Is urban sprawl to blame for cities going bankrupt?

Oct 2, 2012

Los Angeles suburbs with cul-de-sacs surrounded by freeways

Can urban sprawl be blamed for the rise of bankrupt cities in Southern California

Credit: Amit Patel/Flickr

Stockton was the first and largest California city to go bust, followed by Mammoth Lakes and San Bernardino. Word is, the small city of Atwater in Central California might be next. S

ome warn that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Bankruptcy filings by these municipalities raise questions about the scope of budget issues on the local level and beg the question: who’s next? In each case, whopping public pension obligations seem largely to blame. But in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, former Ventura mayor William Fulton argues that “…the pension blame game masks another, deeper problem for the state’s taxpayers: the hidden but crushing costs of sprawl.”

Fulton acknowledges that pensions are a big part of the financial challenges cities are facing. But he says that if cities grow smartly by building roads and buildings close together, instead of spread out, it will be more affordable for those cities to provide services and offer them a way out of this financial box.

Is that the case? Could “smart growth” development save our cities from financial collapse? Is it realistic in both urban and green-field areas? Or might so-called “smart growth” actually contribute the financial demise of California cities?

William Fulton, vice president and director, Policy Development & Implementation Smart Growth America; senior fellow at the Price School of Public Policy at USC; former mayor of Ventura, California

Wendell Cox, principal, Demographia, a consulting firm in demographics and public policy based in Bellville, Illinois; former member of the LA County Transportation Commission

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