Sprawl of the Wild

Pennsylvania's Keystone Research Center uses GIS to tame the beast that's killing older urban areas.

by / June 3, 2004
More than two decades after Billy Joel set the societal lament of Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley to music in his song Allentown, the city, the region and the state continue their struggle to construct a lasting economic revival.

Many state residents are still waiting for the "Pennsylvania we never found" -- as Joel's song suggested back in 1982.

Why Pennsylvania remained in near economic and social stasis for the past few decades isn't easy to quantify. It had the third-slowest growth rate among states in the 1990s, which was a marked improvement over the steady loss of the 1970s and 1980s.

But researchers at the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, and at the Keystone Research Center -- think tanks located in Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, Pa., respectively -- believe they may have found the key to the state's troubling economic puzzle, and they're sharing that information in an innovative and surprisingly visual way.

Mapping Money
As part of its established Web site, the Keystone Research Center recently added an interactive, publicly available GIS map that spatially pinpoints the disbursement of the state's millions of economic development grant and loan dollars.

Launched to coincide with the release of Brookings' lengthy economic treatise and strategy for improving the state's future, Back to Prosperity: A Competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania, the site geographically represents major economic subsidies the state issued between July 1, 1998, and May 6, 2003.

The 1,333 business subsidies designated on the map account for incentives totaling $719.5 million -- a lot of money that might not be doing Pennsylvania as much good as it could, according to Steven Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center, and Mark Muro, senior policy analyst for the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.

"For whatever reason, many of these spending decisions have been nebulous and unsystematic. There's a lot of hearsay in the state about what's going on," said Muro. "I think the mapping, in many cases, shows spending is appropriate. But it also shows some problems."

One large problem, Herzenberg said, is that economic development dollars seem to fuel sprawl.

"We know one of the drivers or enablers of sprawl can be haphazard distribution of business subsidies," explained Herzenberg. "We also know business subsidies can be a tool for smart growth if you support projects in the right places."

Unfortunately after gathering an enormous amount of data, it seems Pennsylvania's subsidies tend to increase sprawl rather than enable smart growth.

Some of Keystone's most dramatic findings regarding the geographical distribution of business subsidies in Pennsylvania between 1998 and 2003 include the following:

- Statewide, older cities (inner townships), received only 26 percent of the per capita average level of economic development assistance.
- On a per capita basis, new areas (outer townships) receive 2.2 times as much in subsidies to industrial parks than older areas.
- In the five-county Philadelphia area, the four affluent suburban counties received 2.5 times as much as the city in grant dollars to promote economic development.
- Older townships and inner suburbs, which account for 12 percent of the state's population, receive just 4 percent of state subsidy dollars to help ward off job and population loss.
- Within the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton and Philadelphia areas, outer townships receive nearly 50 percent more subsidy dollars per capita than older Pennsylvania.

Exodus to Suburbia
Sprawl has been a festering thorn in the sides of environmentalists, economists, educators and urban communities in general since post-World War II families decided the American dream packed up its urban promise and hightailed it into the suburbs.

Newly established federal Veterans Affairs and Federal Housing Administration loans added fuel to the post-war homeownership fire and began to erode the inner city's traditional role as family-friendly neighborhood.

Only now, after five decades of increasing sprawl, have regions throughout the nation begun to understand the full effect of fleeing urban areas for greener pastures, and not bothering to exploit established city resources or preserve pastoral settings.

"People used to live within a common governmental framework," said David Rusk, author, lecturer, former legislator and one of the nation's leading urban experts. "Now, with thousands of local suburban governments, there is a real fragmentation of governance."

The change means local governments are serving strikingly homogenous constituencies that rarely are inclined to foster economic -- which can translate to racial -- diversity.

Americans have not walked or ridden public transportation during their exodus to the suburbs. Perhaps sprawl's most noticeable effect has been the rise of the automobile as the preeminent form of transportation among suburban dwellers.

By relocating business and housing from urban settings to outlying areas, not only does rural become rialto, but increased distance between homes, jobs and services puts more cars on the road, resulting in higher air and water pollution, precious green space being gobbled up by roadways and higher taxes that pay to pave paradise.

Health officials at the Center for the Advancement of Health even blame sprawl for forcing people into their cars and off their feet. They say less walking leads to higher rates of elevated blood pressure among residents in expansive areas when compared to those in more "compact" counties.

Economists say sprawl also helps further the gap between the haves and have-nots by making good suburban jobs inaccessible to workers who rely on public transportation. The inaccessibility problem adds to ethnic disparity, say some, as a disproportionate number of minority workers use public transportation as their main means of conveyance.

In Atlanta, where concerns over sprawl five years ago spawned a Turner Foundation-funded report called Sprawl Atlanta: Social Equity Dimensions of Uneven Growth and Development, nearly 35 percent of black women and 24 percent of black men take public transit to work. In contrast, barely 5 percent of white women and 4 percent of white men rely on public transportation to get to and from their jobs.

Educators complain that the movement of homes, jobs and residents -- and the associated tax revenue -- into the suburbs adds to the growing disparity in public education, laying the groundwork for even greater economic and social divides in the future.

"It's interesting that as far as housing is concerned, many racial barriers have come down, but income barriers have gone up," said Rusk. "People are more and more economically segregated. It's no longer Jim Crow by race, it's Jim Crow by income."

Subsidy Shell Game
Yet, as in many areas of the nation, Pennsylvania's need to bring in new businesses -- while not losing existing ones -- has become a quest of near desperation during the last decade. During that time, millions of dollars in economic subsidies have been doled out to hundreds of companies.

"In Pennsylvania, some parts of the state have been struggling for jobs for 50 years," said Dennis Bellafiore, director of strategic planning at the Keystone Research Center. "The economic practices of the folks in power have not always been bad -- there are plenty of people who are part of the process who care about the cities in which they live. But the reality is, it has not been a public process."

The center's new GIS maps aim to make the state's grant allocation process more transparent to taxpayers and those in power positions. By making the information readily available, Herzenberg said Keystone hopes to "lift the veil from what can be a secretive process, and point the way to a much more public process of aligning the distribution of scarce resources with the public good."

The center's GIS mapping project began less than a year ago and was timed to coincide with the release of the Brookings Institute study. The plain-spoken report was commissioned to aid Pennsylvania's economic revival effort and pulls no punches when it declares, "Pennsylvania, quite simply, is squandering the enormous human and material investment it has made in its older communities over three centuries."

GIS data contained in the Keystone portal seems to bear out this damning statement.

The Brookings report studied seven economic development subsidy programs in Pennsylvania. Keystone's Web maps show exactly where monies from the three most important of those programs went and how that funding ultimately affected the state's landscape. Unfortunately, according to Herzenberg, the center's GIS maps vividly illustrate Pennsylvania's "unhappy combination of losing scarce lands while at the same time putting older communities in real trouble" -- almost the literal definition of sprawl.

Muro said while details written in the Brookings and Keystone studies are important, the GIS maps offer a look at the big picture.

"We believe disclosing the location of spending is very important in our field," Muro said. Information disclosure will be increasingly in demand over the next decade, he said, because with the Internet, there's no reason not to make the information available.

The unprecedented public access to government that characterizes e-government has also sparked an extraordinary level of constituent curiosity and scrutiny.

Citizens fighting to know how local economic development tax dollars are impacting their neighborhoods might constitute only a small skirmish compared to larger battles fought between a demanding populace and a reticent federal administration. The desire to know what the government knows -- or knew -- is the same, however, as is the desire to apply that knowledge to future decision-making.

Herzenberg, Bellafiore, Muro and others believe GIS technology is immensely important to the knowledge-gathering and decision-making process.

"The maps smack of reality," said Muro. "They lay to rest some issues and make what is happening very plain. The conclusion is that much of the [economic development] spending is rather haphazard. Maybe it's not as horribly out of whack as some thought, but there's clearly a lot of cause for concern."

Muro said Brookings officials were glad the initiative has gained the support of Gov. Edward Rendell's administration and believe Pennsylvania officials take the report seriously, "though they may be uncomfortable with some of the conclusions."

Rendell seems to not just support the initiative, but welcome and even applaud Keystone's efforts.

"This definitely helps us out tremendously," said Rendell's deputy press secretary, Abe Amoros. "We need to identify what the problems are, and clearly the [Keystone GIS] map points to many troubling policies that seem to have accelerated sprawl."

Injecting Capital
Since his inauguration just a little more than a year ago, Rendell has charged headlong into the state's economic maelstrom. Almost before he'd finished taking the oath of office, Rendell unveiled his Plan for a New Pennsylvania, which, among other things, outlines an program that provides almost $2 billion in bonds and loan guarantees aimed at generating at least $5 billion more in private investment for economic development projects statewide.

The plan outlines, among other things, "an economic stimulus program that invests nearly $2 billion in bonds and loan guarantees to leverage at least an additional $5 billion in private investment in economic development projects across the state."

From the governor's perspective, the Keystone map can only help support his idea of allocating more economic assistance to older, "inner ring" communities as opposed to newer "outer ring" areas.

"We think older Pennsylvania should receive much higher levels, per capita, of economic development assistance because of population and because infrastructure needs are overwhelming in those communities," Amoros said.

In April, Rendell handed out the first $325,000 of $5 million revitalization dollars to the city of York through a program called Main Street. The program is connected to a business revitalization initiative called Elm Street.

Main Street is designed to help troubled inner-ring business districts, while Elm Street aims to provide funds to improve neighborhoods surrounding those older downtown commercial areas.

"We realize we cannot help those core downtown business areas if the surrounding neighborhoods are in disarray," Amoros said.

Though Rendell has his work cut out for him, the governor believes Keystone's GIS map, and other such technological advancements, can be a boon for his overall economic recovery strategy.

"Sites like this are a wonderful resource. The use of statistical data helps us identify where the resources are going and where they ought to be going," said Amoros. "The map is something that helps us tremendously. No doubt about it."

That kind of attitude should be good news to urban expert Rusk, who believes any efforts to counteract the effects of sprawl must be taken on at the state level. With the eruption of thousands of municipal bumps across the national landscape, intercommunication among local governments has become all but nonexistent.

Because the federal government has no jurisdiction over municipalities, it's up to states to implement new rules, Rusk said. "A strong state regulatory system -- Oregon is the best example at the moment -- can mandate inclusionary zoning practices, limit or contain growth and redirect the market inward."

Specific GIS mapping applications, such as that undertaken by Keystone, could nudge the words "smart growth" into the layman's lexicon. Soon many governments may feel a little twitchy under the microscopic scrutiny of a technologically emboldened populace that is ready, willing and now more able than ever to participate in informed governmental debate.

As citizens and local governments better understand problems associated with sprawl, states may be pushed into more smart growth action.

Seeking Other Perspectives
Mapping technologies help the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture and Natural Resources' Center for Land use Education And Research (CLEAR) to provide education, information and assistance to today's land use decision-makers.

Though not utilizing mapping technologies to publish economic information associated with urban growth and potential sprawl, CLEAR's Connecticut's Changing Landscape project employs satellite-based remote sensing technology maps to analyze land cover changes over the past 17 years. Providing interactive online maps based on four specific moments in time (1985, 1990, 1995 and 2002), CLEAR's project went live in December 2003.

"We had done research and incorporated that into our outreach programs, but it wasn't as if we put the actual data up on the Web for anybody to access," said Chester Arnold, CLEAR's associate director. "But with this project, we made a conscious decision to do that."

Arnold said the reason for that decision is simple: While the center has the expertise and time to provide initial research, it does not have the time or staff to explore all analytical possibilities promised by the data.

"We'd love to do all the data mining, but the fact is there are people out there with good ideas that we haven't gotten to," Arnold said. "We want people to look at the data themselves because we know that two different camps looking at the very same information might come up with two very different conclusions."

The first two groups to download Changing Landscape information, Arnold said, were the Connecticut Homebuilders Association and the Nature Conservancy -- polar opposites.

"We're interested in what most people are interested in: trying to preserve community character and landscape to the greatest extent possible while realizing there is going to be growth," he said. "And in a way, you could say our whole record of work is based on the premise that a picture is worth a thousand words."
Kris Middaugh Staff Writer