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Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl [Paperback]

Pamela Blais
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 29 2011
Urban sprawl – low-density subdivisions and business parks, big box stores and mega-malls – has increasingly come to define city growth despite decades of planning and policy. In Perverse Cities, Pamela Blais argues that flawed public policies and mis-pricing create hidden, “perverse” subsidies and incentives that promote sprawl while discouraging more efficient and sustainable urban forms – clearly not what most planners and environmentalists have in mind. She makes the case for accurate pricing and better policy to curb sprawl and shows how this can be achieved in practice through a range of market-oriented tools that promote efficient, sustainable cities.

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Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl + Planning Canadian Communities
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Product Description


"This highly practical book will give urban policy makers a better understanding of the implications of a number of tools available to them. It is a welcome addition to the debate over the use of regulatory policy as opposed to tax/subsidy measures to address land use issues and outcomes." - David Amborski, Professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning, Ryerson University

Book Description

Perverse Cities provides a provocative explanation for the persistence of urban sprawl, pointing to flawed public policies and distorted price signals.

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3.0 out of 5 stars Valuable addition to planning debate Aug. 19 2013
I work in a Canadian provincial ministry of Municipal Affairs, and I have seen my share of glossy land use plans from municipalities that say all the right things about smart growth, sustainability, and curbing sprawl. Yet the progress in this area is limited. Despite decades of talk and action against urban sprawl, it persists as a development pattern. Why? This book may provide some answers.

The definition of sprawl in this book is an inefficient development pattern. I think this is a good way to redefine the anti-sprawl movement. By focusing on the costs and inefficiencies of sprawl, and the bad policies that contribute to it, anti-sprawl advocates can avoid being labeled as elitist, urbanite social engineers. Blais' examples of market distortion are insightful and interesting. Some are more convincing than others. It is easy to see how development charges, for example, can be changed so that infill development becomes more economically rational than more sprawl on greenfields. Her examples based on utilities are less convincing.

Blais does not attempt to draw a picture of what communities might look like if they adopt her recommendations. Perhaps this is by design. She states that single family dwellings would still be possible even in the face of actions to rationalize development costs and thereby prevent sprawl. Yet she does not leave me convinced that distortionary policy is the only factor behind sprawl. In fast-growing communities, inner-city housing is often not available to growing families because of the high cost of the desirable real estate. It does not matter whether the housing is infill or existing older housing. Therefore many young families must locate in more distant areas. It's not clear whether this would be changed after implementing Blais' ideas.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and important June 24 2013
By Claes Sandstrom - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The book covers one of the most important truths about good public policy making, price signals trumps regulation. The ability to create clear and transparent price signals instead of adding regulation helps the rational market actor make the right decisions. “Correct” prices must include not only the private cost of a good but also the social cost and be clearly reflected as such.
4.0 out of 5 stars sheds light on sprawl subsidies July 7 2011
By Michael Lewyn - Published on Amazon.com
Conventional planning wisdom suggests that suburban sprawl is the result of land use planning policies- either not enough planning or the wrong kind of planning. But Blais focuses on another cause: "mis-pricing": distortions that make urban land more expensive and suburban land less so, whether in the realm of taxes, government charges for development, or charges by private utilities.

Blais's strongest example is the development charges (also known as "impact fees") that North American charge for new development. These fees force developers to pay some of the costs associated with new development, such as the costs of new roads and sewer networks. But these charges are equal for urban and suburban locations, even though development in newly developing areas often requires more new infrastructure, and thus cost taxpayers more, than more intense development in areas that already have roads and sewers. Thus, location-neutral development charges underprice development of newer suburbs and overprice infill. Similarly, regulated utilities are often as expensive in compact areas as in sprawling suburbs, even though the latter areas require more wires and other mechanical equipment.

However, I am not sure how much these pricing issues matter. Blais seems to be focused on Canadian cities where urban locations are desirable and expensive, causing the middle class to be priced out of the urban market. But in America's Rust Belt, urban homes are usually cheaper than suburban homes. And because cities and suburbs tend to be in different municipalities, development charges are less likely to be identical. Nevertheless, Rust Belt urban areas have decayed more rapidly than their Sun Belt or Canadian counterparts.
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