It’s Not About the Sprawl

Don't blame growth for So Cal's problems

Urban sprawl, the widespread phenomenon that defies definition, has been the target of critics unsatisfied with suburbia and growth patterns of the past 50 years.

Sprawl is an easy target. What better to blame for society’s evils like traffic, crime, city decline, expensive housing, pollution, social isolation, government deficits, or lack of community than a nebulous concept that is faceless, has few, if any, true supporters, and is popular to criticize?

But behind this illusion, there’s a simple truth. The assault on sprawl has little to do with quantifiable measures like population density. It’s about the distaste for modern America and the lifestyle choices we make freely. For many years, sprawl has been bemoaned by environmentalists, planners, smart-growth advocates and transit evangelists. But most people have little information when it comes to accurately defining urban sprawl or dispersion of land. Nor do they care about such measures.

Population and employment densities are the only true measures of sprawl that exist, but this definition is incomplete when you discover that the Los Angeles basin is the densest metropolitan area in the nation, yet it is always the area named when someone speaks of sprawl’s harmful effects.

Some critics even decry sprawl as the “Los Angelesation” of America, but obviously they are not talking about its higher densities. In fact, in defining sprawl we are left with something on the order of the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography – “we know it when we see it.”

The reality is that population densities and the percentage of developed land area mean little to people who are disturbed by what they see each day – lots of cars crowding their streets, new cookie-cutter subdivisions, ugly streetscapes, and buildings that were once open space.

Combine that with discount superstores, auto dealerships, strip malls, fast-food restaurants, wide streets, SUVs and the ubiquitous cell phones, and you get a visual that doesn’t measure up to the quaint village atmosphere of the past. This might better represent the common person’s description of sprawl – the catch-all term for just about everything we don’t like about the built environment.

While some view sprawl as a mere annoyance, others have gone much further, and blame urban sprawl for the school shootings in Columbine and the nation’s obesity problems. It is even being blamed for the magnitude of damage caused by Southern California’s recent fires.

Smart growth, the self-proclaimed sprawl-busting solution, calls for higher density housing, narrower streets and fewer of them, more transit use and walking, mixed-use town centers, and a boundary around cities where no development would occur.

It’s not that all of these things are necessarily bad; actually some may be good. It’s just that there are limits to the benefits of a well-designed community. Crime will not magically go away, congested cities will still exist, some people will still be overweight, the discount superstore or some variation of it will still be packed on weekends, and some annoying people will still drive SUVs while carrying on life-and-death conversations on their cell phones.

Changing the way we develop communities is probably long overdue, but don’t hold your breath waiting for a silver bullet.

We might all start choosing to live in traditional neighborhood developments that make us feel nostalgic about the 1920s, but there is no going back, horse and buggy or not.

You can redesign Middle America’s suburbia all you want, but you can’t redesign suburban Middle Americans. You can’t make them stop from wanting suburban-style living.

We’ll soon realize all of the things we might despise today – the ugly American, laziness, obesity, pop culture, the occasional annoying neighbor – and growth will still be around. Then we’ll figure out that it wasn’t about sprawl at all.

Chris Fiscelli is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation