Tax Greenfields, Subsidize Infill

suburban sprawlA number of government sponsored initiatives are targeting sustainable technologies that want to provide an easy fix to climate change (renewable energy, fuel cells, energy efficient home upgrades.) But when it comes to sustainable progress, if we are going to delve into the policy game then we should be including measures that actually change the way we are doing things, not merely advance the technology that allows us to do things the same. As a result, I would suggest taxing the development of greenfield sites and, conversely, offering incentives to redeveloping existing buildings or property near town and city centers.

Sprawl is a familiar term in design and planning used to describe our common pattern of expansion and construction over the past half century. As the impressive nature of high-rise steel faded in the 1950’s, Americans were less concerned with making gleaming spires of progress and turned instead to cheap tracks of untarnished land. We saw the rise of the residential development and the suburban office park—blemishes on our built environment that result from a top priority of low-cost, speedy construction. Under the proposed plan, developers of such plots would be taxed, effectively making their construction more expensive.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that fighting against greenfield development is fighting against decades of cultural norm. In a paper titled Greenfield Development Without Sprawl the Urban Land Institute’s Jim Heid writes:

“From the start, greenfield development has promised ordinary Americans a way to enjoy the best of city and country, and remarkably often this mix of utopia and pragmatism has delivered.”

Undoubtedly, building on the edges is building cheaper. The land often goes for a song. Labor is less expensive. Access to sites is easier and building codes are less stringent. But the cheaper choice for builders can be more expensive for municipalities (and we know where their budgets comes from.) Sprawling development is notoriously inefficient; each an oasis of occupancy connected by thin veins of pavement that make car travel a considerable portion of daily life. May it be plains, farmland or forests, virgin land is mindlessly swallowed for the sake of inexpensive elbow room. Greenfield development can mean funding for new power lines, new sewers and new roads for a relatively small group of new citizens. It expands the coverage areas for maintenance crews, emergency vehicles and mail delivery that can drastically offset the incremental rise in tax revenue. All of this is only clearer in our current economic crisis where municipalities are being pushed closer to Chapter 9 (municipal bankruptcy) as budgets cannot meet costs of daily routine. Suddenly the cheap route can get pretty expensive. Taxing this kind of sprawling development may help curb its growth in the country.

Most importantly of all, there is no need for greenfield building. We have loads of existing space in close proximity to transportation and infrastructure. Moreover, the timing could not be better for instigating a switch. The Wall Street Journal reported that the recession has prompted a jump in vacancy rates around the country even as rental rates are falling. The article reports that the average vacancy rate in the top 79 markets in the U.S. rose to 7.2%.

On the other side of the tax lie subsidies to shift new construction and home ownership to areas with an existing populace. New homes and offices can benefit from utilities and services that residents have already paid. In addition to possibly being cheaper than new construction, reusing existing structures drastically reduces waste from demolition and construction and negates the need for the production of new virgin materials. All of it points to lower carbon footprints and lighter lifecycle costs. Subsidizing infill development could help take the edge off of the costs needed to upgrade existing properties and make buyers think twice about their location. Remember, the goal is not for less development, merely shifting it for a smarter solution. Reinforcing our town and urban centers would support a critical mass of residents that breeds efficiency where fewer services could reach more instead of wasting more taxpayer dollars on diluted redundancy.

At a local level, some places have taken an initial step of intervention. The WSJ’s Jim Carlton highlights how the city of Arcata, California purchased a 175 acre redwood forest for $2.05 million in order to curtail development. These kinds of efforts affect where developers will put new buildings which will, in turn, affect how suburbanites live. Carlton goes on to say that some experts believe that 10% of the country’s existing forests will likely be developed by 2030. While only a first step, it does demonstrate how development patterns can be guided in the responsible direction.

As I have said before, I believe sustainability is a concept that encompasses more than a technological fix. It is an understanding of balance and stasis that has to be experienced as way to live rather than inventions that supplement wastefulness. If we are going to use the government as a tool to help make sustainable decisions (I think we are already there) then we should be doing something to address the roots of the problem. This kind of legislation would create no less development, no fewer jobs and, when combined with the municipal money it would save through efficient building and planning, may largely pay for itself.

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