Urbanization Trends Don’t Threaten US Quality Of Life

Despite sprawl hype, the sky is not falling

As if Chicken Little needed any further encouragement, the US Department of Agriculture recently announced that more than 16 million acres of land were developed in the United States between 1992 and 1997.

During this period an average of 3.2 million acres were developed per year, more than double the annual average of 1.4 million acres during the previous decade.

Already, political forces are lining up to put the data to use.

“These new figures confirm what communities across America already know,” says Vice President Al Gore. “Too much of our precious open space is being gobbled up by sprawl.”

To him this is just another reason to embrace Smart Growth, the fad designed to limited urban development by restricting outward growth, diverting monies to mass transit systems, and other steps to create more compact development.

Is this really what the data say? Well, not quite, not if put into context.

Even if the data are completely accurate, the United States now devotes about 105 million acres to urban and developed uses – just 5.4 percent of the land, a bit more than the 4.6 percent developed in 1992.

The vast majority of nation’s land is still reserved for open space, forest, pasture, cropland and range.

In fact, from 1982 to 1992, the nation added more land to protected rural parks and wildlife preserves than it urbanized.

Farmland loss rates are also plummeting.

According the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, farmland loss rates have moderated from 5.8 percent in the 1970s, to 5 percent in the 1980s, to 2.7 percent in the 1990s.

Of the farmland converted to other uses, most of it changed to non-urban uses such as forests, parks and rangeland, not urbanization.

At the same time, agricultural productivity has gone through the roof, making more land available for non-farm uses, such as housing, offices and even shopping malls, while still providing a surplus of agricultural products.

Despite some anti-sprawl rhetoric, most Americans think moving into new homes in low-density suburban areas is a vast improvement in their quality of life; suburban America, unlike most traditional big cities, is not faced with a glut of empty houses.

Preserving open space is an increasingly important part of this lifestyle improvement. Homes are taking up less and less land.

In 1990, the median lot size for a new home was 10,000 square feet, about one-quarter of an acre.

By 1996, the median lot size had fallen to 9,100 square feet, a little more than one-fifth of an acre.

One reason lot sizes are falling is because open space is becoming more important in housing subdivisions.

People are willing to live closer together if they can look out their back door at wider open spaces and forests, often maintained by a privately operated homeowners’ association rather than the local park district.

Nevertheless, local policymakers shouldn’t become too complacent about land development. Numerous policies distort real-estate markets and encourage the overdevelopment of vacant land, including:

  • Local zoning policies that mandate low-density housing when families often prefer higher densities and multifamily lifestyles.
  • Environment laws that make redevelopment in cities risky and financially unprofitable.
  • Local governments of all sizes that subsidize new development by failing to adopt full-cost pricing for water, sewer and other infrastructure.
  • Tax and regulatory policies that overburden businesses and families in big cities, encouraging development on the fringe and in rural areas.
  • Big-city school districts that continue to neglect parental demands for more educational choices, a more responsive school system, and targeted high-quality instruction at the classroom level.

Ironically, Gore’s proposal to up the ante for land preservation by using federal money to help buy vacant land is likely to encourage the very sprawl he rails against.

By preserving splotches of green space here and there on the urban fringe, development will just leapfrog to other areas, placing even more strain on roads and existing infrastructure.

Urban policy should work to improve the efficiency of land markets and their ability to meet consumer demands, including the demand for open space in new housing developments.

Rather than demonizing land development, local citizens and policymakers’ efforts would be much more productive if turned to their own backyards – for example, zoning codes and infrastructure policies that would mitigate problems of urban sprawl.

An important step in the right direction would be to eliminate the distortions in property markets that currently encourage development at the urban periphery.

That would be truly smart growth.

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.”