Local governments across the state are instituting restrictive growth controls to limit housing development, all in an effort to “control” urban sprawl.
But, what is urban “sprawl?” Activist groups often comment on the term with platitudes, but few take the time to define it in a meaningful sense. Even reports on regional growth seem to take the term for granted. Citizens for Civic Renewal in Cincinnati, for example, commissioned a study on the region’s growth that concludes with the claim its proposals offer a “distinct strategy for dealing with the sprawl problem.” The study, however, doesn’t explicitly define what urban sprawl is.
The Sierra Club defines sprawl as “irresponsible, poorly planned development that destroys green space, increases traffic, crowds schools and drives up taxes.” Yet, this definition is completely useless as a guide to policy: Almost anything that adds a house, car, or child to a community could be labeled sprawl.
Balanced discussion is also virtually non-existent in these reports and studies. In some cases, this is an intentional attempt to create a sense of crisis to spur support for growth controls.
Not surprisingly, while defining “urban sprawl” is an apparent inconvenience, growth control advocates are usually much more up front about what they want to do: restrict housing choice and population growth through housing moratoria, urban-growth boundaries, large-lot zoning, and farmland preservation ordinances.
Unfortunately, many Ohio communities may be jumping the gun in attempting to control growth, basing their efforts more on rhetoric than on sound policy analysis.
For example, a national survey of more than 475 studies on sprawl and its effects published by the Transportation Research Board identified 42 costs and benefits of low-density suburban development. General agreement was found on only six issues. Some fit the emerging antisprawl conventional wisdom, but others don’t. New suburban development, most researchers seem to agree, increases the number of automobile trips and miles traveled. It also reduces the total amount of agricultural land (although the effects on agricultural productivity are unclear).
On the other hand, scholars agreed that sprawl reduces congestion and provides important mobility benefits because it encourages the use of the automobile. The car, it turns out, is generally recognized as a quicker, more flexible, and generally more efficient way to get around.
Substantially less agreement was found on other issues such as whether sprawl increased the costs of providing roads, sewers, water and other infrastructure, or whether sprawl fostered racial segregation or threatened transit use.
In Ohio, the argument against suburban development doesn’t fare much better. For example:
- Most of the state remains rural in character-just 14% of Ohio—s total land area is developed (including rural roads and highways) indicating concerns about the loss of open space are local, not statewide;
- Agricultural productivity has increased steadily since the 1950s despite dramatic declines in the number of farms and amount of land in farms;
- As much farmland is converted to forests, pasture, and range as is developed, and the factors that cause farmland conversion are driven more by the economics of the agricultural industry than the demand for urban land;
- Air quality has improved steadily since the 1970s even though automobile use has skyrocketed;
- Congestion is a significant problem only during selected times of the day. Severe traffic congestion is concentrated in the Ohio’s three largest cities: Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.
Thus, the sweeping criticism of sprawl appears to be inconsistent with a substantial portion of the serious research already conducted.
Still, many are legitimately concerned about how their communities can grapple with the effects of new homes and families on congestion, public service costs, schools, and open space.
Growth restrictions, though, often have unintended consequences. Limiting the supply of housing tends to raise housing prices, limit housing choice, and shift growth into new areas. Existing residential areas may also face market pressures to develop housing at densities higher than many residents would prefer.
Most of these problems associated with growth can be addressed without limiting housing choice. Local citizens in Ohio have already taken the initiative to address some of these issues in their own communities. In Cincinnati, for example, a group of neighbors banned together in an attempt to purchase nearby land they felt was facing development pressure. A neighborhood in Cleveland actually took the step to try and cut off city services such as snow removal and leaf collection, preferring private local control to the possibility of unwanted retail development on their street. 36 local and regional land trusts control almost 24,000 acres in Ohio.
Citizens and policymakers can’t ignore the consequences of growth. But they should also recognize the consequences of unduly restricting housing development and ensure that a vibrant, consumer-oriented housing market remains a key goal of their growth-management strategy.
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.”
Matthew Hisrich is a policy analyst at The Buckeye Institute