Long before they set words to paper, humans drew maps -- pictures that told a thousand stories about human’s spatial relationship to the world and to each other. A collection of boundaries, some real, like lakes and rivers, some mythological, like Dante’s cosmology, and some cultural.
And some boundaries, political.
The boundaries on a map describe a philosophy of meaning. Things that mean one thing on one side of a boundary can mean another thing altogether on the other side of the boundary. And when the boundaries depicted are political boundaries, the map describes places where politics change.
A map defines a city, it shows us where the spatial extent of the city begins and where it ends. The municipal boundary tells us, “Here the city, be,” and where the city not be. Where politics change from the rural, to the urban – and vice-versa.
House, shrine, cistern, agora
What is a city? Too complicated a subject for a single column, but suffice it to say that humanity’s course swings between two poles: that of movement and settlement. When we tire of the hunting and gathering, we settle in places that make sense to settle in, and we call those places villages, towns and cities.
And those villages, towns and cities form the anchor that allows a settled polity the luxury of civilization. The cities become cultural repositories, hosting public spaces, places of discourse and seats of government.
“Settlement places are always meaningful places,” Mark Gottdiener said in The New Urban Sociology.
They become spiritual repositories as well, providing protection for cemeteries, for shrines, for churches and for other institutions into which we pour history, so as to have a place for safekeeping that without which we would be doomed to repeat, endlessly, the mistakes of the past.
They are economic repositories. The strongholds that contain the granaries, the places of education that perpetuate the civilization and make progress possible in the first place, the places to which the agricultural surplus can be brought, bartered over and sold -- making, in turn, the rural also possible.
And they’re the places where, from unity, comes strength. Services shared both in their rendering as well as in their bounty. Sewage disposed of properly, property protected by an effective police, finance, infrastructure.
And clean, potable, running water.
In short, it takes a village to provide for a settled populace. Destroy the village, destroy the populace, destroy the civilization.
Buy low, sell high
Come we now to arbitrage. The art of buying something somewhere and then moving across some boundary to a place where you can sell it for more than you paid for it. The art of buying low and selling high.
Sometimes arbitrage is enabled by market forces, a gut understanding that something underappreciated in one place is highly prized in another. Minnesota ice to sweltering Floridians. Middle Eastern oil to frenzied American commuters.
And sometimes arbitrage is enabled not by the market, but by politics. Political realities on one side of a boundary different from the realities on the other side.
Such is the case with land. The price of land is almost entirely defined by the political services available to the land. An acre of land in downtown Bloomington costs far more than an acre of land in rural Greene County for one reason only: the politics of the city, the politics which imbue land in the city with the dividends of all that I described above -- infrastructure, culture, an economy. Civilization.
So the task, for the successful arbitrageur of land, the successful speculator in land prices, is to buy land at rural prices an sell it for urban prices.
And the only thing standing in the way of that arbitrage is a boundary. The line on the map that separates the city from the country.
A core characteristic of any city is the provision for services within the city that are not available outside the city. It’s those services that make land within the city worth more than land without.
Bus service. Garbage pickup. Municipal police. These are all typical services available within the city and for which it is illegal for the city to provide to residents outside of the city. Are there others?
Of course, like water and sewer services -- both of which, since Rome built its aqueduct and Paris its sewers, have been recognized as essential components of any urban civilization. The availability of water and sewer services exert a powerful influence on the value of land.
Currently the City of Bloomington Utilities (CBU) has reviewed a consultant’s report on enlarging the city’s water treatment plant’s capacity. And the CBU’s board has voted to move forward on the consultant’s recommendation to increase that capacity.
Why the need for a capacity increase, and corresponding increase in water rates paid by Bloomington city residents? Not because of a growth of water use in the city; Bloomington’s population is flat and may actually be in slight decline.
But because of anticipated water needs of residents outside the city boundary, outside the line on the map that says, “Bloomington ends here.”
Unlike those services aimed at constituents with little or no political voice, like bus service, cities in Indiana are allowed to extend water and sewer services, if they want to, beyond their own boundaries.
Why? Because ever since the first parcel of land was flipped, real-estate speculators have realized the powerful boost to arbitrage that can be had when land bought without city water and sewer services can be sold as land with those services. So they made sure that when laws were written, defining what cities were, and what they were not, that those laws didn’t restrict what a city could do with its water services.
The eraser, and the damage done
So now those interests are interested in a turbocharged sprawl of suburban homes beyond the city boundaries, but with city services. And with the cost of that sprawl written on the backs of Bloomington residents while the profits from the sprawl are bifurcated into the pockets of the developers.
Most of the USB board has jumped on this plan, after heavy lobbying by the real-estate interests. And, surprisingly, so has the mayor of Bloomington. Which constituency he thinks he’s addressing is a puzzling one.
But the damage is being done. Both in the immediate harm of an unfettered and unleashed subsidization of a new suburban ring just outside the city and in the long-term harm of dilution of the city as concept.
So the speculators guide the mayor’s hand, erasing the city boundary from the maps, blending the rural and the urban into an amalgamation that levers only the worst, not the best, of each. And we lose the meaning of the rural and the urban.
And this becomes a less meaningful place. A place not to settle in, but to move on from.
Gregory Travis can be reached at .