Out of Control Policy Blog

The Bottom Line on Sprawl

I teased this in my previous post, but Sprawl author Robert Bruegmann has a must-read piece on urban sprawl in the June issue of The American Enterprise. In truth, I don't know that I've seen a better piece on the subject that so politely and efficiently demolishes many of the arguments that you hear from the anti-sprawl side. It was hard to select excerpts, but here are a couple:

When asked, most Americans declare themselves to be against sprawl, just as they say they are against pollution or the destruction of historic buildings. But the very development that one individual targets as sprawl is often another family's much-loved community. Very few people believe that they themselves live in sprawl, or contribute to sprawl. Sprawl is where other people live, particularly people with less good taste. Much anti-sprawl activism is based on a desire to reform these other people's lives.

Affluent exurban residents are among the most zealous guardians of the status quo. They are often adamant about preserving their area exactly as it was when they arrived. Yet rural areas, after a century of losing people as farmers abandoned their land for the cities, are now being repopulated, often at nineteenth-century densities. The new residents are urban families who want the look of old rural New England, but with all of today's urban conveniences. They demand the aesthetic experience of "traditional" settlements without all of the inconveniences associated with that kind of landscape.

. . . .

Although sprawl obviously causes considerable problems of all kinds, the same could be said of any kind of settlement pattern, and there is precious little evidence that the dislocations caused by sprawl are as serious as activists would have us believe. More important, many of their proposed reforms would likely create fresh difficulties. Some of the anti-sprawl remedies tried thus far have been highly ineffective; others have led to unintended consequences arguably worse than the problems the reformers set out to correct. Whether in London immediately after World War II, or in Portland, Oregon during the last couple of decades, previous anti-sprawl policies have failed to stop the outward spread of people and jobs, and may well have aggravated the very things they were supposed to alleviate, like highway congestion.

. . . .

Another misunderstanding grows out of the provincialism of critics living in fast-growing urban areas. Many such people have the impression that the entire country is fast being paved over. But in truth, cities and suburbs occupy only a small percentage of our country's land. The entire urban and suburban population of the United States could fit comfortably into Wisconsin at suburban densities. Moreover, the amount of land set aside permanently for parks and wildlife areas has grown faster than urban land.

. . . .

Although opponents of sprawl believe they are making rational and disinterested diagnoses of urban problems, their actions usually involve powerful, often unacknowledged, self-interest. The self-interest is clear in the case of the New Yorker who owns a weekend home in the Hamptons and rails against the continuing development of Long Island. In similar fashion, families who have recently moved to the suburban periphery are often the most vociferous opponents of further development of exactly the same kind that created their own house, because that would destroy their views or reduce their access to the countryside beyond their subdivision.

The power of self-interest can also be seen in individuals who press for mass transit yet are very unlikely to use it themselves. They assume someone else will ride, and free up highway space for themselves. Here again, members of the incumbents' club form alliances to protect their advantages, sometimes in unexpected and ephemeral ways.

. . . .

Enemies of sprawl often hold up dense European city centers as alternatives. But it's not so much the actual preferences of the inhabitants that make those areas the way they are, as simply the fact that their settlement patterns were fixed generations ago in a way that would be hard to alter now. Though many Europeans still live in small apartments in high-density districts, polls consistently confirm that the vast majority of them, like most people worldwide, would rather live in single-family houses on their own piece of land than in an apartment building.

And now that they are becoming affluent enough to act, Europeans are moving into suburbs in increasing numbers. They are bringing jobs and retail with them. In country after country across Europe, consumers are demanding the convenience of longer store hours, shops closer to where they live, and easier access by automobile. The result is a proliferation of large supermarkets, shopping centers, discount centers, and Big Box retail outlets like Wal-Mart or Target.

. . . .

Despite efforts by the French central government to channel growth, the outer Parisian suburbs and exurbs, with their low-density subdivisions of single-family houses, shopping centers, industrial parks, and freeways, function and look increasingly like those in the United States. This process of rapid dispersal has been visible in virtually every major city on the globe where incomes have risen and there has been an active real estate market--from Boston to Bangkok and from Buenos Aires to Berlin.

Do read the whole article. I'd post the whole thing if space permitted. Bruegmann's concise articulation of the current state of human settlement and his broad perspective on "sprawl" (and its enemies) should be required reading among urban planners.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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