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February 19, 2020  

Closing the Doors on the “Bad Party” in Lake Wylie, South Carolina

February 19, 2020

Strong Towns board member Ian Rasmussen once likened the conventional approach to growth and development to a “bad party.”

At a good party, everyone who shows up is contributing more to the party—in food, drink, and energy—than they consume. Quite literally, the more the merrier. But what if you threw a party and everyone who shows up eats and drinks more than they brought? Each person who walks through the door only accelerates the decline. If your goal is make the party last as long as possible, you’d be foolish to let anyone else in.

The same can be said of the North American development pattern. The way we build our towns and cities—stretching ever outward, building more roads, increasing the cost of infrastructure, and increasing our reliance on cars—is a net-loss. The increased tax revenue from people moving into suburban-style neighborhoods doesn’t come close to paying for that growth over time. The result: a bad party. One in which growth paradoxically increases decline, making the whole community more fragile. If this was your town, and you realized what was happening, but weren’t willing to change the nature of the party itself—what would you do? The only thing you could do: bar entry to newcomers.

This is the situation Lake Wylie, South Carolina finds itself it in. Lake Wylie, an exurb of Charlotte, North Carolina, has tripled in size in the last two decades. As a recent Wall Street Journal article described, people were drawn to the town by its good schools and low taxes. But the party turned sour as schools filled, the water system got overwhelmed, and commute times exploded. So late last year, the local governing council slammed the door shut on growth. The party is no longer accepting newcomers...which makes you wonder how good the party really was to begin with.

Lake Wylie, South Carolina is the subject of this week’s episode of the Upzoned podcast. That’s right, Upzoned is back, with new host Abby Kinney—and a cool new theme song too, “Get Out (The Streetcar Song)” from Kansas City-based rapper Kemet the Phantom.

In this week’s episode, Abby and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talk about the dilemma facing Lake Wylie (and exurbs like it all around the country), the physical and cultural challenges of retrofitting an exurb for a healthier approach to growth, and the fundamentally fragile flaw in the very idea of a “bedroom community.”

Then in the Downzone, we get to know our new host a bit better. A native of St. Louis, Abby Kinney is an urban design and planning consultant at Gould Evans in Kansas City, Missouri. She facilitates the ad-hoc Kansas City chapter of the Incremental Development Alliance. When she’s not geeking out on cities, Abby is an avid urban mountain biker, audiobook and podcast junkie, amateur rock climber, and guitarist. Make sure to connect with her on Twitter at @abbykatkc.

Show Notes