Church’s Campaign Against Sprawl May Do More Harm Than Good

Church's approach to growth problems is naive

Anti-sprawl activists got a big boost in October when the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit weighed in on the debate over growth management. The message was clear: Sprawl is bad, and the full moral authority of the church will be used to influence the Michigan Legislature to stop it. Priests, nuns, lay people, and anti-sprawl “experts” met for two days at Sacred Heart Seminary to lay out a statewide political campaign to “educate” the public and elected officials about the evils of sprawl.

Of course, the term “sprawl” is full of ambiguity, and the working definition in policy circles depends on whose interests are being served. For Michigan farmers, sprawl is the fragmentation of farmland and has little to do directly with urban decline or the density of new development. For many suburbanites, sprawl is any development that eats up open space they don’t own. And, of course, for many inner-city advocates, sprawl refers to any development that is not in the urban core or older inner suburbs.

For the archdiocese, sprawl appears to be more closely aligned with the inner-city advocates. Representatives of the church, for example, have already identified “inequities” between suburbs and central cities as a key concern. Similarly, the archdiocese is faced with a struggling membership base in older urban areas, closing 35 churches since 1980 in the city of Detroit. The anti-sprawl education campaign is likely to reflect that perspective.

“Educate” also is a loose term, and a “public education campaign” is usually a code phrase for lobbying. Activists have already defined the enemy-sprawl-and their efforts are focused on defeating it. So the archdiocese’s campaign is unlikely to be fair and balanced, pointing out that, for example, researchers for the Transportation Research Board found “general agreement” on only 6 of the 42 costs and benefits of sprawl identified in a survey of over 475 studies. The vast majority of issues remain controversial within the research community, including whether sprawl’s impacts encompass such things as urban decline, racial segregation, costlier public services, or increased air pollution.

The archdiocese’s campaign also may neglect to mention that average commute times in Michigan have increased by just 5 percent over the last decade or that farmland loss rates have fallen by 75 percent since the 1960s. Nor is it likely to point out that Michigan’s land development trends track very closely with the nation. In other words, if the archdiocese adds its moral weight to an anti-sprawl campaign that ignores powerfully contrary evidence, it will in effect be saying that the debate is not about what actually “is” but about only what anti-sprawl activists believe “ought” and “should” be.

Church officials who are defining sprawl as the expansion of cities outside of older central cities and inner suburbs have a difficult task before them. Overall, new communities outside the urban core have better housing, access to superior schools, and lower crime rates. Is the Detroit Archdiocese going to argue that families have a moral obligation to remain in unsafe neighborhoods with poor quality housing and schools? Is it going to lobby for growth boundaries to prevent the continued migration of people out to these new communities even when the long-term consequences likely will be higher housing prices and reduced opportunities for many families?

Representatives of the Catholic Church could better serve Michigan citizens and elected officials by engaging in a substantive, balanced debate and focusing on the programs that earned the church a well-deserved reputation for helping to stem urban decline and foster revitalization. Chief among these programs is the church’s high-quality, alternative urban school system. Planners David Varady and Jeffrey Raffel noted in their recent book “Selling Cities” that a strong, healthy, private-school alternative was crucial for keeping middle- and moderate-income families in inner-city neighborhoods. Thus, the church has played a valuable role in maintaining neighborhood stability through its school system. Catholic charities also provide a crucial social safety net for thousands of low-income families and individuals.

Through their investments in neighborhoods, the Detroit Archdiocese and its parishioners continue to be an essential part of the effort to revitalize inner cities and maintain neighborhood cohesiveness. But Catholic officials should not confuse their work in the cities with broader social changes that may be beyond their control. By taking a naïve approach to the problems of sprawl and growth management, the church may end up doing more harm than good.

Samuel Staley is director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation and co-editor of the book “Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century.”