Out of Control Policy Blog

Defending Sprawl

Following up on Adrian's recent post on sprawl, Boston Globe writer Anthony Flint had a piece yesterday on the virtues of sprawl:

    From Pasco County outside Tampa to the ranchland north of Dallas to Phoenix and Las Vegas and Boise, the freshly built subdivision miles from anywhere has become the official choice for millions of Americans. Demographers today use the term "exurban" to describe this kind of location, on open land outside the farthest fringes of existing suburban development and completely lacking in any traditional relationship with a major city. Planners, environmentalists, and architects urging more compact growth call it wasteful sprawl.

    But despite rising gas prices that make it increasingly expensive to get around these spread-out landscapes, some scholars and commentators have been stepping up to say that sprawl really isn't so bad.

    . . . .

    Bruegmann, whose new book, "Sprawl: A Compact History" (Chicago), will be published this month, joins consultant and author Joel Kotkin, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and others in finding inspiration in the subdivisions, like a Jane Jacobs of suburbia. The embrace of dispersal follows a long tradition started by Thomas Jefferson and followed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Today Bruegmann and others feel it's important to identify what's good about spread-out development because sprawl has been hammered for over two decades by activists urging "smart growth" and New Urbanism, the latter an architectural movement promoting compact traditional neighborhood design.

    Sprawl gives us "decentralization and democratization," Bruegmann says–an orderly use of land that draws in working-class and middle-class people and allows them to head upward in the economy and society. Homes in new subdivisions in the South and West commonly start at $120,000. To try to curb sprawl is to stand in the way of the flourishing of the American dream.

Read the whole thing. Flint packs a lot into a small space. His forthcoming book should be interesting.

But this bit did catch my eye:

    Most smart-growth activists today don't spend a lot of time criticizing sprawl or predicting suburbia's demise. Their main focus is providing more choice for those people who don't want to live in sprawl–changing outdated zoning that prevents compact, mixed-use development near train stations, for example.

    "Smart growth doesn't say all sprawl is awful," says John Frece, associate director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research at the University of Maryland. "It's not about taking away the ability to develop sprawl–just to add the ability to do different kinds of development and put that on equal footing. Then let the market decide."

This is a stretch. How often do we see smart growthers hammering on sprawl? (answer: all the time) And isn't the whole premise of urban growth boundaries, etc. to take away the ability to develop sprawl? Sounds like some spin to me. The market has decided, and the market overwhelmingly likes suburban development. If all smart growthers felt the way that Frece does, then we wouldn't have that much of a disagreement with them. Let's hope that the more moderate voices like Frece gain more influence in that movement than they've had in the past.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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