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Don’t Bash the ‘Burbs, Improve the City

From the St. Louis Post Dispatch

I love the phrase ‘urban sprawl.’ Can you think of another phrase for a social issue that reminds you of someone lounging around the house? Vaguely judgmental, it also conjures up an image of haphazardness, a lack of control, an attitude of let-things-fall-where-they-may.

The Sierra Club’s against sprawl. So are a lot of politicians. And city planners. And city residents. When opponents of sprawl see people sprawled out in the suburbs, they see longer commutes, more pollution and more fossil fuels being wasted. Sprawl chews up wetlands and farmlands. Sprawl is to be “fought” or “reduced.” Living in cities is good. Suburban living is somehow less virtuous.

I take a somewhat less judgmental perspective. Some people like city living. Some like the country. Land is cheaper in the suburbs. There’s usually less crime. The schools are usually better.

Nothing’s free. Sprawlers tend to have longer commutes. They have longer drives to the zoo or the stadium. Neighbors are farther away, though for some, that’s just one more item on the plus side of the ledger.

Do the benefits of suburban life outweigh the costs? Some like to argue that suburbanites don’t realize what they’re missing. I assume they realize it, but just value the pluses above the minuses. I don’t think I’d like to live in St. Peters or Glen Carbon. But I understand why some might prefer it to University City. And someone else might prefer the true city living of a Washington Avenue loft. Some like chocolate, some like vanilla and for inexplicable reasons, some prefer strawberry. It’s just a matter of personal preference.

But sprawl is different, its opponents claim. When people choose to live in the suburbs, they impose costs on others in the form of more pollution, more gasoline usage and the infrastructure that the county and state must develop to make suburban life as pleasant as it is. The costs of suburban life are artificially low because suburbanites don’t pay the full price for the infrastructure the suburbs require.

I’m all in favor of making county dwellers pay the full cost for their roads and water and electricity. But there are all kinds of federal and state tax breaks and subsidies for city life as well. I’d like to see a careful study of the whether city mouse or country mouse gets the better deal.

Until I see that study, or even one that’s not so careful, I’m agnostic about the evils of sprawl and whether “too many” people live out in the suburbs. But if you disagree and would like to see more people in the city, maybe there’s a better way to fight sprawl than complaining that the suburbs are artificially attractive. Why not eliminate what makes the city unattractive?

Get rid of the 1% city income tax. Supporters of the tax say it provides crucial revenue. Maybe. But it also discourages businesses from locating in the city and people from living there. That means lower sales tax and property tax revenue. Those taxes would pick up some of the revenue slack if the income tax were eliminated.

Get rid of the red tape that discourages job creation in the city. Get on the city’s web site and check out what it takes to start a business. It’s a sticky web of paperwork and fees. Lower the fees. Reduce the numbers of permits a business needs. Reducing the number of offices that impose red tape and monitor it would help make up for lost tax revenue from getting rid of the income tax.

Finally, if you want to reduce sprawl, break the connection between where people live and where their kids go to school. Fight for vouchers that allow parents who dislike the city schools to live in the city and send their kids elsewhere. If you don’t like vouchers, support more charter schools or magnet schools.

I like living in the semi-city of University City. But for those of you who want to boost population in the “real” city of metropolitan St. Louis, particularly downtown, a positive approach might be more effective than railing against the suburbs.

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