All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Sprawl, sewers, and bankruptcy

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Jefferson County, Alabama, home of Birmingham, has just declared bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy ever.  That made the news.


What didn’t make the news was the environmental connection to the bankruptcy: sewers and, particularly, urban sprawl.  And it has an important lesson for us in the Lower Mainland: don’t sprawl – and keep the agricultural land reserve.

Jefferson County owes over three billion dollars, a debt contracted to upgrade its sewer system.  The county could not refinance its debt, stuck as it was between the Wall Street meltdown and municipal incompetence and corruption, and declared bankruptcy.   This will worsen the hardships of its more than 600,000 residents in one of the poorest areas of the US, with expected municipal layoffs and steep increases in utility rates.

But things should never have gotten to that point.  Birmingham, for one thing, is a textbook example of sprawl.  The city has a density of 625 people per square kilometer, and only 230 for the county.  (Compare this to 735 residents per km2 in Metro Vancouver, and over 5000 in Vancouver proper.)  And, sure enough, Birmingham has the most extensive network of highways in the south, fostering urban sprawl.  (Pictures of the sprawling city can be found here.)

Birmingham sprawl

And sprawl means, among other things, that utilities such as sewer and water lines have to cover a large distance to service the spread-out population.  And this is hugely costly: in Metro Vancouver, for instance, upgrading the Nicomekl trunk sewer over 1700 meters had an estimated cost of $14 million.

So when the EPA came calling with complaints about sewers overflowing into the Cahaba River, the county (which runs the sewers, like Metro Vancouver here) was faced with an enormous repair bill – especially since the county decided to expand its system into sprawling areas to increase the number of ratepayers, incurring even higher costs.

It didn’t help that Birmingham was already saddled with a complex network as the city’s neighbourhoods are separated by hills (I found a 90 page history of the sewage system of Birmingham here – amazing, what is found on the web!).

Since the whole fiasco was precipitated by a clean-up order from the EPA, I fully expect to hear further speeches from the loony right about how the EPA is destroying jobs (killing the EPA is still part of the platforms of Perry, Bachman and co).  But hopefully even the right recognizes the need to keep sewage and fishing holes apart.  This also makes the sewer system, a public good, ripe for privatization, as long as the public absords the best part of the debt – another illustration of how unseemly Wall Street has become, and why the occupation movement is important.

What are the lessons for us?  If nothing else, it is that sprawl is costly.  We usually think of sprawl as we think of long commutes or poor public transit.  But infrastructure like water and sewers have a real cost.  Sure, developers are asked to foot all or part of the bill when building a new subdivision; but there are no provisions for repairs and maintenance as the infrastructure age.

The Township of Langley would be quite vulnerable to such a situation; it is a far suburb, with a low population density (305 residents per km2), and pressure for residential acreage.  The same is true of Abbotsford and other municipalities down the valley.

But the saving grace – how we have avoided Birmingham’s mess – is the agricultural land reserve.   The ALR ensures that rural properties are not developed into subdivisions.  Being far apart, on good land, the ALR houses are not connected to the municipal utilities; they use well water and septic fields, something that sprawling developments are unable to do, the houses being just a bit too close to one another.

Many would like to see the ALR go, especially developers.  They blame it for increasing the cost of land and decreasing home affordability.  Point taken; it does play a role, though this is nowhere near as important a factor as they claim.  And whether a cheaper house, on far away land without transit or other services is really cheaper remains a question to be considered.  But when the costs of aging utilities are factored in, the answer is clear: sprawl is worse.

So bless the ALR.  Its main role, when designed by Harold Steves, was to ensure future food security, and this remains more relevant than ever.  But its side benefit of constraining sprawl and preventing a fiscal mess like Jefferson County’s is a blessing.  Save the ALR!


Written by enviropaul

November 11, 2011 at 6:14 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] I’ve written about this topic before, including a few book reviews (here and here), a paean to whale shit here, or a look at how the costs of sewers in a sprawling city can be enough to bankrupt it (here). […]

  2. […] levels of lead, versus the bromates formed by ozonation; and a mention that European cities, which sprawl less than their US counterparts, invest more in the maintenance and safety of their water systems, so need less costly […]

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