Study Suggests Challenges to Building Regional Anti-Sprawl Coalitions

Forming coalitions may be easier said than done

Many proponents of “regionalism” are optimistic about the possibility of building regional coalitions in support of anti-sprawl, “slow growth” policies because, the argument goes, sprawl affects urban and suburban dwellers alike through urban decay and disinvestment in central cities and increased congestion, longer commutes, and loss of open space in the suburbs.

But a 2002 article in Urban Affairs Review (click here for complete abstract) examined public opinion data from the New York City and Los Angeles metro areas and found that suburbanites experiencing city-like problems in their own communities were more likely to support slow-growth policies, while central city residents were less supportive of such measures. The research also found that, regardless of location, African-Americans, lower-income residents, and people with strong ties to the central city were less supportive of slowing growth. These findings suggest that it may be difficult to build regional coalitions around the issues of sprawl and growth management.

The author points out several interesting policy implications based on the findings. First, anti-sprawl measures tend to promote more compact development patterns, which can potentially result in higher population densities. But the findings suggest that the prospect of increased densities may not sit well with those suburbanites who support slow-growth measures because of the perception that their communities are becoming more “urban” in character.

Next, public sentiment on growth management issues does not appear to break down neatly along traditional political lines. African-Americans and lower income residents were less supportive of slow growth measures than political liberals as a whole, reflecting a possible tension between equity and environmental concerns among groups traditionally aligned with the left.

Finally, the research indicates that public concern about growth and development issues may not necessarily translate into support for slow growth measures. In other words, though some people may feel that growth and development is a problem facing their community, they may not be willing to support the adoption of slow-growth measures as a solution. Also, the costs and benefits associated with any growth management policy are likely to be perceived differently depending on one’s location within the metro region, potentially complicating efforts to achieve regional consensus on such matters.

Leonard Gilroy is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation