Urban Sprawl and Quality Growth in Ohio

Executive Summary

Urban sprawl has surged to the forefront of local policy debate in Ohio. Concerns about the loss of open space, farm productivity, traffic congestion, and rising public-service costs have led many to demand more government control over land development. On the state level, concern about sprawl has led to large-scale government funding for open space protection and environmental clean-up as well as new planning mandates to protect agriculture. On the local level, more communities are adopting restrictive growth control policies to slow the pace of development.

Little data or objective analysis, however, has been applied to the issue of land use and urban development in Ohio. Most media and growth-control advocates rely on slogans and faulty intuition to support calls for more comprehensive planning on the local and regional level. For example, many define urban sprawl as the uncoordinated or unplanned development, yet virtually all new housing and commercial development is subject to extensive public hearings and development approval procedures on the local or county levels.

This study provides a rational analysis of economic, demographic, and land-use trends in Ohio and their relationship to key concerns all Ohioans have about the pace and pattern of land development in Ohio. Among the study’s key findings are the following:

Land and Urban Development in Ohio

  • After two centuries of urban development, the vast majority of Ohio remains rural — less than 14 percent of the state’s total surface land area is developed (including rural highways and roads), and only about two-thirds of that developed land is urbanized. In fact, more than 43 percent of Ohio’s total surface area is cropland—land used to grow and harvest food. Another 7.1 million acres, or 26.8 percent, is forest land. The remainder is pasture, range and “other” rural land.
  • Ohio’s rate of land development has consistently lagged the nation since 1982.
  • Decentralization of cities has been occurring for most of the 20th century in the United States, with the most rapid rate of decentralization occurring in the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, trends toward decentralization in Europe at rates similar to the United States suggests that suburbanization is not uniquely American.
  • Declines in population and population density at the city level mask increases in population and population density on a regional level. Ohio’s population tripled from just 4.2 million people in 1900 to almost 12 million people in 2000. Ohio’s cities, like urban America more broadly, have been changing to meet shifting desires. Two-thirds of Ohio’s largest metropolitan areas experienced an increase in population density between 1980 and 2000.
  • The trend in Ohio is toward more dense metropolitan areas and less dense central cities. Rather than abandoning urban life, Ohioans appear to be refocusing it. Suburbs and central cities may well be converging toward an “optimal” density (or an optimal range of densities) that suit households in the 21st Century more effectively than the old model of a high-density, mixed-use core.

Ohio’s Agriculture and Farmland

  • Ohio has 14.9 million acres of land in farms, and declines in farmland have moderated, not accelerated, in recent years.
  • A review of crop productivity data reveal that Ohio’s agriculture is at least as productive at the end of the 20th century as it was in 1980.
  • While harvested cropland for Ohio’s five major crops—corn, soybeans, winter wheat, hay, and oats—has declined overall since 1980, it actually increased 4.7 percent from 1990 to 1999.
  • Of Ohio’s 88 counties, 52 are rural in character, and the impacts of growth on farmland are likely to be localized and limited to regions of the state already highly urbanized.
  • According to the most recent Natural Resources Inventory (NRI), about half of the decline in Ohio’s cropland since 1992 reverted to pasture, forest, and range, not development, and from 1949 to 1992, Ohio’s forests actually grew faster than development.
  • Just 4 percent of Ohio’s cropland loss can be attributed to economic demand for urban land. Weak demand for cropland (because of improvements in agricultural productivity) is far more important in explaining cropland loss.
  • Farmland preservation efforts can have unintended consequences: the land next to protected open space will be valued higher as a residential location and conversion is likely to occur sooner around these protected areas.

Suburbanization and Infrastructure Costs

  • The most common method used to determine if development is paying its own way at the local level is a Cost of Community Services study, where a cost versus revenue analysis compares residential, farm, and industrial/commercial land uses. These are fundamentally flawed, however, and should not be used to guide development policy. Among other errors, they:
    • Inappropriately allocate education expenditures;
    • Do not take into account varied construction methods or demographics;
    • Ignore the potential of government expenditures to be excessive;
    • Ignore potential economic benefits of growth, including increased property valuation;
    • Focus on average costs where marginal costs would be more appropriate; and
    • Recommend farmland preservation to balance local budgets, while showing industrial development generates greater revenue.
  • Most Cost of Community Service studies fail to consider the benefits of new development, including higher tax revenues generated from urban uses, diversification of the economy, a more diverse and higher quality housing stock, and the relatively small economic value of farming in urban environments compared to alternative uses.
  • Although a definitive analysis of the cost of new public services has not been done, land development appears to cover its direct costs based on case studies and interviews with local officials.
  • In areas where development is not covering its public-service costs, communities have the tools necessary to ensure they do in the future.

Transportation Issues in Ohio

  • Although it is just 35th largest geographically, Ohio claims the fifth largest Interstate highway system, the seventh largest population, and the ninth largest overall highway system. In addition, Ohio has the nation’s fifth highest volume of truck traffic.
  • Ohioans log more than 100 billion miles on their vehicles each year, 63 billion in urbanized areas. Ohio also maintains more than 4,000 miles of urban highways carrying an average of 7,147 vehicles per lane on an average day.
  • The combined costs to travelers, commuters, and businesses from the lost productivity as a result of being “stuck” in traffic in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland reach almost $2 billion each year. Despite these costs, congestion is still lower in major Ohio metropolitan areas compared to their peers in other states.
  • Most traffic is funneled onto a very small portion of a large, complex network of freeways. Ohio’s freeways are congested at specific times of the day when highway traffic exceeds capacity, suggesting traffic congestion problems need to be addressed by using underutilized highway times more efficiently and adopting public policies that encourage shifts in travel behavior to non-peak driving times.
  • Adopting policies that restrict new suburban development or prevent new beltway construction have not been shown to slow the growth in traffic volume or congestion. The ongoing shift into low-density suburban areas has actually relieved congestion for most people, even commuters.
  • Statewide, more than twice as many people walk or telecommute to their jobs than use public transit. Transit has not been shown to be a viable option to reduce congestion.

The Environmental Effects of Suburbanization

  • Ongoing migration to low-density suburban locations, and away from high-density urban areas, reflects an environmental choice. A desire for larger homes and yards drives the decision of many households to move away from the core city.
  • A home’s lot size has been shown to have a significant impact on property values. In general, homes located adjacent to trails, parks, and even golf courses sell more quickly, are assessed at higher values, and are more likely to increase in value than homes not near open spaces.
  • Ironically, just as Ohioans have become concerned about land-use trends and air quality, virtually all long-term data suggest air quality is improving. Most major categories of air pollutants declined in every metropolitan area in recent years. Carbon monoxide has fallen by 25 percent or more in every major metropolitan area since 1988. Sulfur dioxide has fallen by 50 percent or more in Columbus, Lima, and Toledo. In a number of cases, air-quality improvements from 1988 to 1997 exceeded national averages.

“Smart” Growth . . .

  • Most smart growth plans adopt a prescriptive rather than evolutionary view of cities and urban development. Rather than letting consumers decide where they want to live, most plans implicitly accept a mid- and early-twentieth century view of cities that is compact and relatively high density, mixed use and less reliant on the automobile.
  • The vast majority of new housing subdivisions are developed under some form of zoning or planning, either at the municipal or county level. Real-estate markets—through supply and demand— impose “order” on the timing and general pattern of development.
  • Farmers often lose money on their farming operations, but zoning prevents them from developing their property to ease the financial burden (or pay taxes). Conventional smart growth can be a difficult sell because it often requires residents to accept major changes in the character of their own neighborhoods. When smart growth has been successful, the costs have been pushed well into the future, or they have circumvented local political control by going through the state legislature.
  • Radical approaches such as regional pooling or planning are unlikely to succeed for several reasons:
    • First, local control is an important principle of governance in Ohio.
    • Second, the problems associated with growth vary by locality, while regional solutions tend to focus on a small number of “magic bullets” (e.g., growth boundaries) that may or may not address the local problem.
    • Third, little consensus exists among researchers about the impact of suburbanization or the benefit of proposed “solutions.”
  • The value of readily accessible open space — even if that happens to come in the form of a yard — should not be discounted. Pressure to create infill developments in areas that would not otherwise be developed can lead to the removal of open space accessible to the urban population.

. . . and its Better Alternatives

  • Freeing up land use to more effectively meet consumer demands for more varied housing can be achieved through a number of planning mechanisms, including overlay zoning districts, planned-unit development (PUD), performance-based zoning and market-driven densities.
  • Ohio communities can harness the power of real-estate markets and refocus the development approval process on consumers by adopting several specific policies including cluster housing, conservation easements, tax-credit programs and maintaining a robust, profitable agricultural economy.
  • The key issue for local policy makers is to prevent the subsidization of one housing choice over another. Among the alternatives for policy makers are full-cost pricing for core infrastructure, onsite provision of infrastructure, special-assessment districts, and the privatization of core infrastructure.
  • Ultimately, Ohio’s traffic congestion problems can be solved by congestion pricing, high occupancy/ toll lanes, expanding existing road capacity, and deregulating public transit.

This Study's Materials

  • Full Study, PDF, 1.4 MB
    Samuel Staley and Matthew Hisrich


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