Sprawl and municipal services

2010-09-23

in Canada, Economics, Politics, The environment

On his blog, David Reevely makes a convincing case against urban sprawl that I hadn’t heard previously:

The trouble is, sprawl has costs. It’s incredibly expensive for us all. Light-density housing is great to live in, but it’s brutal to supply with public services. Take fire stations: their response times are primarily a function of how far the firefighters have to drive to get to a call. That means that to maintain minimally acceptable standards, you need to have a fire station every so-many kilometres. If 10,000 people live within that radius, then 10,000 people share the cost of supporting that fire station, its firefighters and their equipment. If you pack 100,000 people into that radius, then the cost is divided among 100,000 people, and you have a lot left over from their property taxes for other things. But if you have too few, and their property taxes aren’t enough to pay for the fire station, then you need to bring in money from somewhere else.

It’s a bit ironic, really. We discussed before how people living in rural areas can get a false sense of their own self-sufficiency. It’s ironic that rather than being bold frontierspeople, living off the land, those who populate the less dense fringes of urban centres might impose disproportionate costs on the municipal authorities.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan September 23, 2010 at 9:51 am

Lots of rural people have no fire service. Their fire insurance (if they choose to purchase it) is much more expensive – but this can be mitigated by things like installing sprinklers (not terribly expensive if done while the house is being built).

What other services are required? Sewage, water, power. In many places, these can all be handled off of any sort of grid – or perhaps just in conjunction with a few close neighbors.

. September 23, 2010 at 10:13 am

“This is why people who live inside the Greenbelt, on average, pay $1,000 more into city coffers each year than they get back in services. And outside the Greenbelt, people, on average, get $1,000 more in services than they pay in taxes. A lot of people have been really annoyed by this finding in a study done for the city a couple of years ago, but I’m not aware of anybody who’s made a case that it was wrong.

It’s a really good deal for people who live outside the Greenbelt. No wonder more people want to do it: there’s a giant public subsidy for a lifestyle where you get a nice newer house and a big yard. It’s a completely rational decision. The only problem is that it’s completely unsustainable for the city government, and that’s the wall we run into every year at budget time. It’s not the consequence of mismanagement at City Hall, it’s a consequence of City Hall trying to do something that’s literally impossible: keep a big pyramid scheme rolling for years after it really should have collapsed. There is a certain irony in the fact that Larry O’Brien’s base of support, at least in 2006, was in Ottawa’s suburbs, where apparently a lot of people are fixed on making sure that the amazingly good deal they get from the city government gets even better.”

Byron Smith September 23, 2010 at 11:06 am

Ross Gittins on the same issue. Gittins is one of Australia’s best known public economists.

R.K. September 23, 2010 at 1:33 pm

That link doesn’t work.

Tristan September 23, 2010 at 3:07 pm

I think we should be careful not to use the term “rural” to refer to suburbs or ex-burbs. Rural populations don’t commute to cities; they live in or near small towns – or near nothing at all.

The suburbs, or ex-burbs, deliver at best the illusion of rural life, one which would only delude those who have no experience or concept of actual rural life.

Milan September 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm

I agree. Reevely is talking about Ottawa’s distant suburbs, from which many people commute into the city to work. He is not talking about truly rural areas that are sustained economically on the basis of some sort of local agriculture or industry.

Matt September 23, 2010 at 6:38 pm

To add an anecdote about fire services in a small town: I have a friend whose parents live in Barnhartvale, a rural community near Kamloops, BC. Because they live in a forest fire prone area, they store a vast amount of water on their property just for the purpose of firefighting.

The overall point is not a bad one, though, it is just pointing out that there is an economy of scale that applies to housing density. Not very surprising, actually.

Tristan September 24, 2010 at 9:49 am

The point about towns like Barnhartvale, I think, is more about the sustainability of massive forest fire suppression (i.e. the last 60 years), rather than how much water might get stored in someone’s back yard. Extremely vast and long term fire suppression is unsustainable and ecologically problematic for a whole host of reasons.

A good move, I think, would be to include fire insurance in property taxes – because otherwise the state is often forced to pay out compensation for people’s lost property even if they chose (or couldn’t afford) to buy fire insurance. The high cost of fire fighting, and the much higher cost of fire suppression, should be priced into rural property values.

Milan September 24, 2010 at 9:59 am

Alternatively, the focus of rural forest fire fighting could be switched exclusively to rescuing people, with no protection for property. If you chose to put your house in the middle of the woods, you would accept the danger of it being burned in a forest fire.

If someone would sell you insurance, you could cover yourself against the financial loss by paying premiums.

Tristan September 24, 2010 at 10:05 am

“If you chose to put your house in the middle of the woods, you would accept the danger of it being burned in a forest fire.”

You know that isn’t politically feasible. It’s also cruel, since people are so bad at dealing with risk. Insurance for such disasters will always exist – the question is whether it will be paid for or not. It’s probably not possible to legislate that people buy fire insurance, but it is possible to include such a levy in property taxes.

oleh October 5, 2010 at 7:08 am

There is a logic to greater density decreasing the cost of municipal services. We have also learned how to increase that density wisely. At these times when prudent fiscal management is required, this may become more important.

. October 5, 2010 at 10:46 am

Firefighters watch as house burns to the ground: owner had not paid annual firefighting fees

By Cory Doctorow on tennessee

Homeowners in the region outside the town limits of South Fulton, TN, have to pay $75 to come under the protection of the town’s firefighters. Late in September, the house of Gene Cranick, who had not paid his $75 for the year, caught fire. When the fire department arrived, they announced that since Cranick had not paid his fees, his house would be allowed to burn to the ground. Cranick offered to pay the $75, but the firefighters weren’t having any of it. They eventually acted to put out the fire when it spread to the home of a neighbor who had previously paid. As the mayor said, ” if homeowners don’t pay, they’re out of luck.”

. November 9, 2010 at 2:33 pm

For whatever the reason, the hypocrisy at the heart of the party—and at the heart of American politics—is at its starkest in Alaska. For decades, Alaskans have lived off federal welfare. Taxpayers’ money subsidizes everything from Alaska’s roads and bridges to its myriad programs for Native Americans. Federal funding accounts for one-third of Alaskan jobs. Nevertheless, Alaskans love to think of themselves as the last frontiersmen, the inhabitants of a land “beyond the horizon of urban clutter,” a state with no use for Washington and its wicked ways.

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