The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA)

The Sprawl of the Wild: Now Is the Right Time To Revive Our Cities

Pennsylvania's cities, towns, and older suburbs are declining as the state sprawls. Pennsylvania's economy is drifting as it responds incoherently to continued industrial restructuring.

Shouldn't the Commonwealth move to reverse these trends?

"Not now" would be the conventional answer. Uncertain times, goes the conventional wisdom, are no time to try to curb land consumption, rebuild struggling cities, and redirect inefficient development patterns. Do those things now, the cautious warn, and you'll squelch what little growth exists, widen the state's $2.5 billion budget deficit, stir up uncertainty.

And yet, here's another view: Now is precisely the right moment for Pennsylvania to reevaluate its longstanding, wasteful, and economically destructive growth trends and put itself on a more dynamic, efficient course of land-use and development.

The reason is simple: Troubled times like these sharpen the need to shake up the status quo and do more with less, not least because Pennsylvania's unbalanced trends of sprawl and abandonment are incredibly costly and inefficient, as we argue in Back to Prosperity: A Competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania, a study released this week by our Brookings Institution center.

In good times, of course, sprawl accelerates, prompting public outcry.

In Pennsylvania, for example, growth and development issues emerged as never before in the late 1990s as the region gobbled up more than 800 square miles (nearly 4 acres per new household) of rural and undeveloped land between 1992 and 1997. Driven by single-digit population growth, such land consumption prompted serious dialogue across the Commonwealth (and in this newspaper) over how to protect the state's farmland.

But now that the economy has slowed and tax collections sagged, another rationale for reform has become urgent: the need to jumpstart the state's sluggish economy and reorient the state's wasteful patterns of sprawl and abandonment.

In this environment, the costs of sprawl and abandonment and the potential economic benefits of reform become unmistakable.

On the cost side, our research reveals that the current trend is placing a heavy burden on the state's businesses and taxpayers.

In addition to $1 billion or so in avoidable sprawl-related infrastructure costs over the next 25 years, the spread of neighborhood decline, abandonment, and blight represents an even more serious blow to the Commonwealth's economic health. On this front, Pennsylvania cities—most notably Philadelphia—lost almost $10 billion in aggregate real property value between 1993 and 2000, as housing depreciated and tax bases sagged. Those losses are sapping the state's vitality by depressing municipalities' ability to raise revenue, increasing governments' costs, and increasing tax rates.

As to the economic benefits of reversing these trends, we believe they are substantial—and potent.

Not only would reversing the state's vicious cycles of depreciation and decline generate household wealth and improve the fiscal health of hundreds of cities and boroughs. More importantly, we contend that curbing sprawl and revitalizing the Commonwealth's established centers has the power to energize the state's entire ailing economy.

Numerous studies show that productivity and overall economic performance may be improved to the extent smart development fosters dense labor markets, vibrant and distinctive downtowns, and a high "quality-of-place." Moreover, we believe that Pennsylvania's numerous cities, rural and urban boroughs, and older townships have a special potential to catalyze growth because they possess assets unavailable elsewhere in the state—outstanding centers of medicine and education; major business and technology clusters; distinctive, human-scaled neighborhoods.

From this perspective, the present moment of fiscal stress and economic challenge looks very much like the right time—not the wrong time—for Pennsylvania leaders to reevaluate counterproductive growth patterns and refocus the state's economic and land-use policies on success.

In fact, we would suggest that the need for economic renewal and enhanced efficiency has grown so obvious across the Commonwealth that the desire for change now holds out promise of overcoming such traditional hurdles as Pennsylvania's deep-set caution and intense localism.

Now, more than ever before, the possibility seems to exist for a new consensus around reinvestment and smarter growth. In many respects, a latent coalition exists may now be cohering that includes fiscal conservatives and business people as well as farmers, neighborhood activists, environmentalists, rural borough residents, suburbanites, and urban mayors.

And so we think that steering the state "back to prosperity' actually represents a doable errand for the Commonwealth—and that the time for action is now.

To that end, the state would do well to seize this moment to move the state beyond the troubled status quo that has resulted from decades of insufficient planning and misguided investment.

What will this advance take? First off, we think state leaders need to promulgate a dynamic new vision of economic competitiveness and development that seeks to leverage the potent assets of the state's older cities and towns into a lasting prosperity for all Pennsylvanians. This vision should explicitly acknowledge that how the state grows physically affects how it grows economically. Above all, the new vision should decisively link the state's desire for economic prosperity to its abiding interest in curbing sprawl and reviving established towns.

Otherwise, the state needs to align its own activities with the new competitive strategy. For too long disparate state agencies have built roads, dispensed business subsidies, and made permitting decisions without adequate regard to a coherent statewide strategic vision. Accordingly, Pennsylvania should move aggressively—and soon—to focus the state's infrastructure and economic development spending on the places and projects that fit the Commonwealth's emerging commitment to efficiency, competitiveness, and reinvestment.

In short, bad times are here, yet they're actually the best time to strike at the economic and land-use malaise of business-as-usual. Shouldn't Pennsylvania make some tough choices and get a move on?