Looking beyond cuts to solve city budget woes

Conversations about balancing city budgets often focus only on cutbacks to services or changes in tax rates, but thriving healthy cities need to have more than two solutions. Another solution is to increase intensification. Reading an interesting piece on the positive fiscal impacts of intensification is a nice change.

This article by Emily Badger in the Atlantic brings to light revenue streams for cities through rejuvenation of old buildings and intensification. She tells the story of real-estate developer Public Interest Projects and echoes the theory of mixed-use and mixed income that are familiar to us thorugh the profound and influential work of Jane Jacobs.

Per acre, our downtowns have the potential to generate more public wealth than low-density subdivisions or massive malls by the highway. This is good news for those who are tired of the commute, for those who are wondering how they’ll be able to afford gas, and those who see urban sprawl as something that costs the city more than it benefits it. And for all that revenue they bring in, downtowns cost considerably less to maintain in public services and infrastructure, says Badger.

She goes on to note that low-density development isn’t just an inefficient way to make property-tax revenue, but it’s also extremely expensive to maintain. She argues that it’s only feasible if we’re expanding development at the periphery into eternity, forever bringing in revenue from new construction that can help pay for the existing subdivisions we’ve already built.

What else can intensification offer a community? Aside from increasing tax revenue, are there other community-based benefits, benefits that improve the health of a population?

Walkability is a good place to start. Thinking about the elements of the social determinants of health, both social inclusion and healthy behavior are encouraged by creating neighbourhoods where people can access their needs by walking. More people on the street. More people being active. Pedestrian-friendly designs have shown to decrease obesity. How walkable is your neighbourhood?

Health impacts, built environments, and city finances can seem insurmountable. But incremental actions can have positive impacts on all these fronts.