The Ponzi Scheme that Created the Suburbs

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums SUSTAINABILITY & DESIGN The Ponzi Scheme that Created the Suburbs

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    Mark Warriner
    I though how ironic it is that the same argument used for rejecting Florida’s high speed rail project can be applied to 50 years of development that was the American suburb. Can’t have it both ways.

    Charles Marohn explains how cities and towns failed to consider the future expense of expanded infrastructure to new suburban developments.

    In a two-part series, Marohn looks at how American cities came to believe that suburban sprawl was a key to prosperity and turned a blind eye to the expense of the expanded infrastructure. The Federal Department of Transportation played a key role, says Marohn:

    “…the initial cost to the local government for new growth is minimal. If the state or federal government provides a grant or low-interest loan to subsidize a project — for example, the extension of a sewer or water line — the local government may have to pay something, but it is nowhere near the total cost. Where the DOT comes in and builds a highway, widens a road, puts in a signal, builds an overpass, etc… there may be some local funds contributed, but again, the vast overwhelming majority of the money is spent by the DOT.”

    Thomas J. Johnson

    … Brought to you by the same great minds that think indefinite growth, at 5% annually, is the sign of a healthy economy when we live on a globe with finite resources…

    Tosh K

    I find it strange that infrastructure maintenance budget is part of the annual general congressional budget and doesn’t have it’s funding avenue.


    Sadly many towns in MN were struggling with the debt taken on putting in all the roads and sewers for developments that probably will never get built.

    mark foster

    Mark,  thanks for this.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    The whole thing hinges on the premise that subrbia happened from a deliberate belief “suburban development provides prosperity”. Who came up with that and when?

    Suburbia came from people who could afford to move out of the city doing so. I’m sure there are almost as many reasons why they moved out there as there are people who moved there. I really don’t think it was done by social engineers or evil developers (no demand = no development). Wealth and mobility of the people moving there enabled it to happen. Population growth created new opportunities and the ball rolls along. All of that requires infrastructure to grow with it, the ball rolls along further.

    The world rolls along as well and other things change that makes what was easy and affordable, less easy and affordable. Nothing is sustainable. The cost of infrastructure is making it more expensive. The cost of the freedom of individual transportation is more expensive. Clearly it seems that many people feel that the lifestyle is worth the expense … at this point.


    I grew up in the suburbs of Boston. These were all towns that existed hundreds of years before they became “suburbs”. They have thickened and “densified” within my life time to the point where they rival or surpass the density of many cities in the country (are they cities or suburbs?). I look at some western cities (including Portland – inset angel chorus) that are little more than grids of ranch houses (is it any different than a suburb with a city center?). I also lived in a rural “city” of 529 people in a square mile with a sewer system, muni water, etc,..). The most efficient was the rural city except that it required long drives to go anywhere else.

    Then there is the whole issue of how you want to live. I do not want to live in a dense city. I don’t want to live in an isolated rural city. I will, for as long as I can, live where I can get my needs without going far, have some elbow room, have access to diversified environments (natural and otherwise). If you call that a suburb, then I like suburbs.


    Suburbia is a philosophical enemy that has a very blurred edge. What defines the line that separates the beloved “urban”  from the hated “suburban”? …. and where does rural fit on the love-hate scale?


    Planning and zoning is adjusting things, at least where I have lived. Maybe not by turning the world into urban cores, but definitely curbing rampant random growth. The are plenty of opportunities for lots of different living experiences – thay are not all bad.

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