Suburbs’ spread threatens quality of city life

by Joe Carlson

America’s cities once teemed with street corner shops and immigrants from every corner of the globe. But the melting-pot cities of old have lost some of their spirit to the sprawling suburbs that now surround the urban cores. The dense network of interstates and highways surrounding the University is the only connection many now have to the city their grandparents inhabited.
Urban sprawl has become one of the most hotly contested issues facing the Twin Cities in recent times. The University has an important stake in the debate because it stands to lose both the financial support of the community surrounding it and the social support of students and faculty members who live ever further from campus.
Despite the widespread discussion of sprawl, many residents, including some University students, are still unsure of the exact nature of urban sprawl or its ramifications for the University.
Experts asked to define urban sprawl commonly cite uncoordinated development of low density, single-family units on large lots far outside an urban core. Many Twin Cities suburbs, such as Lakeville, follow this pattern of growth.
This type of development often leads to inefficient duplication of services. It also demands larger, more expensive infrastructure — such as freeways and sewer systems — and has a tendency to draw jobs away from the central city.
These features cripple the urban tax base and draw businesses away from the city, damaging its ability to provide adequate services and a thriving marketplace. If sprawl is left unchecked, it threatens to draw precious financial resources so far from the central cities that they become dead urban cores surrounded by a doughnut of sprawling suburbs, as has happened in Detroit.
Roger Miller, an associate professor of geography, said the Michigan city underwent some of the same processes of urban sprawl the Twin Cities is going through now, including the inefficient duplication of services and businesses.
“There is a huge amount of replication of functions,” Miller said. Suburban development often leads to the duplication of services, such as retail shops, which are already available in the urban center. The now-redundant city shops are often unable to compete with their suburban twins, hastening the flight of jobs and eventually residents from the urban core.
“The city of Detroit no longer has a major department store downtown,” Miller said.
The University, located in the center of the urban core both geographically and economically, stands to lose much of its current support if the central cities’ resources are depleted too heavily by urban sprawl.
“If the city goes down the tubes, the University is going to find itself less attractive to faculty and students,” said Barbara Lukermann, a senior fellow at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs in the Hubert H. Humphrey Center.
Ever-expanding development also has tendency to defeat its own purpose.
“Most suburbs become what they were originally alternatives to,” said Miller. When residents begin to leave dense urban housing for more spacious single-family units, other residents soon follow.
As the suburban community becomes more dense, the demand for bigger infrastructure and more businesses increases and the suburb becomes nearly as dense as the central city, as has happened in Minneapolis’ first-ring suburbs.
First-ring communities are the first suburbs that were developed outside of the urban core, just after World War II. These would include St. Louis Park, Robbinsdale and Richfield.
“The first-ring suburbs have fallen prey to the same problems that the central cities (experienced) 20 years ago,” Miller said.
University students and faculty members caught in this suburban migration away from the central cities find themselves driving farther and farther to get to class each morning.
The increased commuting distance to the University requires more money for better cars, larger roads to handle those cars and more gasoline to fuel them. The funds for these improvements come directly and indirectly from the pocketbooks of students and faculty members, thus raising the overall cost of education and making the University harder for students to afford.
“It’s going to cost more if you live beyond where there is reasonable bus service,” Lukermann said. “Those that want to come to the University are going to have to spend a larger amount of money and time getting here.”
Although creating a dead urban core in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul is a danger, Judith Martin, the program director of the Department of Urban Studies, said that the Twin Cities is unlikely to deteriorate to this extreme condition.
“We’re not going to be Detroit,” Martin said.
Unlike other urban areas, the Twin Cities has a population that cares about their cities’ condition and is dedicated to making it better, Martin said.
“If you look at the amount of planning we’ve done,” she said, “it’s pretty remarkable. That to me is not the sign of a city about to go down the drain.”
This planning is evident in the relatively recent change in direction of public policies dealing with urban sprawl issues.
Until recently, policies have focused on simply fighting negative effects of sprawl. For example, increased traffic congestion has typically been countered with more and bigger roads, like the Interstate 494-694 belt of highways that ring the cities. But solutions that deal with the effects of sprawl rather than the causes, like increasing road construction, are often ineffective and can sometimes make the problem worse.
Recently, a number of different approaches to combating sprawl have arisen out of public debates and discussions that attempt to strike at the root of the problem. These include efforts to foster higher-density housing in the outer suburbs and encourage people to re-inhabit the central and first-ring suburbs.
The Metropolitan Council is charged with several duties relevant to urban sprawl, most notably that of setting the Metropolitan Urban Service Area boundary. The service area boundary defines the area around the Twin Cities authorized to use city sewer and water systems. Any community outside the line must build its own septic system, the high cost of which has made the boundary an effective method of controlling sprawling growth.
The Metropolitan Council is currently in the process of planning the boundary for the years 2020 and 2040 in its regional growth management strategy, in response to the dramatic local population increase projected in coming years.
Final decisions on boundary projections are expected in the 1997-98 Metropolitan Council Comprehensive Planning process.
But there are some major social and institutional barriers still causing people to resist efforts to curb sprawl.
One major obstacle is the fact that it is often initially cheaper to build on virgin farmland than to reuse previously developed land in the central city.
“One of the things that needs to be done,” Miller said, “is there needs to be efforts not just to preserve the inner city, but to improve it.” The high costs of redevelopment, especially if there is pollution cleanup involved, has made the cost of urban development higher than the cost of suburban development.
Another factor promoting urban sprawl is the fact that the Twin Cities area has no natural geographic boundaries to force it to use land more efficiently, such as the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. “We don’t have any physical barriers to impede our growth,” Lukermann said.
Also, Lukermann said the infrastructure already in place helps to encourage more sprawl, which then demands even more infrastructure. “We have a first-rate transportation system that allows us to get anywhere in 30 or 40 minutes — it’s very convenient,” she said.
The University has an important role in resisting the continued spread of urban sprawl through education, research and application of that research.
If the University is able to continue its efforts to teach and to exemplify the efficient use of urban space — to build a thriving community — it could serve as an example for the rest of the Twin Cities.