Others call it metropolitan government or inter-municipal coordination. Whatever the term, it refers to a layer of governance and planning at the regional scale, so that all of the region's resources can be coordinated effectively.

Currently, there are 64 separate municipalities in Buffalo-Niagara, with virtually no coordination or cooperation between them. Towns poach development from each other. Villages plan independently of their surrounding towns. Developers know the game, and play government entities against one another for public subsidy. There is duplication of services and unnecessary waste. And no one is steering the big ship.

In short, we spend most of our time fighting one another instead of working to compete effectively against other regions—many of which already have their metro-government acts together. If we want things to change, we can't keep doing what we've always done. More of the same old self-inflicted harm won't turn things around.

There is hope, however. The city-county merger almost came to a vote before county bankruptcy, a control board, and the events of 9/11 put a stop to it. Metro Buffalo already includes respected regional government entities that address certain cross-jurisdictional functions, including an excellent metro transportation system (NFTA) and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system.

Also, it must be noted, most other regions have leadership that's just as slow and incompetent as ours seems to be. Nationally, the bar isn't set that high.

Suffice it to say that, as a region, it is our choice to work together. Or not. We have it within our power to shape our own future, but only if we see that all of us—all the cities, towns, and villages in this thing we call Buffalo-Niagara—are in this together.

The metropolitan area is the only meaningful social and economic unit that exists in this region. We share the same history, culture, climate, sports teams, and cultural assets—and we all ultimately share the same fate. Perhaps, after decades of declining fortunes, we've forgotten this fact. Fear has made our politics dysfunctional and turned our leaders into insular cowards. Decades of tough times will do that.

The good news is this: some of the groundwork is already laid. The good ideas are out there. Most people in this area would agree that we need to change how we do things, and a significant number would advocate a regional approach to governance.

But we must choose to govern not based on fear, but on the faith in our ability to shape our future. And each new day hands us the same choice.


  1. Anonymous8:23 AM EST

    Good to have you back!

  2. Well-deserved recognition of the library system as a model for other service consolidations. Before the BECPL system, there was the Buffalo Public Library, the Grosvenor Library, and an increasing number of unaffiliated town/suburban libraries.

    It took a lot of work and special legislation but all were brought under one roof. In the 1950s. We did it then, we can do it now.

  3. @Betty: Very true. Creation of the library system was an excellent first step, but happened so long ago it is probably beyond the horizon of cultural and political memory. But it is a good model and one of the precedents we can stand on.

    Now all we need is a vision, leadership, a reasonable consensus, and sense of urgency!

  4. Very nice piece -too bad it is so far over the head of so many.

  5. Many thanks.

    Yes; some people try to complicate what amounts to a pretty simple, straightforward message. But it's quite predictable, as I discussed in the second paragraph.

    Besides, a little controversy is necessary to shake people out of their comfort zones!

  6. Anonymous12:01 AM EST

    Nice editorial but you're going to need much more than suppositions and incomplete census data to make the kind of locktight case for ending the practices that result in sprawl. And in the end you will be dealing with race. no discussion of this topic is complete without a thorough review of race relations that are historically prime drivers of outward sprawl. That is the elephant in the room in the regionalism discussion as well. Overall, it's good to see any examination of this topic in a city that needs to have this discussion so thank you for this presentation.

  7. Hi from Rochester! Thanks for this important piece and for your work overall. I may have missed this in my scan of this post, but are you familiar with this Brookings study:

    Vacating the City: An Analysis of New Homes vs. Household Growth

    The Buffalo-Niagara Region is the gold medal winner, head and shoulders above the rest of the 75 metros studied, in this important measure of sprawl: comparing the number of new households in a region to the number of new housing units built.

    To me, this is a very important report, because in regions like Rochester and Buffalo, where there is flat or negative regional population growth, homebuilders say that despite these population trends, they need to keep building because the change in demographics mean more households, and more demand for housing, even in places where population is overall flat or negative. Yet this study debunks that premise-- in Rochester and Buffalo, the number of new housing units being built STILL exceeds even new HOUSEHOLD formation by 31% and an astonishing 250%, respectively!!!

    Evan Lowenstein
    Green Village Consulting

  8. Anne Huberman6:14 PM EDT

    Thank you for this excellent discussion of sprawl and regionalism in Western New York. The League of Women Voters of Buffalo/Niagara has been trying to raise awareness of this situation ever since we launched our Education Campaign on Urban Sprawl in 2000. We took our PowerPoint presentation to hundreds of residents, and then we published "At Taxpayers' Expense: How Government Policies Encourage Sprawl in Erie and Niagara Counties" in 2004, revised in 2006 (in which we cited the shocking statistics on building permits vs. new households mentioned above by Evan). Please see to view the presentation and to read our publication. For the last few years we've worked with Maria Whyte and a group of community organizations she assembled to establish an Erie County Planning Board, only to have that shot down by a veto by the County Executive. It is discouraging that there has been so little progress in spite of these efforts. I'd like to hear from Joe the Planner about what he thinks the next concrete steps in our struggle should be.

    Anne Huberman
    Cochair, Local Government Committee
    League of Women Voters of Buffalo/Niagara

  9. Anonymous10:21 AM EDT

    Any regional plan has to deal with two big hurdles - proportional voting/control and tax redistribution. The city/urban areas are poor but populous. Any regional govt woud give them a larger say in where and how regional resources are allocated, resources tyhat they by and large are taking from the suburbs. The suburbs, the evil "sprawlers" are the income that drives the region. Had the region not been able to grow to accomodate demands for new types of living and industry, the region would have shrunk. Regionalism assumes that by preventing housing/industry choice you can force people to live the way their grandparents lived, and work in old mutli-story factories the way they did. Not going to happen. They will simply move to another region that gives them the housing/job choices they want.

  10. Anonymous1:39 PM EDT

    But the region DID shrink. Erie County has tried sprawl. Erie County failed. Case closed.

  11. No one's talking about forcing people to do anything. Our region, like virtually every other, provides many choices in lifestyle. I'm simply arguing against myopic, self-destructive planning policy -- and I assert that the costs of people's behavior should reflect the true cost.

  12. @Evan Lowenstein: Many thanks for the link to the Brookings study. I hadn't seen those numbers yet. They're eye-opening to be sure -- but not surprising, given the other statistics. It certainly adds to the already considerable weight of evidence.

  13. Anonymous10:33 AM EDT

    What I find interesting about the topic is how difficult it is to discuss the issue with non-planners. The Erie County Planning Board idea didn't die because people didn't want it, it was because those that did want it couldn't make it worth talking about on the 5 o'clock news, in the bars, and in people's living rooms.