As small cities struggle, a look at the high cost of low-density development

The old city hall building in Harrisburg, PA, which filed for bankruptcy yesterday. Photo by Flickr user Wally Gobetz.

Smart growth can reduce costs for municipal governments, and with so many towns in America struggling financially it’s time more places use these fiscally responsible strategies.

News this week from Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Florida and Maine highlight the fact that many small cities are struggling to make ends meet. Cash-strapped and unable to cover rising costs, many municipalities are tightening their belts and some are raising taxes. Most notably, the city of Harrisburg, PA filed for bankruptcy yesterday, unable to generate enough revenue to meet its expenses.

The news from these places comes on the heels of a recent release from Strong Towns, which asks how cities and towns that had recently been prosperous can suddenly become unable to afford even basic obligations like street maintenance. Curbside Chat likens low-density development to a Ponzi scheme, where towns that choose to build new development on the fringe of existing towns need ever-larger growth rates to sustain their long-term financial liabilities.

Smart Growth America’s report Repair Priorities reinforces this point, explaining that road repair costs rise exponentially as pavement conditions decline, and municipalities that defer regular repair in favor of new road construction create enormous future financial liabilities for themselves. This principle applies to many other services provided by municipal governments, including water and sewer infrastructure as well as police, hospitals and even schools.

The financial troubles of Harrisburg, PA, Waterville, ME and Carlisle, AR weren’t caused solely by the high cost of low-density development, but smart growth strategies like focusing investment in existing communities and the infrastructure that supports them can help local governments reduce liabilities and cut costs. Every town or city interested in reducing expenses can use smart growth strategies to help meet their fiscal goals.

Want to know more? Learn more about specific policy recommendations in Smart Growth America’s state and regional policy guide, or apply for one of a dozen free workshops on the technical aspects of smart growth strategies.