Policy Study

The Sprawling of America

In Defense of a Dynamic City

Executive Summary

Urban sprawl has sparked a national debate over land-use policy. At least 19 states have established either state growth-management laws or task forces to protect farmland and open space. Dozens of cities and counties across the nation have adopted urban growth boundaries in order to contain development in existing areas and prevent the spread of suburbanization to outlying and rural areas.

Despite widespread concern over sprawl, a clear definition remains illusive in public debate. The debate over sprawl is driven primarily by general concerns that low-density residential development threatens farmland and open space, increases public service costs, encourages the people and wealth to leave central cities, and degrades the environment.

Evidence on suburbanization and low-density development suggests suburbanization does not significantly threaten the quality of life for most people, and land development can be managed more effectively through real-estate markets than comprehensive land-use planning.

An analysis of land-use trends at the national and state levels reveals:

  1. Suburbanization and sprawl are local issues. Less than 5 percent of the nation’s land is developed, and threequarters of the nation’s population lives on 3.5 percent of its land area. Over three-quarters of the states have more than 90 percent of their land in rural uses, including forests, cropland, pasture, wildlife reserves, and parks. Acreage in protected wildlife areas and rural parks exceed urbanized areas by 50 percent.
  2. Urban development does not threaten the nation’s food supply. About one-quarter of the farmland loss since 1945 is attributable to urbanization. More importantly, predictions of future farmland loss based on past trends are misleading because farmland loss has moderated significantly, falling from 6.2 percent per decade in the1960s to 2.7 percent per decade in the 1990s.
  3. Cost-of-development studies exaggerate the effects of suburbanization on local-government costs. Most costs are recovered through on-site improvements made by developers. Local governments often choose not to recover the full costs of development, preferring to subsidize development through general revenues. Most studies also fail to recognize the interconnected nature of land development, ignore cheaper and alternative ways to provide services (e.g., through the private sector), and use a static snapshot of communities.
  4. Declining cities suffer from many “push” factors. These push factors-low-quality public education, high crime, high tax rates, regulatory barriers, and fewer housing opportunities-must be addressed before they can compete for middle-income families and households. Suburbanization represents household choices based on these factors.
  5. Air quality deteriorates as residential densities increase. The metropolitan areas with the worst smog ratings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have the highest population densities.
  6. Open space is increasingly protected through the private sector. Real-estate markets are responding to household preferences for open space through cluster housing. Private land trusts and agreements among property owners are also preserving open space in fast-growing areas.

Rather than adopt comprehensive land-use planning-which circumvents real-estate markets-or urban growth boundaries that put some land off limits to development, this study recommends an alternative, market-oriented approach grounded in the following principles:

  1. Economic Policy Neutrality where state and local policymakers avoid giving preferential treatment to particular industries, including the agricultural industry.
  2. Price On-Site Public Services at their Full Costs. Cities and local governments should price on-site infrastructure costs so that all costs-operating, capital and debt-are included in the price for the service while also ensuring efficient design and service delivery options.
  3. Reform Zoning to Accommodate Market Trends. Local governments should adopt flexible-zoning laws that allow for mixed-use and higher-density land development based on market trends. Performance zoning should be explored by local governments as an alternative to current zoning practices that further politicize the land-development process.
  4. Use Flexible, Voluntary Programs to Protect Open Space. Public policy should facilitate the voluntary transfer and purchase of development rights on farmland and open space to private land trusts and other property owners. Tax-credit programs that reduce the tax burden on land ownership may also be useful ways to encourage property owners to preserve open space.
  5. Strengthen Private Property Rights. Private property rights should be protected, including the right to use and sell property as the owner sees fit. Restrictions on land use through countywide or regional planning run the risk of reducing the value of property without compensation for the loss.
  6. Adopt Nuisance-based Standards for Land-use Regulation. Local governements should ground their land-use regulations in the common law concept of nuisance. Those objecting to land uses should be required to prove a tangible harm and receive compensation based on the severity of the harm or be assured a harm will be mitigated or eliminated.
  7. Facilitate Change and Community Evolution. Local land-use regulations should recognize the open-ended and uncertain nature of community development. Local land-use regulations should allow communities to evolve with their changing character and values, and not become instruments of preservation.

The dangers of giving into antigrowth sentiment are significant since, by 2010, the U.S. economy is expected to grow by 11.5 percent, population by 11 percent, and employment by 15 percent. Current residents and citizens will expect their quality of life to increase with their incomes. These trends require accommodating rather than restricting growth.