Urban Sprawl: Michigan’s Bogeyman of the 1990s?

Attempts to stop sprawl will hurt quality of life

There’s a new bogeyman in town. Its very name sounds ominous. It’s called “urban sprawl.”

Just take the following sampling from recent newspaper stories and statements about sprawl in Michigan:

Sprawl is a plague on the land.”

People are looking for ways to tame the monster called suburban sprawl.”

From planning experts to community leaders to farmers, people in Michigan are alarmed at how fast sprawl is gobbling up open land.”

As bulldozers plow their way through more farmland in southeast Michigan … agriculturalists, environmentalists and homeowners are trying to find new ways to stop suburban sprawl.”

The public discussion of sprawl has become so steeped in unqualified hyperbole that a debate on the facts and the merits of the issue is proving hard to come by. Few are taking the time to sit back and assess the problem, or even ask whether there is a problem.

First, what is sprawl? It is rarely defined except in the broadest of language that’s often loaded with negatives. It is usually thought of as uncontrolled growth, a flight from the cities, the transformation of rural land into suburban neighborhoods and shopping malls. In fact, a public consensus on urban sprawl simply doesn’t exist.

Without a consensus definition, virtually every sin of the modern world seems to be blamed on sprawl. In Michigan, as in other states, sprawl is blamed for the decline of agriculture, environmental degradation, economic decline and even looming food shortages. Media accounts loudly proclaim social costs, but few even acknowledge its benefits.

Benefits to sprawl? You bet. Despite vocal objections to it, sprawl reflects social progress more than decline.

Despite sensationalist headlines proclaiming new development is “gobbling up” farmland at “alarming” rates, suburbanization has been going on for centuries. People have been building cities for thousands of years, and this development has spilled out into the hinterlands. Most inner-city neighborhoods were once suburbs of a downtown core. It’s just that these outer neighborhoods were annexed into the big city before modern, post-war suburbs decided to create their own, independent identities.

More importantly, suburbanization represents a significant improvement in the quality of life for movers. Most people who move out of their older homes do so because their needs have changed. Suburban and rural areas often meet these new needs better than older, more densely populated central cities.

In Selling Cities, planning professors David Varady and Jeffrey Raffel found people move to the suburbs because those communities offer environments better suited for raising families. The key qualities for movers include larger houses, more housing diversity, enough land to provide private yards for their children, safe neighborhoods and high quality schools. Because many of our cities no longer offer these amenities and often pile on a much higher tax burden to boot, people are looking for greener pastures. That suggests that instead of imposing Big Brother restrictions on sprawl, maybe we should encourage our cities to change the policies that send people and businesses packing in the first place.

What sprawl represents is the creation of new communities and the transformation of old ones: The farming community gives way to the rural-residential community; the rural-residential community gives way to a full-fledged suburb; the suburb may even grow into a larger, economically and socially diverse city.

So, what’s the problem?

The political problem is one of managing change. People grow up and move to certain communities because they like them. The political problem emerges when existing residents and new residents use the political system to prevent the further evolution of their community. They want, in essence, to close the gates after they get in.

The dangers of giving in to the “stop the growth” movement are significant. Consider the following projections for Michigan between now and 2010:

  • The economy is expected to expand by 17.8%, after adjusting for inflation.
  • The state’s population is expected to grow 5.1% to 10.1 million people, and employment is expected to grow by 9%.
  • Per capita personal income is expected to grow by 12.4%.
  • Farm output is expected to grow by 24.3%-even with suburban growth trends-although the number of farms is declining and the number of farm workers is expected to fall by 7.6%.

Michigan residents and policy makers can’t escape the fact they must accommodate the twin forces of a growing economy and increasing income. If land-use policies restrict landowners’ ability to redevelop property for human needs such as housing, Michigan’s quality of life will surely deteriorate. Attempts to stop sprawl by preventing farmers from selling their land to developers will simply increase housing prices and reduce options for many low- and middle-income residents, slow economic mobility, and lower the overall standard of living.

The future of Michigan, like other states, depends on protecting freedom and flexibility in all economic sectors, including land. This will not be achieved if, in efforts to shore-up a declining industry in selected counties or combat low-density development, policy makers make it harder for people to achieve the American dream.

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.”