Smart Growth for Working Families


Smart Growth, Good Jobs: An Overview

What does land use have to do with the quality of jobs? Isn’t suburban sprawl about traffic congestion, air pollution, vanishing farms and faceless malls?

Well, yes. But sprawl’s harms are far deeper; they affect every regional system bearing upon jobs, skills, opportunity and incomes. Sprawl thins and stresses the tax base necessary for public education, our largest investment in skills and long-term prosperity.

Sprawl also traps unemployed and under-employed workers by creating jobs beyond public transportation routes. Because many unemployed and underemployed workers in the core, who are disproportionately people of color, cannot afford to own a car, and because many of the new jobs on the fringe are not accessible by public transportation, sprawl denies economic opportunity to people who need it the most.

Sprawl also harms urban residents who are employed, whether or not they own a car. Sprawl drains the tax base of older areas, forcing those areas to raise tax rates and reduce the quality of public services. Schools, healthcare, public safety, libraries, parks and other public services all suffer, and that in turn makes the neighborhoods less attractive for employers; a spiral of decline sets in.

Yet if you read the Ten Principles of Smart Growth, you won’t find the words “workplace” or “jobs.”  To remedy this oversight, Good Jobs First, with our expertise in economic development subsidies and job quality, offers analysis and solutions on two specific issues:

  • Economic development subsidies, we have demonstrated, are a contributing cause of sprawl. Therefore, they can be reformed to promote smart growth.
  • Sprawl is a broadly anti-union phenomenon, we have also documented; urban density is good for union density. Therefore, all union members stand to benefit from smart growth.

Economic Development Subsidies: Pro-Sprawl

As we explain in fuller detail on our Subsidies and Sprawl page, in a series of unique studies in several states Good Jobs First has found that company-specific economic development subsidies are biased against older urban areas and favor newer, thinly developed areas. By many measures such as population density, race, poverty, workplace accessibility via transit, plant closings, and tax base wealth, the deals fuel regional inequality.

In two studies, we have even documented cases of companies receiving subsidies as they relocate within the same labor market. Overall, the movements are outbound and strongly biased against urban cores and their residents.

Some economic development subsidies—such as enterprise zones and tax increment financing (TIF) —were originally enacted to help revitalize depressed areas. But over time, these and many other subsidies have instead become part of the problem. With targeting rules relaxed or eliminated, subsidies with good original intentions have come to promote suburban sprawl. Wal-Mart and other big box retailers are getting subsidies, even though they pirate much of their sales from existing merchants. Upscale malls, office parks, market-rate housing, and even golf-course projects are getting subsidies from programs such as TIF originally intended to revitalize low-income neighborhoods.

The cumulative impact of these deals has been to worsen sprawl, fuel the out-migration of urban jobs, grow jobs in areas that are not accessible by public transportation, and further concentrate unemployment and poverty in urban cores.

Broad Harm to Union Members and Job Quality

Because union members earn better wages and benefits than their unorganized counterparts, it is no exaggeration to say that unionization is economic development. Unions are also urban institutions. When jobs thin out geographically, Good Jobs First documented in landmark studies in Chicago (in 2000) and Philadelphia (in 2004), they also de-unionize. That finding led to the 2001 national AFL-CIO convention resolution denouncing sprawl and urging its affiliates to get involved in smart growth campaigns. Since then, Good Jobs First has published more studies, given dozens of trainings, and staged four national conferences with tracks entitled Smart Growth for Working Families.  (See more at our Unions & Smart Growth page.)

The best-known example of the urban density/union density issue is Wal-Mart Supercenters, which undermine unionized grocery stores that employ members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). But the same geographic pattern is also true in manufacturing, health care, hospitality, warehousing, building services, public sector, and construction. As well in the public sector, the erosion of the tax base in older areas hurts public employees across the board: in transit, education, police, fire, human services and sanitation.

Getting Good Jobs into the Smart Growth Debate

Although smart growth has many roots, such as Oregon’s pioneering legislation creating Urban Growth Boundaries in the 1970s, the movement reached a critical mass in the late 1990s when the American Planning Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Surface Transportation Policy Project and other groups formed what became Smart Growth America. In Maryland, Gov. Parris Glendening won enactment of the Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Act, a model state law aimed at reducing sprawl and promoting “smart” approaches to new development.

Other organizations were also critical, bringing their specific expertise and concerns, such as environmental protection, affordable housing, and farmland preservation. Professional associations such as the Urban Land Institute and the Congress for New Urbanism (whose members include developers) also started to promote city-friendly development principles.

Good Jobs First entered this debate in 1999 at the founding meeting of what became Smart Growth America, urging that the issue of economic development subsidies be considered (as both a problem and a potential solution) and that organized labor be actively recruited as a participant in the movement.

Read More

In the Smart Growth for Working Families section of this website, you will find:

  • A Beginner’s Guide called Smart Growth 101 that breaks down jargon and lays out basic smart growth principles.

  • Subsidies and Sprawl explains how job subsidies actually help perpetuate sprawl—and how accountability safeguards can promote smart growth.

  • Unions and Smart Growth describes labor’s self-interest in smart growth and provides examples of how unions and labor federations are combating sprawl.
  • Job Opportunity and Sprawl details how sprawl removes economic opportunity from the urban core.

  • Harms of Big-Box Retail explains how big-box chains harm local economies, good jobs, small businesses and the environment.

  • Connecting Jobs to Public Transit shows how economic development subsidies can be better integrated with public transportation systems to create more economic opportunity, greater commuter choice, and cleaner air.

  • Building Rehabilitation and Infill Development explains the policies that facilitate the redevelopment of urban cores, and can create lots of good jobs.

  • Training Materials contains free downloadable training materials that you can use to teach others about these issues.