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The Suburban Ring

New report lives in a fantasy world

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Just in time for the holiday season comes an epic tale of betrayal and heroism, noble sacrifice and rank greed, a tale pitting all that is green and good against a faceless evil.

 

I am speaking, of course, of the release of "Back to Prosperity: A competitive agenda for renewing Pennsylvania." Put out by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, the document is to public planners what the Lord of the Rings trilogy is to movie-goers: a gripping story in which a menace grows behind a smoke-clogged hillside, threatening to spill over the nearby ridge and wipe out everything in its path.

 

The films of the Lord of the Rings trilogy show the forests of Middle Earth being defoliated to feed the furnaces of war; the Brookings report depicts Pennsylvania as a mid-Atlantic state in which forests are paved for sprawling suburbs. In the films, humans, elves and dwarves squabble amongst themselves, unable to contend with the dark power of Mordor. In the Brookings report, officials in Pittsburgh and other old communities bicker as well, preventing them from joining to fight the suburban menace and encourage more sensible planning.

 

"Pennsylvania's cities, towns and older suburbs are declining while the state sprawls," the report contends. Property values in Pittsburgh and older communities decline while poverty increases -- even though such communities are "where many of [the state's] critical intellectual, health, and business assets cluster." Brookings recommends "large-scale reinvestment in older areas," instead of what it charges are subsidies of suburban development, including road construction and other infrastructure.

 

Given that the report echoes the complaints of Mayor Tom Murphy -- who has long argued that suburban commuters must do more for the region's urban hub -- it's no surprise the report has generated so much attention, capped by three op-ed pieces in the city's two daily papers on one day alone. It's also not surprising that the suburbanites see Pittsburgh as Mordor. As they see it, Murphy is raising an army of pig-nosed public-sector workers, planning to raid the homes of suburbanites. Like Tolkien's hobbits, these unassuming folk want only to dwell in the leafy quiet of their shires, and for this they are accused of racism by Murphy, who threatens to impose a commuter tax if the city is designated as financially distressed. As Tolkien might have put it: "Act 47 to rule them all / Act 47 to find them / Act 47 to tax them all / And in the darkness bind them."

 

In Tolkien, of course, the enemy is a dark, inhuman force called "Sauron." But in the real world, whose problems the Brookings report hopes to solve, what we're up against is all too human: our inability to see problems over the hillside as our own.

 

No one can argue with much of the Brookings report. Suburbanites may not be outright racists, but a simple look at Census figures proves the report's contention that suburban sprawl has "isolat[ed] the state's growing numbers of low-income and minority residents from opportunity," trapping them in withering communities while real growth occurs far away. The Brookings report assumes that if we're shown the light of reason, we'll choose "to build a very different future" by "targeting [our] resources on the state's older, already-established places" instead of building new communities.

 

But if suburbanites were that concerned about Pittsburgh and its poorer residents, they probably wouldn't have moved out in the first place. With their McMansions and baronial grounds, new suburbs map out the geography of easy self-gratification: Don't like the current housing stock? Have your home built to your specifications. Don't approve of how the city is run? You could organize a movement to change things, but it's easier to vote with your feet -- the one election you get to control. The impulse is only natural: Self-gratification in the form of consumer spending is the premise our entire economy -- and thus much of society itself -- is built around. Where you live is just another consumer choice, like the brand of detergent you buy, and nothing you should feel guilty about.

 

Such an attitude, in fact, was the premise much of Mayor Murphy's redevelopment strategy was originally built upon: We could save the city by turning Downtown into an urban playground for the affluent to spend their money. It was trickle-down development.

 

The Brookings report continues Murphy's error by trying to appeal to the affluent on their own terms. It suggests, for example, that because young people value an urban experience, suburban sprawl and a deteriorating core "don't bode well for attracting and holding onto the young people needed to bolster the region's economic competitiveness."

 

Well, maybe. Except that younger households are encouraging what the report decries as "rampant suburban development." Look at Pine Township, which Brookings laments has grown by 90 percent over the past decade even as the region has shrunk. According to Census figures, less than one out of 10 Pine residents is over the age of 65 -- half the rate at which seniors are found in the county as a whole, and the sixth-lowest of the county's 130 municipalities. Among the county's other young communities are such sprawling communities as Marshall, Findlay and North Fayette.

 

Even more absurdly, the report argues, "[l]ow density sprawl raises tax bills because it frequently costs more to provide infrastructure and services to far-flung communities." Really? So how come Pine Township has a municipal property tax of 1.2 mills -- about one-tenth of Pittsburgh's rate?

 

The Brookings study is trying to do what so many anti-sprawl arguments have done: convince people that doing what they want isn't in their own self-interest. That's a fool's errand, an effort easily brushed aside.

 

In the long run, we will run out of farmland and forest to pave over. In the long run, burning all that gas driving to and from work will prove prohibitively expensive. But as John Maynard Keynes once observed, in the long run we'll all be dead anyway. So drive your SUV while you can, while gas is cheap. Because if you don't someone else will.

 

There might have been a time for the Brookings argument...but that time was back when elves and wizards walked the earth, when we were encouraged to take a moment out of our self-indulgent lives and give something back to our community. These days, however, we tend to think self-indulgence is what we give to our community. It's all the sacrifice we're asked for. If Tolkien were writing today, the rise of Mordor might have been met the same way the Sept. 11 terror attacks were -- with a round of tax cuts and a spirited discussion about deregulating electricity.

 

If that failed, he would have had the people of Middle Earth pull up stakes and simply abandon the place. Everyone could have just followed the exodus of the elves, who fled the darkening country to the undying lands of the west.

 

You know, like Robinson Township.

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