T & C: Our impact on Earth; its impact on us – Part 4: Housing, business and the economy

City planner Jeff Speck in his book Walkable Cities: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time makes clear the point that in the United States the air pollution dynamic has shifted. Rather than the bulk of America’s smog-forming pollution coming from industry, it is now sourced mainly from vehicle exhaust.1

How this happened all has to do with the city dynamic, whereby housing, business and industry were by-and-large grouped together in the central core and characteristic of late 19th century practice, transitioning to a building paradigm all based on the automobile, highways and one that embraced more and more an “aspire-to-have-a-better-life-in-the-suburbs” kind of ideal.

Minnesota suburb

So, is life in the suburbs better? It was for a time, perhaps. But communities expanding the way they have – horizontally – and to the extent they have (think sprawl), this has led to the unintended consequences of a dearth of transportation options and greenhouse gas emissions rise (see: “Terms and conditions: Our impact on Earth; its impact on us – Part 2: In excess – Sprawl”) and as Jeff Turrentine in “Neighborhood Watch” contends: “Sprawl destroys the defining character of suburbs by conferring upon them many problems associated with urban areas: crime, congestion, paved-over wilderness.”

Why all this matters is because communities whose neighborhood and thoroughfare developmental design philosophy adheres to the principles and practices laid out in the smart growth building paradigm (i.e., compact, mixed-use, transit-connected, transit- and pedestrian-oriented building), encourage active transportation (pedestrian and bicycle) activity and tend to fare much better in a number of realms compared to those that do not follow this approach to building, development and growth – building up rather than out, in other words.

“Pedestrian-oriented communities have also been seen to yield economic benefits to homebuyers, households and the community at large. The economic benefits associated with improved walkability include:

  • increased property values in walkable neighborhoods
  • anticipated growth in real estate values is greatest in pedestrian oriented communities
  • more attractive destinations for tourists
  • increased sales for local businesses”2

(Source: “CCAP Transportation Emissions Guidebook – Part 1: Land Use, Transit & Travel Demand Management”)

So, how does all this result in an improved city business and economic climate?

Scott Watkins in an editorial in the Contra Costa Times titled: “Density is the key to having healthy neighborhoods” on the benefits of building densely, writes: “Direct benefits include residents saving money by being closely connected to services and community. Proximity to and close connections save money and time on travel, historically by car. Another direct benefit is an increased ability for residents to supplement income with adding rental units to existing property and small businesses having additional customers in a smaller regional area.”

Adds Watkins: “Local merchants recirculate substantially more revenue in a regional economy than do their chain competitors, and the impact of that circulation can be credibly measured.”

Not only does the commentary writer in this case believe local job growth and capital gains plus “contracted services” all help boost aggregate economic output and provide for increased income and jobs, that is, “within the local community,” but “[t]his, in turn,” Watkins continues, “leads to a further increase in retail sales, which are then taxed to generate additional income for public services.”

Moreover, vertically-oriented infill building and development/redevelopment, to my knowledge, doesn’t drain city coffers the way “greenfield” sprawl can. This is because support services such as fire and police protection plus essential infrastructure like sewer/water/gas lines and roadways in inner-core areas and neighborhoods already exists.

And as brought out in the Air Quality Matters blog post “For failing cities especially, smart growth has allure,” of May 26, 2013, as it has to do with this very subject, here are a few excerpts.

“William (Bill) Fulton blogging on the California Planning & Development Report Web site in ‘The Fiscal Case for Smart Growth’ states, ‘After eight years in elected office in California, I can tell you that I often fell into the same trap as everybody else: chasing revenue. When you’re up against the wall on budget problems, any new revenue – especially a boost in property or sales tax revenue – looks like the solution to all your problems.’

“‘And it is – at first. How many times have I heard a city councilmember or a city manager say they’re just trying to hang on for one more year until the revenue from some new subdivision “comes online.” But as I’ve written before in this space (“The Multari Curve”), the revenue boost is short-term and over time it’s eaten up by increased service costs, meaning you always have to approve another subdivision to make up for the deficits on the one you approved in the past.’”

And, finally, from the same post there is this:

“Fulton, pointing to Smart Growth America (SGA) research, observed that regarding fire departments serving Charlotte’s conventional suburbs, costs were four times that of neighborhoods developed following a blueprint of smart growth, emphasizing ‘…SGA concluded that a smart growth approach could avoid the need for Charlotte to build two fire stations when the city is built out, saving about $13 million in capital costs and $8 million per year in operating costs.’”

As for the bottom-line takeaway?

The city saves money which helps the local economy. Oh, and with less driving comes more walking and transit use and from this, area air-quality improvement. And, generally speaking, happier and healthier people living in walkable neighborhoods tend to be.


  1. Jeff Speck, Walkable Cities: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, 2012, p. 44
  2. Greg Dierkers, Erin Silsbe, Shayna Stott, Steve Winkelman, Mac Wubben, “CCAP Transportation Emissions Guidebook – Part One: Land Use, Transit & Travel Demand Management,” Center for Clean Air Policy, p. 25

Also check out “Terms and conditions: Our impact on Earth, its impact on us,” parts 1 and 3.

This post has been updated.

To be continued.

Image above: Minneapolis Star, collection of the Minnesota Historical Society

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