Reversing Sprawl: Part I

The Secret

Why is it that, every year, the average American spends almost an entire work week stuck in traffic? We are wasting so much time, money, and resources making our daily rounds, but when exploring better ways of doing things, conversations tend to be dominated by improvements to public transportation and more fuel-efficient cars. But to focus solely on transport is to ignore the elephant in the room: the problem is not getting from A to B, but that we live in cities where the long commute is necessary in the first place.

How can we create walkable cities with affordable housing, a strong sense of community, more parks, the means to innovate, explore, create art, enjoy nature, and all of the other things that make communities thrive? What’s the secret?

Posted at http://isNSFW.blogspot.com
Figure 1. Cities currently develop down and out, away from city centers, destroying nature and increasing time spent in traffic.

Underused And Over Capacity

Spaces can feel like they’re at capacity when in reality they are just poorly organized. This can be said of a single room in a house where clothes are strewn across the floor or of an entire city where vacant lots and short buildings are scattered across the landscape. It is possible to make better use of space on a macro scale so that everybody can have affordable housing near job opportunities, public transportation, and nature. Right now, vacant and underused sites make this very difficult, dividing neighborhoods, forcing sprawl to outlying areas, increasing demand for oil, and causing a great deal of ecological damage in the process. Car culture ensues; walkability and the social nature of space decays.

Remix Everything

Taxing land value, not buildings and improvements, encourages the development of city centers, allowing more people to be accommodated. This is because landowners require a higher return to cover the Land Value Tax and still make a profit. Centrally-located land in urban centers will attract the highest Land Value Tax, and this will create the strongest incentives to develop vacant and underused sites. Done properly, as the main or only tax, the Land Value Tax increases the housing supply and lowers rent in and near city centers. In the long term, urban sprawl can be reversed.

Up & In vs Down & Out

Our cities have taken a long time to get this bad, and it stands to reason that the remedy would be gradual as well. A high Land Value Tax, uniformly applied, can gradually reverse sprawl, putting vacant and underused land to its best use. There are many other positive social, environmental, and economic effects of Land Value Taxation, but many of these can only be understood by first understanding the spatial effects. Under such conditions, cities develop up and in toward the city center, instead of down and out, away from the city center (see Figure 2 below). Many will notice the fully intended pun here, as the shape of a city has a lot to do with human welfare. Under Land Value Tax, up and in produces good results, down and out produces bad results.

Image 2. Under land value taxation, cities develop up and in, not down and out. The top image represents how most cities develop. The bottom image represents how cities would develop over the long term with a strong land value tax. Owners to the left would pay a high tax, while those to the right would pay exponentially less tax. © Haskellot Illustrations

Land Value Tax And Sprawl

When there is no incentive for vacant lots to be developed into productive community spaces, there will obviously be fewer buildings. There will also be fewer parks since the surface area is wasted on vacant and underused sites. In a city with a Land Value Tax, not only is the vacant land filled, but buildings are consistently higher closer to the central business district. In the end, more people have the opportunity to live and work closer to the urban core. Starved of taxes on labor and other economic activity, a government must raise revenue by investing in beautiful and inspiring public spaces where people are willing to pay more for the privilege, thus bidding up the land value and in turn government revenue from the land value tax.

Figure 3. Vertical garden in Bangkok. Such use of all available building space in cities would be incentivized under Land Value Taxation. Photo: Roberto Trombetta via photopin (license)

Under this system, much of the wild areas destroyed by current sprawl (Figure 2) are reoccupied by trees and other natural features. Farms can also be closer to cities, reducing transportation costs. The Land Value Taxation city also has a great deal of green on buildings, as the need to maximize the land value incentivizes ecological architecture in the form of vertical, rooftop, and green wall farming.

How Land Value Taxation Improves Good-Density

 

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Figure 4. This image represents how 21 blocks of sprawling land use could be accommodated within 60% of one block in a central business district. A Land Value Tax incentivizes such land use. Credit: Ascher, Kate, and Rob Vroman. 2011. The heights: anatomy of a skyscraper. New York: Penguin Press.

Use It Or Lose It

Vacant lots, ground level parking, and paved or barren areas left unused are commonplace in our cities. In many cases, this is extremely valuable land in central business districts. If a Land  Value Tax is applied here, the total tax paid will be drastically higher relative to vacant land further from the city.

Imagine that you are the owner of that vacant lot. Will you continue to leave it unused if the tax bill is much higher? Without Land Value Taxation, you may have left the land vacant because you did not want to take a financial risk to build anything. You were simply waiting for the land value to rise. However, that rising value is taxed away under Land Value Taxation. Thus, you start to view owning the land as less of a passive investment and more as something that can only be beneficial when it is used well.

You must either start generating income from the land to pay the tax, or sell it to someone who will. Similarly, if you own a small building among centrally-located skyscrapers, you will be incentivized to build higher, to generate more income in order to pay the tax and keep what is left over. Use it or lose it, as the saying goes. While there would be no law that said the land must be used for a particular purpose, financial self-interest would drive landowners toward the most efficient use. They would inadvertently be doing what is in the best interest of everyone.

 

Figure 6. Under Land Value Taxation, the landowner of this McDonald’s in Manhattan would be incentivized to add residential and commercial units above it in order to pay the tax.

 

Cumulative Spatial Effect

Under Land Value Taxation, all landlords are faced with the same incentive: meet the market demand for space in the area or sell to someone who will. Cumulatively, more of the demand to use central locations is satisfied and there is less demand to use outlying areas.

The areas with the highest land values pay the highest Land Value Tax. Thus, these high-value areas also have the strongest incentive to build high, while those areas that are lower in value have increasingly less incentive to develop as the need for space was fulfilled in the city center. The incentive to build high exponentially decreases moving away from the city center.

Boost to Urban Farming

Farming can use very little land and still produce a lot of food. The video below shows a man who produced a million pounds of food in one year on only three acres. His permaculture farming techniques could be stacked in buildings closer to the urban core and/or near the city on community farms. Necessity is the mother of invention and such practices could become widespread with the proper economic incentives in place, i.e. a Land Value Tax. Such an operation requires a lot of labor but little land. Therefore, if taxes are shifted off wages and onto land, these activities become more practical and profitable.

 

More Idyllic Farming Communities Nearby

Environmentally destructive farming practices, such as widespread use of pesticides, only make financial sense when land is cheap relative to labor. The equation is reversed when taxes are moved off labor and onto land. Though cities would welcome more people, it would also make living and working in outlying areas much more affordable too. This is because the cost to buy or rent rural land would decrease and wages for rural workers would increase.

Ultimately, this would give people greater freedom with respect to where and how they lived. Today’s huge monoculture plantations would be broken up, and the resulting farms would employ more labor. An increased demand for such labor would further increase wages.

“No one would want more land than he could profitably use. Instead of scraggy, half-cultivated farms, separated by great tracts lying idle, homesteads would come close to each other. Emigrants would not toil through unused acres, nor grain be hauled for thousands of miles past half-tilled land.” – Henry George, Social Problems

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4 thoughts on “Reversing Sprawl: Part I

    • I’m glad you like it! I find that once people can visualize how cities will change shape, it’s easier to also understand the obvious environmental and social effects. Without this, people often throw out misconceptions about intensive development in rural areas. They worry that they will not be able to pay the land value tax. However, these pictures make it obvious that if you are not a big corporate landlord in the center of a large metropolitan area, your taxes are going to plummet under a system where the land value tax is at least the primary source of government revenue.

    • Thank you Quisia! Creating something complicated seems hard. But in truth, making it look easy is much harder. I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping to create something simple and elegant, obsessing over small iterative improvements in the drafting process.

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