Concern about urban sprawl is often limited to the loss of farmland, traffic congestion, and unattractive development. But urban sprawl has other impacts. Building the roads and sewers to serve new subdivisions uses state and federal tax money, often at the expense of the large cities that are losing population to the suburbs. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham looks at the divide between city and suburb:
Concern about urban sprawl is often limited to the loss of farmland, traffic
congestion, and unattractive development. But urban sprawl has other impacts.
Building the roads and sewers to serve new subdivisions uses state and federal tax
money, often at the expense of the large cities that are losing population to the
suburbs. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
looks at the divide between city and suburb:
What some people call urban sprawl got started as the federal government’s answer to
a severe housing shortage. There wasn’t a lot of building going
on during the Great Depression. At the end of World War II, returning GIs needed
Reynolds Farley is a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Population
Studies Center. Farley says the federal government offered veterans low-interest
loans and developers started building modest homes on green lawns on the edge of
cities. But because of discrimination, the loans didn’t as often make it into the
hands of African-American veterans. Instead of segregated neighborhoods in the
city, segregation lines were newly drawn between city and
“Very low-cost mortgages accelerated the movement of whites from the central city
out to the suburbs… built upon the long racial animosity that characterized cities
beginning at the time of the first World War and continuing, perhaps up to the
With segregation, there was a shift of wealth. Farley says jobs and purchasing
power were exported to the suburbs with the help of the interstate highway system.
And big new shopping centers displaced retail in downtowns.
People with low-incomes, often people of color, were left behind in cities of
abandoned houses and vacant storefronts that often didn’t have enough tax base to
maintain roads and services.
John Powell is a professor at Ohio State University. He’s written extensively on
urban sprawl and its effects on urban centers.
“So, we move jobs away, we move tax base away, we move good schools away and then
the city becomes really desperate and they’re trying to fix the problems, but all
the resources have been moved away.”
With no way found to fix the cities, whites have been moving out of cities to the
suburbs for decades. And now, middle-class blacks are moving out too. For some
metropolitan areas, leaving the city has become a
matter of income… although Powell says even then African-Americans have a more
difficult time finding a way out.
“Race never drops out of the equation. In reality, even middle-class blacks don’t
have the same mobility to move to opportunity that even working-class whites do
because of the way race works in our society.”
So, segregation continues. But now the line is drawn between middle-class blacks in
the older, inner-ring suburbs, whites in the outer-ring suburbs… and for the most
part in cities such as Detroit, poorer blacks left behind in the central city.
Smarth Growth advocates say part of the answer to urban sprawl is finding a way to
get more money back into the central-cities to make them more attractive to
everyone. That’s worked in cities such as Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis-St.
Paul. But those cities and their suburbs are predominantly white. For Northern
cities with greater racial divides, cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St.
Louis and Detroit it’s different. A lot of white suburbanites don’t want tax
dollars going to blacks in the city. And African-Americans in the city don’t see
urban sprawl as their issue, so ideas such as tax revenue sharing for a metropolitan
region are not a priority. The issue of regional tax equity that
works in predominantly white regions… becomes muddied by racial animosity in
“Buzz’ Thomas is state senator in Michigan who has taken on the issue of urban
sprawl and its counterpart, the deterioration of city centers. Senator Thomas says
if state legislatures can’t find an answer to help cities, sprawl in the suburbs
will continue, paving over green space and farmland.
“You know, poverty and jobs and access to health care and access to quality
education are very realistic issues for cities like Detroit. But, a reality is they
go hand-in-hand with sprawl. As your black middle-class moves out of the inner city
because they’re not satisfied with those resolution to those issues. You know, it
Senator Thomas says legislators from rural areas and from urban areas are beginning
to realize they have a common issue. But before they can get to discussions of
regional tax equity, they first have to talk about the more difficult issue of
“And have a discussion that might make me uncomfortable, that might make those
that I discuss it with uncomfortable. Only then, I think, can we really adequately
figure out how long it’s going to take us to resolve that issue.”
In the meantime, many cities are still losing population and revenue. Suburbs
continue to sprawl. And farms are becoming subdivisions, retail strip malls and
fast food restaurants.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.