Out of Control Policy Blog

The Ubiquity of Urban Sprawl

In his review of Robert Bruegmann's new book, "Sprawl: A Compact History," Slate's Witold Rybczynski points out that urban sprawl is not just an American phenomenon:

    [...] Like Americans, Europeans have opted for decentralization. To a great extent, this dispersal is driven by a desire for home-ownership. "Polls consistently confirm that most Europeans, like most Americans, and indeed most people worldwide, would prefer to live in single-family houses on their own piece of land rather than in apartment buildings," Bruegmann writes. So strong is this preference that certain European countries such as Ireland and the United Kingdom now have higher single-family house occupancy rates than the United States, while others, such as Holland, Belgium, and Norway, are comparable. Half of all French households now live in houses.

    It appears that all cities–at least all cities in the industrialized Western world–have experienced a dispersal of population from the center to a lower-density periphery. In other words, sprawl is universal. Why is this significant? "Most American anti-sprawl reformers today believe that sprawl is a recent and peculiarly American phenomenon caused by specific technological innovations like the automobile and by government policies like single-use zoning or the mortgage-interest deduction on the federal income tax," Bruegmann writes. "It is important for them to believe this because if sprawl turned out to be a long-standing feature of urban development worldwide, it would suggest that stopping it involves something much more fundamental than correcting some poor American land-use policy."

    What this iconoclastic little book demonstrates is that sprawl is not the anomalous result of American zoning laws, or mortgage interest tax deduction, or cheap gas, or subsidized highway construction, or cultural antipathy toward cities. Nor is it an aberration. Bruegmann shows that asking whether sprawl is "good" or "bad" is the wrong question. Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals–Adam Smith's "invisible hand." This makes altering it very complicated, indeed. There are scores of books offering "solutions" to sprawl. Their authors would do well to read this book. To find solutions–or, rather, better ways to manage sprawl, which is not the same thing–it helps to get the problem right.

Bruegmann's analysis is simple and profound in its implications. Following his logic, the anti-sprawl movement can be seen as swimming upstream and fighting a futile battle, and in the process their regulation-focused efforts ultimately harm the ability of families and individuals to own homes by rationing land and increasing housing costs. To really achieve their desired goals would require a fundamental rejection of the market economy and an embrace of massive social engineering.

(Hat tip: Tory Gattis)

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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