Seven myths about sprawl

Published March 1, 2001

American newspapers print articles on the perils of low-density suburbs–“sprawl”–almost every day, and urge instead “smart growth,” meaning higher densities and mixed-use developments. Invariably, those articles are fraught with misconceptions, myths, and sometimes outright frauds.

Seven myths, in particular, are so often repeated they take on a life of their own:

The myth of urban decline

Brookings Institution economist Anthony Downs firmly believed that sprawl caused urban decline, including poverty and crime. So he was “very surprised” to report, in a 1999 article in Housing Policy Debate titled “Some Realities about Sprawl and Urban Decline,” that a statistical analysis could find “no meaningful and significant statistical relationship between any of the specific traits of sprawl, or a sprawl index, and either measure of urban decline.”

Urban decline would be a problem in some areas “even if sprawl did not exist,” Downs concluded. “Even compact growth [another term for smart growth] would produce the same problems.”

The congestion myth

The only evidence for the claim that suburbanization causes congestion is the fact that per-capita driving increases almost every year. The Surface Transportation Policy Project blames most of this increase on suburbanization. In fact, driving has increased everywhere, including cities, suburbs, and rural areas. The increase is mainly due to increasing incomes, not land-use patterns.

Suburbanization turns out to be a rational response to, not a cause of, increased congestion. As USC planning professors Peter Gordon and Harry Richardson say, “suburbanization has been the dominant and successful mechanism for coping with congestion.” For example, jobs are following people from congested cities to the suburbs. This allows people to drive shorter distances and avoid congestion on their way to work.

The open space myth

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 1997 Natural Resources Inventory, all cities and towns in the U.S. occupy just 3 percent of the nation’s land. Only 4.6 percent of California, the nation’s most populated state, is urbanized, and percentages are similar for most states outside of the Northeast.

The biggest problem with the open space myth is its limited definition of open space. Suburbanites consider their large yards to be an important component of open space. These open spaces are probably used by recreationists more often than public parks are, and they are certainly used more than private farms and forests. Most smart-growth advocates count private farms as open space but deny that private yards are open space. So they advocate conserving farms but want to shrink people’s yards.

Most people favor the public purchase of more parks and other open spaces. But they support such purchases as a way of reducing population densities and the problems associated with density, including traffic congestion and air pollution. By contrast, smart growth calls for “greenbelts” around cities that will force people to live in higher densities within those belts.

The infrastructure myth

Sprawl opponents claim that urban services cost more in low-density suburbs. Helen Ladd, of Duke University, looked at real-world data to find out if this is true. She found that urban-service costs in high-density areas were significantly higher than in low-density areas. She concluded that “costs of sprawl” studies erred in focusing on capital costs, when in the long run operating costs are far more significant.

The subsidy myth

A new house pays less in taxes than it consumes in urban services. But this doesn’t mean newcomers are subsidized by existing residents. It turns out that existing houses also pay less in taxes than they consume in urban services.

“For every $1.00 of tax revenue that comes in from a residential subdivision,” says Joel Garreau in his book Edge City, “as much as $1.22 goes out to provide services, especially schools.”

So who pays for this? Owners of commercial properties. “For every $1.00 of tax revenue that comes in from commercial development,” continues Garreau, “at most thirty-two cents is required in expenditures.” Thus, commercial areas “subsidize” residential–but only if you think that commercial areas don’t benefit from good schools.

The environmental myth

Will increased population densities reduce pollution? Environmental Protection Agency and Census Bureau data show a clear relationship between air quality and population density: The densest cities and metropolitan areas have the worst air quality. Smart-growth’s density prescriptions will simply increase air pollution problems.

Water runoff is more complex. In general, a certain percentage of any watershed can be paved over or otherwise made “impervious” without seriously disturbing water runoff. When that percentage is exceeded, disturbances in runoff patterns can quickly become severe. The simple fact is that large-lot subdivisions pave (or make impervious) a far lower percentage of land than does high-density smart-growth.

The public-support myth

Smart-growth advocates claims strong public support. But all too often that “support” is elicited through rhetorical devices and “bait and switch” tactics that would make a snake-oil salesman proud.

“Sprawl” is a vague, pejorative term, rhetorically effective but no basis for public policy decision-making. Rapid growth makes people uneasy no matter what the density; it’s certainly not accurate to attribute all public opposition to development or growth as support for “smart growth.”

Public worries about congestion, of course, are real. But this is more accurately interpreted as opposition to smart growth rather than support for it, since smart growth’s prescriptions of high population densities and few or no new roads will increase congestion, not reduce it.


The November election produced mostly negative results for the proponents of smart growth. Despite early polls indicating they would pass, smart-growth measures were firmly rejected by Arizona and Colorado voters. In California, several cities and counties rejected smart growth when they approved measures limiting urban densities. Voters in some cities approved rail transit, but Kansas City and Austin rejected it.

The seven myths dispelled here played a significant role in these smart-growth campaigns. In the ongoing war against the fear-mongering tactics of the smart-growth movement, concerned citizens armed with the facts will be the best line of defense.

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute ( and author of the recent book, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.