Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Sprawl (Sort of)

9 thoughts on “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Sprawl (Sort of)”

  1. Hi Johnny! This is so funny because I found your blog via the Kirsten Dirksen film about you and your resourceful ways of getting that sweet little house in Hawaii. Well, I happen to live in Cully (farther from this ”cooler” area, 30 blocks east). I bought a foreclosure in 2011 and since then, the neighborhood, which was once thought as the ”hillbilly” part of town, has quickly risen in house value. There are a great deal many houses that still look like THIS;

    and then, a few blocks away, some giant faux craftsmen (crapsmen) listed at nearly half a million:

    https://www.redfin.com/OR/Portland/4631-NE-72nd-Ave-97218/home/59979068

    It’s really interesting to see how rapidly things are changing. Anyway, thanks for your blog. I find the subject of the evolution of cities really fascinating.

    1. I love your “Janky Ranch” photos. I initially spent most of my time in Alberta Arts and dismissed Cully as a suburban wasteland. Then I got to know the area better and kind of fell in love with it. The people are great.

      I have mixed feelings about the new “Crapsman” homes. Even though these are just giant papier mache boxes that were shot out of a hose by day laborers (no craftsmen) with a lot of peel-and-stick plastic cabinets and such, I can’t be too bothered when new blood and fresh money help revive a neighborhood. I know this is a controversial opinion, but the alternative is for the old housing stock to continue to decline forever until it can’t be saved at all. It’s all part of a long deep economic cycle. Someday the Crapsmen boxes will become the affordable housing for some future generation. Would I prefer homebuyers demand better quality and accept less bulk in exchange? Sure. But this is pick-your-battles territory here. I tend to just roll with it.

  2. This is my first time on the blog, and I thought this article was outstanding! In fact, I will forward it to a city planner friend of mine. One grammar nazi point, though: it should be dispersed, not disbursed. The former refers to geographic distribution; the latter refers to monetary payments.

    1. Welcome to Granola Shotgun. And thanks for the grammar check. I’m curious where your town is and what your particular challenges and opportunities might be. What would you like your local city planner to know or do?

  3. Excellent article. The only problem is that once these innovators and renovators improve a neighborhood, the land speculators begin to jack up prices and rents, thereby squelching the renaissance and forcing the innovators to find another cheap (and hopefully not too inconvenient) place to live and work. Land speculation is a parasitic activity. Speculators make money off of the work of other people. Their “land hoarding” creates an artificial scarcity of development sites that lead to real increases in land prices. Not only does this force residents and entrepreneurs into more remote (and less productive) locations, but it fuels the real estate boom and bust cycle that is terribly destructive for the general economy.

    What we need is a new approach. Just as car-sharing and bike-sharing are proving successful, we could adopt a form of “land-sharing” to keep prime sites available for people of modest means who wish to live and work there. As it happens, “land-sharing” exists in several forms. In some places, they have created community land trusts. In other places, the community has reduced the property tax rate on privately-created building values (making buildings more affordable) while simultaneously increasing the tax rate on publicly-created land values (surprisingly making land more affordable). Thus, without losing any revenues, these communities have taken some of the profit out of land speculation and empowered the people who actually want to live and work there. These types of approaches will better allow communities to thrive and maintain themselves over time, rather than fostering the roller-coaster of booms and busts that we have under the status quo.

    If you’re interested, see “Using Value Capture to Finance Infrastructure and Encourage Compact Development” at https://www.mwcog.org/uploads/committee-documents/k15fVl1f20080424150651.pdf

    1. You’re proposing a classic Henry George style land tax. Now go try and get that change in the tax code through the local city or county council. Fat chance! So you need to look at politically viable alternatives to a land tax that might indirectly accomplish some of the same goals.

      Option #1. Create fees for services based on the actual cost of delivery rather than a broad property tax. For example, Philadelphia recently enacted an impervious surface fee that is added to all water and sewer assessments. Philly needs a massive new sewerage treatment plant to deal with storm water runoff. By taxing parking lots, driveways, and all the physical stuff that creates runoff multiple goals are being accomplished. First, the city collects the revenue it needs to pay for the sewer plant. Second, it creates an incentive for low value parking lots and such to be replaced by more productive uses like new buildings. Third, it encourages the conversion of pavement to vegetation where new construction isn’t economically viable. So the fee generates revenue, encourages density, and helps to re-green the city. Politically, it’s a fee levied by a utility provider rather than a new tax created by elected officials.

      Option #2. REDUCE the tax on property beyond the edge of town, but with the understanding that outlaying properties will not receive a “town” level of services. Instead of four lanes of paved roads things will revert to gravel which is very inexpensive to maintain – in keeping with the very low taxes out in the country. Private homes and businesses outside town will need private wells and septic systems not city water and sewers. There will be no school buses so parents will have to deliver children to school in town on their own. The fire trucks will not serve beyond a certain point, etc. You’re likely to get a better acceptance of this policy, particularly among conservatives, compared to a higher tax rate. This system will work best in an area that is not yet built up. It’s more of a preventive policy that will attract a self-selecting population that is comfortable with the trade offs involved.

      Option #3. In some regions rural land can not be legally developed unless a reasonable supply of ground water and/or a soil percolation test demonstrate that the geology can support private infrastructure. This works best in places with limited water and/or difficult soils. Then town can decide where and how to extend city services in a compact efficient fashion.

      Option #4. Let the current system run its course. Local, state, and federal agencies are all going broke and sooner or later inefficient unproductive places will hit a financial wall. There will be a period of cascading failures with a lot of unpleasantness… and then new winners and losers will emerge. Prosperous people will migrate to the areas where taxes are in keeping with a reasonable level of services. Government will respond by focusing on the places with well organized and prosperous residents. The poor and disorganized will find themselves in badly served areas that are neglected by government. Big surprise.

  4. This post reminds me a lot of what I saw in Austin, TX. 99.9% of Austin is like this. Most of the area I was in, East Austin, barely had sidewalks. But there was a lot of good use put to the older homes in the area, even if they were more spread out than in a downtown area.

    Honestly, what I would love to see is these ideas brought to close-in, mixed pre- and post-war suburban New Jersey. Where I live just outside of Philadelphia is in fact a pre-war suburb with an awesome, walkable downtown strip on a train line, but so much of the surrounding area has the scars of the latter half of the 20th century. If the sprawling post-war parts of New Jersey are going to keep anybody in the 21st century, it’s going to need people to people with the ethos you’re talking about to make it happen. Or maybe everyone’ll finally realize just how cheap land in Camden is and how amazingly located it is with 24/7 transit access into Philly. Either way, good post. Life if truly what we make of it.

  5. Another good post, Johnny. Thought provoking. I might have been happier when I lived in Portland, and more likely to stay permanently, if I had found a good community like this one. My neighborhood was nice enough (not so different from Cully, but right on the line between N and NE) but not fancy, and was an easy bike ride to many of the more popular areas in town, like Alberta.

  6. I have lived in suburbs most of my life. In order to live more sustainably, we purchased a small fixer-upper within a mile of work, schools for all 12 grades, shopping, etc. We even changed churches so the kids could walk to youth events. An “urban” lifestyle is possible in the suburbs, but you have to plan well. The starting point: a stable job and a home within a mile or so of that job. If it’s a two-career family, both members need to try if possible to coordinate so that their workplaces are relatively close to one another. My husband and I worked as support staff at the same large public university. Now we live in a small city of 10,000, still within easy walking distance of everything except our daughter’s high school (about 2 miles, but mostly without sidewalks).

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