Take a look at these two slides (you’ll need to look at them full size):
Click here for full size.
Click here for full size.
The first slide compares a local mall’s tax revenue to the county compared to a variety of other land uses. The second slide shows decisively that a suburban mall delivers a tiny amount of tax revenue compared to mixed use development. Or put another way, density delivers more tax revenue that urban forms associated with sprawl. So the question asked by Sarasota officials—should we be trying to permit more malls or dense residential—was answered, at least from a tax revenue perspective: go with dense residential.
But why is dense residential development richer in tax revenue than shopping malls? The articles I have read—including interviews with the presenters—don’t answer that question. Take an acre of shopping mall in Florida and compare it to an acre of dense residential development and density pays. That’s the claim, anyway, but more evidence is needed. It might make a cool project to see whether the numbers are the same here in the Northwest.
Along with all the other benefits—reduced energy use, lower CO2 emissions, and better public health—density may well generate more tax revenue for local governments. That’s not a small detail in these days of budget cuts at all levels of government. Not only that, tax dollars invested in infrastructure like roads and drainage, have a better return rate for local government, meaning that infrastructure costs can be paid off faster in dense areas. So, for example, if drainage costs $1 million, a city will generate that money faster in a dense area than in an area covered by a mall. Not to mention that, often, less infrastructure is needed in dense areas—especially highways.
So with all the benefits of density, why is it still seen as controversial by some elected officials in our region? Part of it may be politics, part of it may be the way we talk about it. Here’s a question from a recent poll conducted in Seattle:
Scientific evidence points to there being many environmental and economic benefits to building dense, compact, walkable neighborhoods. Are you more or less likely to vote for a candidate for Seattle City Council that supports compact, walkable neighborhoods?
The results, for what they are worth, found that when questions about density are posed in this way—with connections to the evidence about the benefits—voters are supportive. More than 59 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate that supports compact communities. Only 23 percent said less likely. Men were more likely (63.9 percent) to support a pro-density candidate than women (56 percent) as were Democrats (69.6 percent) compared with Republicans (40.9 percent). Younger voters were far more likely than older voters to support density candidates, with support dropping as respondent age increased.
Admittedly, this is only one question, and it has limited value to answering the question I posed: why is density still controversial in the face of so much evidence about its benefits? If the response to this polling question is any indication, advocates of compact communities need to make a better connection between the impacts of very local land use decisions—like in my back yard—and the broader and demonstrated benefits to lakes, rivers, and streams, for example.
In the end, I think land use debates are not about costs and benefits; they’re really about change. If people are happy about where they live, they will tend to be suspicious of things that might change their neighborhood, even if there are evidence-based assurances that the change will make things even better. For some people, the good of the present outweighs the possible better of the future.
Two things would help the density conversation in Seattle and other cities in the region. First, we need to take a closer look at the evidence in the presentation. Figuring out why density is better for tax revenue could teach us some important lessons for policy. And second, demonstrating density successes—like Portland’s courtyard housing and Vancouver’s cottages—helps provide examples that single-family neighborhood residents can approve of.
Full disclosure: I worked on the poll with a group I helped form called Party of the Future, which is a project of the Friends of Seattle. (Sightline has no involvement with these organizations.) The Party of the Future came together out of frustration with local decisions that seem to be widening the Sustainability Gap on transportation, land use, and taxation. Some have said that the poll questions make it a “push poll,” aimed at moving opinion rather than understanding what that opinion really is. I think that, at minimum, they tell us something about how people respond to messages.