Report: Urban Sprawl Fears Largely Unfounded

Published March 1, 1999

Urban “sprawl” has become the latest target for advocates of big government. Indeed, according to Dr. Sam Staley, director of the Reason Foundation’s urban futures program, President Clinton devoted one-sixth of his State of the Union address to “cities, land preservation, and community planning issues.”

In “‘Urban Sprawl’ and the Michigan Landscape: A Market-Oriented Approach,” Staley examines the causes, problems, and benefits of sprawl and suggests ways for people to address it. The study was released in October 1998 by the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Although Staley’s work focuses on Michigan, his findings are easily applied to most other states as well.

Critics of low-density suburban development–what most people mean by “sprawl”–say that sprawl destroys prime farm lands and open spaces, increases the cost of community services, and promotes congestion and auto-related air pollution. To prevent those problems, they advocate strict zoning codes requiring high-density developments and restrictions on automobile use.

Staley shows that most of the problems attributed to sprawl are exaggerated or simply untrue. Michigan, for example, is one of the most heavily urbanized states in the nation, yet more than 90 percent of the state’s land remains in farms and other open spaces. In this, Michigan is below average, since more than 95 percent of the U.S. as a whole–excluding Alaska–is open space.

Staley adds that there is no good evidence that low-density development increases infrastructure costs. Most studies claiming that sprawl is costly are based on hypothetical data. One of the few empirical studies comparing density with infrastructure costs, by Helen Ladd of Duke University, found that above a rural density of about 200 people per square mile, urban service costs increased with increasing density. Low-density development is actually a way of reducing costs.

The third major claim against sprawl, that it increases congestion and air pollution, is also wrong. Opponents of low density say that higher densities allow people to walk or use transit, thus reducing congestion. But data indicate that increasing density has little effect on driving. Even if doubling density reduced driving by 20 percent, as some density advocates claim, there would still be a 60 percent increase in cars. Unless more roads are built (which density advocates would oppose), that means more congestion.

Since cars pollute more in stop-and-go traffic, it is not surprising that the nation’s worst air pollution problems are found in its densest, most congested cities. Low-density urban areas, such as Minnesota’s Twin Cities, tend to have much cleaner air than higher-density areas such as Baltimore or Detroit. The nation’s dirtiest air is also found in its densest urban area, which (surprising to many people) turns out to be Los Angeles.

Staley offers five market-oriented policy recommendations for governments faced with sprawl issues. First, he says state and local governments should remain economically neutral between types of development. They should not try to subsidize some types of industry or certain types of housing developments.

Second, governments should charge for infrastructure using full-cost or marginal-cost pricing. Staley notes that one way of doing this is to privatize infrastructure since private companies would avoid subsidizing their customers.

Third, Staley supports “flexible and voluntary land-use programs,” such as the purchase of development rights, rather than zoning, to protect open space. He urges the use of flexible programs that do not perpetually dedicate land to uses that future generations may not find desirable.

Fourth, Staley urges that “property rights be strengthened.” In other words, he opposes zoning programs which, he says, reduce property rights and land values.

Finally, Staley recommends that governments “facilitate change and community evolution.” By this he means that policies should “focus on the impacts of development, not land uses per se,” and that detailed planning should be restricted to public infrastructure investments, not to what private investors should do.

Funded in part by the Environmental Protection Agency, supporters of strict land-use controls are gearing up for major campaigns in every U.S. urban area. The one difference between Michigan and elsewhere may be that most sprawl opponents are also promoting major restrictions on the automobile, which Staley’s report says is not a major issue in car-loving Michigan. Otherwise, the “Michigan Landscape” report could be rewritten, with only slight changes in the numbers, for just about any state in the country.