Blog Archives

Smart Growth Saves Municipal Dollars

A recent report by Smart Growth America, “Building Better Budgets,” says that, “Many municipalities have found that a smart growth approach would improve their financial bottom line. Whether by saving money on upfront infrastructure; reducing the cost of ongoing services like fire, police and ambulance; or by generating greater tax revenues in years to come, community after community has found that smart growth development would benefit their overall financial health. Many of these findings have been made publicly available.
No national survey has examined these savings as a whole until now. This report is the first to aggregate those comparisons and determine a national average of how much other communities can expect to save by using smart growth strategies.
Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development surveys 17 studies that compare different development scenarios, including a brand- new study of Nashville-Davidson County, TN, commissioned specifically for this report.
The development scenarios included in our analysis are separated into two categories: “Smart growth development” is characterized by more efficient use of land; a mixture of homes, businesses and services located closer together; and better connections between streets and neighborhoods. “Conventional suburban development” is characterized by less efficient use of land with homes, schools and businesses separated and areas designed primarily for driving. While not all studies use these terms, the scenarios in each category share many of these defining traits. A detailed discussion of individual studies is included in the appendices of this report.
The report looks at the costs associated with each development strategy as well as its revenue potential. When compared to one another, we find:
1. In general, smart growth development costs one-third less for upfront infrastructure.
Our survey concluded that smart growth development saves an average of 38 percent on upfront costs for new construction of roads, sewers, water lines and other infrastructure. Many studies have concluded that this number is as high as 50 percent.
Smart growth development patterns require less infrastructure, meaning upfront capital costs, long-term operations and maintenance costs, and, presumably, cost for eventual replacement are all lower. Smart growth development also often uses existing infrastructure, lowering upfront capital costs even more.

2. Smart growth development saves an average of 10 percent on ongoing delivery of services.
Our survey concluded that smart growth development saves municipalities an average of 10 percent on police, ambulance and fire service costs.
The geographical configuration of a community and the way streets are connected significantly affect public service delivery. Smart growth patterns can reduce costs simply by reducing the distances service vehicles must drive. In some cases, the actual number of vehicles and facilities can also be reduced along with the personnel required.

3. Smart growth development generates 10 times more tax revenue per acre than conventional suburban development.
Our survey concluded that, on an average per-acre basis, smart growth development produces 10 times more tax revenue than conventional suburban development.
An opportunity for municipal leaders
Local leaders everywhere can use this information to make better fiscal decisions about development in their region.
The evidence presented in this report suggests improved strategies for land use and development can help local governments maintain and improve their fiscal solvency. As this report shows, smart growth development can reduce costs and in many cases increase tax revenue. This combination means that in some cases smart growth development can generate more revenue than it costs to operate.
These findings are true for any rural, suburban or urban community, anywhere in the country. Local governments throughout the United States are already facing unprecedented challenges in providing high-quality infrastructure and adequate public services to their residents on a tight budget. Choosing financially responsible development patterns can help communities across the country protect their fiscal health for generations to come.”

That’s a compelling argument for smart growth.

What’s An Urban Grocery Store?

Answer: Not an urban legend.

In metropolitan areas across the country, residents have been faced with fresh food deserts, or areas where one third of the population is more than a mile from a grocery store and one fifth exists below the poverty line. City dwellers are faced with carrying their groceries on long public transit rides, buying a car or relying on convenience stores to purchase their groceries.

For some lucky metro-poles, there is yet another option: visiting their local urban grocery stores. Though not exactly super markets, these small grocery stores strive to provide their cities with fresh food, meat and cooking staples within reasonable walking distance. Corner stores like these became passe after super stores like Wal-Mart, Wegmans, Weis and Giant came to suburbia. However there’s been a new push toward walkability and sustainable growth within our cities and we again need accessible food in our urban areas.

However, the confines of urban design present some challenges. These grocery stores have to use a fraction of the space that super stores have, prioritize the goods they will provide and consider parking in an area unable to accommodate a super-parking-lot. Even with these challenges in mind, many cities and entrepreneurs have taken the risk and opened such grocery stores.

In the city of Dallas, Texas, there is one such grocery store that also encompasses a delivery component. Nestled in the heart of downtown Dallas, Urbanmarket is the only full service grocery store in its area. They provide produce, meat, deli, seafood, wine & beer, health and beauty products, flowers and prepared foods. Also, if you submit your grocery list online by noon on Tuesday or Friday, your groceries will  be delivered right to you.

Washington, D.C. is getting even more use out of urban space by utilizing mixed use development. On the same property as the Urban Lifestyle Safeway grocery store, there are 441 condos, 244 apartments and 75,000 square feet of retail space. The property is only 3.2 acres. Parking for these facilities is approximately 40 percent of a standard suburban grocery store but still has maintained a successful business model through foot and bike traffic.

There are four food deserts in the Lehigh Valley right now, which (according to the USDA) means that there are four regions in which one third of the population has to travel more than a mile to reach fresh food and at least one fifth of the population exists  below the poverty line. Is an urban grocery store a potential solution to this fresh food problem? Envision Lehigh Valley has been gathering public input on fresh food access and those findings will be included in a comprehensive plan to combat food deserts in the Valley. Community involvement and ideas will be critical in this planning process.

Bringing the Water Infrastructure Discussion Above-Ground

Water.

We all need it, and we all want clean water to come out of our faucets.  Unfortunately, our aging infrastructure system threatens the delivery of that necessary, clean water.  The underground pipes are reaching the end of their useful lives.  The decline of these systems means more water disruptions, more contaminated water, and less reliable delivery of water to our ever-growing population.  The cost of repairing and replacing our water and waste water systems will only continue to grow the longer we wait.

On February 28th, Aurel Arndt, general manager of Lehigh County Authority, spoke before the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment on behalf of the American Water Works Association (AWWA).  Aurel is no stranger to the need to rejuvenate our water infrastructure; he has worked for the Lehigh County Authority since 1974.  During his service, he has seen the decline in our community’s water infrastructure.  Aurel highlighted the large, yet absolutely necessary, expense to restore the buried drinking water systems as well as the above-ground drinking water facilities, waste water, storm water, and other water-related infrastructure in his remarks to the subcommittee.  The cost for such an overhaul is well over $1 trillion, but the ultimate cost for letting our water infrastructure deteriorate further and attempting expensive emergency repairs without a feasible solution will be much more costly.

AWWA recently released a report entitled, “Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge.” The report focused on the need to address the current water infrastructure nearing the end of its useful life.  It succeeds AWWA’s report, “Dawn of the Replacement Era,” in which AWWA first noted hat the time had come for our water systems to be replaced before they completely fall apart.  (This report and other AWWA material can be found on our website at www.renewlv.org/water.)

In his remarks, Aurel and AWWA endorsed a new approach to funding the overhaul of our water infrastructure– the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA).  The act is modeled after the highly successful Transportation Infrastructure and Innovation Act (TIFIA).  WIFIA would lower the cost of infrastructure investment and alter the financing process so that communities would be able to afford the necessary replacements in their water systems.  WIFIA would “assist communities in meeting the nation’s water infrastructure needs in a manner that would have minimal cost to the federal government while complementing existing financial mechanisms, maintaining the current federal role, leveraging private capital, and creating vital manufacturing and construction jobs.”  The entire program would provide a feasible solution for communities to address the water infrastructure problem, while also providing a cleaner environment and greater quality of life for residents.  (Read Aurel Arndt’s full statement.)

Renew Lehigh Valley has encouraged a regional and cooperative approach to the water infrastructure challenges facing the Lehigh Valley.  The WIFIA legislation would provide a means for cost efficient solutions to be developed for the communities within the Lehigh Valley, while also fostering a mindset of sustainable growth and development.  Water is vital to our existence.  It’s time to bring the discussion about our water infrastructure challenges above-ground and address them as an entire Lehigh Valley.

Urban Design that Fights Obesity and Promotes Physical Activity

Sure, we all know that regular exercise and eating well are essential components of a healthy lifestyle and are important in fighting obesity. But rather than just telling people to go to the gym, how can we make physical activity a more realistic (and exciting!) option that will encourage people to abandon their sedentary lifestyles?  

The authors and collaborators of the NYC Active City Guidelines propose active urban design as the key to promoting more physical activity and fighting the obesity epidemic. The Guidelines are the product of a collaborative effort between NYC public health professionals, architects, urban designers, and urban planners.

 The Guidelines are grounded in the idea that the design of the built environment can have a crucial and positive influence on improving public health.

They propose interesting strategies as to how planners can transform the built environment to encourage more active lifestyles for its residents and visitors through stair climbing, walking, bicycling, transit use, active recreation, and healthy eating.

While they focus ostensibly on New York City, the Guidelines can also be applied to other cities and communities.

These are my ten favorite suggestions, and perhaps the ones most pertinent to communities in the LehighValley:

1. Consider shared-use paths in areas with viewing attractions.

  • Check out Allentown’s plans to encourage active transportation: This Morning Call article discusses the plan to connect local bicycle and walking trails.

2. Explore bicycle share programs to increase access to bicycles for both city residents and visitors. 

3. When designing sites that include parking, consider how the provision of parking can affect the use of more active modes of travel such as walking, bicycling, and public transit. In general, when parking is available, people use it. Research in California indicates that increased parking supply may result in reduced active transportation and public transit use. Design car parking so as to reduce unnecessary automobile travel, particularly when walking, bicycling, and public transit are convenient alternatives.

4. Locate new projects near existing public and private recreational facilities and encourage development of new facilities, including indoor activity spaces.

5. In the design of parks and playgrounds, create a variety of climate environments to facilitate activity in different seasons and weather conditions. For example, include sunny, wind-protected areas for use in the winter and shaded zones for use in the summer.

6. Design plazas that allow for diverse functions. Plazas can accommodate physical activities like dance and volleyball, passive activities like sitting and chess, and cultural events such as concerts, exhibits, and historical celebrations. Plazas can also provide space for café style seating and farmers’ markets. When programming plazas, consider the needs of users with varying mobility levels. Seek partnerships with community groups to maintain and program plazas.

7. Incorporate temporary and permanent public art installations into the streetscape to provide a more attractive and engaging environment. Seek collaborations with local arts organizations, philanthropic institutions, or other nongovernmental groups to create and help maintain the artwork.

8. Provide safe walking and bicycle paths between densely populated areas and grocery stores and farmers’ market sites.

9. Further develop Greenways—alternative routes that are integrated into the regional park system. Greenways feature relatively few intersections, many plantings, and a dedicated bicycle right of way. These routes can serve as commuter corridors during the week and recreational paths on the weekend. Connect Greenways to street bikeways.

10. Design stairs to be more visible, in order to encourage their everyday use.

A Financial Case for Public Health

Pay now or pay later. States face this choice every day, particularly with how and when they invest in clinical preventive health services leading to prevention and reduced economic burden in terms of length of hospital stay and general health care costs.

The rewards of paying now are better known than ever before. Research has demonstrated that supporting healthy early childhood development–from before through age 5–generates substantial educational, social and financial benefits for individuals, families and communities.

A major study, The High Costs of Failing to Invest in Young Children produced by Partnership for America’s Economic Successhighlighted that the price society pays when a single person experiences child abuse, drops out of high school, or abuses alcohol can range up to tens to thousand dollars over that person’s lifetime. The study’s purpose was to help policy makers and the public fully evaluate the consequences of their present funding decisions.

The latest RWJ/University of Wisconsin County Health Ranking (CHR) revealed that morbidity numbers are rather low in Lehigh County (37 out of 67 counties) and Northampton County (a shocking 60 out of 67). Morbidity is a term that refers how healthy people feel in the community while alive and it captures the Birth Outcomes along with Health-related quality of life (HRQoL) within the community. Birth Outcomes are measured using low birth weight (LBW) that represents child’s current and future morbidity. Low birth weight is reported to be higher in both Lehigh Valley (8.3%) and Northampton County (8.7%) as compared to the State average of 8.2% and way higher than the national average of 6.0%, according to CHR report.

It was mentioned in the blog on County Health Ranking Across Pennsylvania that the public health spending in Pennsylvania is extremely low as compared to other states in U.S. In this context of scarce resources, the advantage of economic analysis is that helps substantiate present action in terms of investing in prevention and public health. Such an analysis helps providers in managing an individual’s health and administrators in appropriately focusing resources, and — moreover — illustrates the return on investment (ROI) for public health initiatives. According to a study in Western New York, a positive ROI was demonstrated for a prenatal program developed at the Managed Care Organization using a model of economic analysis.

In general clinical preventive services are cost-effective; some are cost-saving. Some clinical preventive services prevent disease or injury (e.g. cervical cancer screening); some preventive services catch disease in early stages when treatment is most effective and least expensive (e.g. STI screening). Because clinical preventive services can prevent or reduce the need for treatment, they provide a cost-offset. Lehigh County has the highest number of sexually transmitted infection rates as compared to state or national average, according to CHR report. Key studies have been done that support the cost-offset value of prevention.

Below are the examples of cost-offset of clinical preventive services recommended in the Plan Benefit Model conducted as part of study that provides rationale to our current work on establishing a regional health department for Lehigh Valley. Of particular note is the cost offset by screening for Chlamydia and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). Screening for gonorrhea and Chlamydia allows for early recognition of diseases that could prevent the costly implications of late stage complication such as Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). The average life-time cost of PID and its major complications for women have been estimated to be in the range of 1,060-6,840 US dollars. Check out the image below for details on how investment in prevention saves financial resources over the long term.

County Health Rankings Across Pennsylvania

When the annual County Health Rankings were released late last month, the Morning Call, Express Times and Patch reported on the very high morbidity numbers in Northampton County and Lehigh County. Meanwhile, these county rankings received coverage that looked at how other parts of the state were faring as well. Union County was ranked the highest [Check out WNEP news for more info] and Philadelphia was ranked the least in regards to health outcomes and health factors [Here’s the link]. Closer to home, both Montgomery and Bucks Counties ranked in the top 10 of Pennsylvania counties in terms of overall health [Here’s the link here for phillyburbs.com article].

Generally, the rankings showed that counties located in south and central Pennsylvania performed better than did counties in the northeast and northwest. Also, more of the urban counties are ranked in top half than the rural counties — this using the definitions of “urban” and “rural” developed by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania (The Center defines rural vs. urban Pennsylvania based on population density).

Amid these overall regional trends, in some cases the rankings show significant differences even among neighboring counties. Consider the area to the north of Harrisburg, where Union and Snyder Counties both are amongst the top five counties statewide in overall health, while adjacent Northumberland County is ranked in lower one-third. The factors that contribute to such great disparities among neighboring counties would lend itself to further analysis that could shed light on the local conditions that contribute to – or stand in the way of – good health. (As a side note: For an interesting resource on county-level conditions across economics, demographics, and other areas, check out Patchwork Nation – an interactive data site.)

While considering how Pennsylvania counties fare among themselves, it is important to look at where Pennsylvania stands nationally on support for public health. Public health infrastructure in Pennsylvania clearly lags that in others. For its population size, Pennsylvania has the lowest number of public health professionals. Also, according to a study released last month, public health spending in Pennsylvania is very low itself. Here’s the link.

Ultimately, failing to adequate support public health is a short-sighted policy and an unwise investment of public dollars. As noted in the local coverage of the county health rankings [Patch article], we either invest upfront in public health and prevention or we spend far more on what it takes to address illness and injury after they occur.

What is impressive and valuable about the County Health Rankings is not only the numbers themselves, but the huge potential to use these data to improve the health of our communities. Look here to see how people can take action. Patrick Remington, who is the University of Wisconsin Professor and has lead the County Health Rankings report, remarks that the County Health Rankings report is a teaser to catch interest. The point is get people to take some action towards the health of their community.

The current work on establishing a regional health department for the Lehigh Valley represents an important step toward building a strong system of prevention and health promotion for our region. For more information on this effort, visit RenewLV’s Regional Health Initiative page.

Valley Transportation Projects Receive Funding

A slew of transportation improvement projects were approved for funding on Monday. PennDOT officials and members of the Lehigh Valley Transportation Study chose 10 projects out of a proposed 24 to receive a share of $3.3 million in available money. These funds come from the Transportation Enhancement Program, which aims to fund projects that will improve transportation connections and provide much-needed improvements to our network. Dan Hartzell of the Morning Call reports:

TEP funds normally are awarded for improvements apart from direct road or bridge construction work, said Joseph Gurinko, chief transportation planner for the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. These include sidewalks, pedestrian crosswalks and related work, bicycle safety projects, street lighting, rail trails and other park improvements.

Better connectivity means more livable communities, so I’m thrilled to see that this important program is still around and still funding such crucial projects.

The Express Times posted the full list of projects:

^ $500,000 to Lehigh County to restore Manassas Guth covered bridge in South Whitehall Township

^ $499,100 to Allentown for pedestrian lighting along Seventh Street

^ $497,835 to Freemansburg for Main Street enhancements

^ $488,750 to the D& L National Heritage Corridor for trail construction from Hokendauqua to North Catasauqua

^ $449,500 to Whitehall Township to develop Jordan Creek greenway

^ $439,875 to Fountain Hill for pedestrian enhancements to Delaware Avenue

^ $434,654 to Hellertown for streetscape work at the government complex off Route 412

^ $243,600 to the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation for bicycle education for cyclists and law enforcement

^ $172,500 to Allentown for a safety/crosswalk project for Muhlenberg College students

^ $158,485 to Community Bike Works for bicycle safety and maintenance classes

Total: $3,884,299

Great to see that Hellertown received funding to continue it’s street enhancement project. Sure sign that this community will continue thriving (go visit if you haven’t yet — I recommend the restaurant at the Crossroads Hotel, and not just because our blog shares the name with it).

Why the Suburbs Are Also Declining

Much of RenewLV’s work focuses on the revitalization of the cities in the Lehigh Valley. In part, we examine the structural issues that are in place that prohibit the redevelopment of brownfields and vacant lots in the cities and we work toward solutions to the challenges. But lately we’ve been realizing that the problem is not just affecting the cities anymore. The so-called inner-suburbs have also suffered a decline over the past two decades. In fact, this is the very issue that the Southeast Pennsylvania First Suburbs project works on and a significant part of the Building One Pennsylvania movement.

Urbanophile writes about this issue in a recent post, mentioning the huge unfunded liabilities that one generation lays in place for the next one to pay. They write:

It is a huge incentive for politicians and residents to vote for immediate gratification with the bill – infrastructure costs, pensions, redevelopment costs, or what have you – pushed out 25-30 years. Then these people or their children simply move to a greenfield and start the process over again.

And here is where the realization comes in:

If you think about it, we spend virtually all of our time in the planning process thinking about the upfront side of the development. We charge impact fees to mitigate road needs from new development and such. We go through an extensive review process to make sure there are no adverse impacts on the surroundings. But we spent little time thinking about the back end of the project, of its end of life, and the types of negative externalities that occur there as people can simply abandon homes and malls and go elsewhere.

One suggestion for how to plan for this, as mentioned by Urbanophile, is to mandate redevelopment insurance on the developer. Sure, it might serve as a disincentive to develop if only certain municipalities or states did this, but if it was mandated uniformly across the nation, then we would all be in the same boat. Read more about this idea on the original Urbanophile post.

Could this be one way that we could ensure that our communities don’t die? Essentially, what the decline of the inner suburbs has shown us is that, given the way we’ve been planning and developing in this nation, no community is safe from falling into distress. It’s happening all across Pennsylvania. And we have to do something about it.

Use it or Lose it, Says Sec. LaHood

CNN reported a few days ago that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has a clear message to states who received high-speed rail funding from the stimulus — it must be used on HSR or returned. Steve Kastenbaum writes:

CNN obtained copies of letters LaHood sent to incoming Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin who have stated their opposition to rail projects already underway in their states. In the letters, LaHood said a rail link between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati in Ohio, and a high-speed rail connection between Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are vital to economic growth in both regions.

Lahood wrote that he respects the power of governors to make decisions for their states, but, “There seems to be some confusion about how these high-speed rail dollars can be spent.”

Oooh, nice tone, Secretary. Confusion, indeed. This is the same type of confusion that supposedly went on in New Jersey over the ARC rail tunnel project, which received stimulus funding.

What should these states do???

NJ: Only Car Drivers Benefit?

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign makes a very interesting observation today in light of the cancellation of the ARC Tunnel project. Though Governor Christie killed the tunnel project because of high costs, for some reason, that same logic just doesn’t seem to apply to road widening. Kate Slevin writes:

But a quick look at the rising costs of the Parkway and Turnpike expansion projects suggests his interest in saving money only applies to transit projects. As MTR wrote earlier this year, these widening projects steadily increased in cost even before ground was broken on them during the Corzine administration.

A few weeks before canceling the ARC Tunnel, Christie administration officials borrowed an additional $2 billion to continue paying for the road widenings. Only time will tell what their eventual cost will be.

I hope some of you gasped a bit at reading that last part. Yes, borrowed $2 billion.

I guess spending is alright as long as it only benefits car drivers. Sorry to say this, Gov. Christie, but, as the popular phrase says, “widening roads to deal with congestion is like loosening one’s belt to cure obesity.”

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