A lot of genuine experts in problems of urban growth assume that urban sprawl is a big problem for cities that that are growing rapidly, but that it is much less of a problem with slow growth. This is only one of many illustrations of how the problems of slow-growth cities are neglected, because a little bit of reflection is all it takes to conclude that the opposite is true. In a nutshell, the problem of slow-growth cities is that, unlike the proverbial growth machine, they are a machine for the creation of empty space.

In the typical North American city, empty spaces appear in both suburban areas and the inner city. In the suburbs this happens because farms, forests or fields at the edge of the city are rarely developed in strict sequence, with the land nearest to existing urbanized tracts ahead of more distant ones in the development queue. A parcel of land separated from the rest of the city by greenfields will require roads, sewerage, water lines and transit service.

These expensive services will have to be extended across lands that generate the low levels of taxation typical of farmland, rather than the much higher taxes that come from urban development. Once occupied, a new subdivision requires conveniently located community centres and library branches, and the same response times for fire fighters, police and paramedics that more densely-populated areas of the city enjoy. Street cleaning, snow removal, grass cutting, insect control, and everything else the municipality does will have to serve empty parcels of land as well as full ones.

Photo by Lynn Betts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service http://photogallery.nrcs.usda.gov/
If a city is growing slowly, as Winnipeg is, those empty spaces can be there a long time before development fills them up. In a rapidly growing city, such as Vancouver, empty parcels are filled up more quickly. For example, Vancouver and surrounding municipalities, with 690 persons per square kilometre, has an easier time paying its bills than the Winnipeg area, with 162. Even if everyone in Winnipeg lived in expensive homes and everyone in Vancouver in modest bungalows – which is decidedly not the case – Winnipeg would have trouble keeping pace.
Someone will object that both the Winnipeg and Vancouver metropolitan areas – but especially metropolitan Winnipeg – include large areas belonging to urbanizing municipalities, where thinly scattered residences may require a much lower level of municipal services. However, a comparison of the cities of Vancouver and Winnipeg, excluding surrounding municipalities, produce much the same result: population densities, respectively, of 4759 and 1332. By either calculation, Winnipeg is forced to spread its services far more thinly than Vancouver.

To be sure, a gross calculation based only on population density skips many important details, but more detailed investigations have produced similar results. A variety of studies that, among them, have calculated the infrastructure costs associated with different densities and settlement patterns, as well as the differences between uniform and mixed-use developments, make it clear that the low-density, single-land-use development that is typical of North American suburbs and exurban areas carries a heavy price tag. Studies that go beyond infrastructure to calculate the costs of other services similarly demonstrate that higher densities and greater proximity of different types of development (houses, stores, offices) produce substantial savings compared with the isolated residential districts, shopping centres and industrial areas typical of North American suburban development.
What does all this have to do with slow and fast growth? By sheer force of numbers and distance, cities necessarily densify as they get larger, even if they are badly planned, and if they are growing rapidly, they densify more quickly. As a practical matter, that means that when leap-frog development takes place at the edge of metropolitan Vancouver, the empty spaces that represent a taxpayer liability get filled in quickly, while, in Winnipeg, they languish for a long time as empty spaces, and taxpayer liabilities. That is one way that North American urban development is a machine for the production of empty spaces.
The second empty space machine is the decay, followed possibly by abandonment, of many inner city neighbourhoods adjacent to the commercial heart of the city. In a city that is growing rapidly, development pressure tends to produce rapid gentrification or expansion of downtown towers. In slow-growth centres, the decay simply continues, and empty lots sprout, producing more untaxable land that must be serviced. In many cities decay simply overwhelms efforts at regeneration.
Accordingly, in Vancouver’s poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside, gentrification and the encroachment of the financial district have been ongoing issues. In Winnipeg’s centrally-located North End and West End neighbourhoods, things aren’t as bad as in the picture above, but community organizers are locked in a never-ending battle against the proliferation of boarded-up buildings and empty lots.

They make the best of a bad situation by renovating houses and developing pocket parks, community gardens or new, affordable homes. But the empty lots continue to proliferate. Gentrification or office development is out of the question in much of that vast area. Downtown as in the suburbs, Winnipeg’s taxpayers assume the burden of servicing empty spaces, and neighbourhoods with low property values, while Vancouver’s decaying areas quickly fill up with premium-rate taxpayers.
This is only one of many ways that the politics and the problems of cities differ according to their rate of growth. Slow-growth cities and rapidly-growing ones need to be managed differently, but usually the decision-makers in slow-growth cities simply ape the policies being pursued by such cities as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Calgary and Dallas. Until they learn to manage their affairs according to their actual situation, instead of mindlessly adopting policies being pursued elsewhere, they will remain urban North America’s poor cousins.
Want to find out more, and see additional documentation? Look for:

Christopher Leo and Katie Anderson, “Being Realistic about Urban Growth.” Journal of Urban Affairs. 28:2, 2006.
Christopher Leo and Wilson Brown, “Slow Growth and Urban Development Policy.” Journal of Urban Affairs. 22:2, 2000, 193-213.

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