City Limits: Putting the Brakes on Sprawl: A Contrary View


City Limits: Putting the Brakes on Sprawl: A Contrary View

June 29, 2001 5 min read

Authors: Wendell Cox and Ronald Utt

The World Watch's anti-suburban tome - City Limits Putting the Brakes on Sprawl, by Molly O'Meara Sheehan - is the usual "glass is half empty" attack on the modern suburban life style, propped with questionable data and shaky analysis. Consider Sheehan's observations on Portland.

Portland, Oregon:
City Limits, like so many similar critiques of suburbanites, Sheehan falls into the trap of using Portland, Oregon as a model for the densification and anti-automobile strategies that typify smart growth.

City Limits confuses intentions and actions with accomplishments. Sure, Portland has pretty much stopped building highways and has built two light rail lines, but that didn't keep the Portland area from experiencing the largest increase in automobile use per capita from 1990 to 1999 of any US urban area with more than one million population.

City Limits credits Portland with a reduction in "journey to work" travel time due to its smart growth policies, but this finding is based upon a statistical sample that the sponsor (the United States Department of Transportation) says is insufficient for use at the local level. In fact, a 1999 US American Community Survey for Portland's central county showed little difference in journey to work travel time from 1990.1

City Limits claims that Portland's anti-suburbanization policies have reduced local taxes relative to those of Atlanta, which has had more market-driven growth patterns. In fact, as Wendell Cox points out in American Dream Boundaries: Urban Concentration and its Consequences, data to make such a comparison do not exist in readily accessible form and were not developed for the research on which the claim is based.

City Limits fails to note the devastating impact that Portland's land rationing policies (urban growth boundary) have had on housing affordability. Data indicate that housing affordability in Portland (percentage of households that can afford the median priced home) dropped 56 percent from 1991 to 2000, the largest reduction of any major urban area in the nation. Portland's homeownership rate fell as a result. This consequence of smart growth is perhaps the most perfidious.2

Copenhagen, Denmark:
City Limits also misses the boat with respect to another of its models, Copenhagen. Copenhagen represents one of the most stark examples of everything that World Watch opposes.

The central city of Copenhagen has bled population at a rate competitive with that of many American central cities. From 1950 to 1990 Copenhagen's population dropped from 760,000 to 465,000, nearly 40 percent.

Since 1960, the Copenhagen urbanized area (including suburbs) has dropped in population 14 percent, while its land area has expanded 24 percent.

City Limits claims that Copenhagen reduced its use of automobiles over the past 20 years, but the data show just the opposite. From 1970 to 1990, per capita automobile usage increased nearly 70 percent in the Copenhagen area, more than four times the increase rate of sprawling Phoenix. At the same time, public transit's market share in Copenhagen declined 15 percent.

Curitiba, Brazil:
City Limits does, however, shed useful light on the effectiveness of Curitiba, Brazil's public transit policies.

Curitiba rejected building a regional light rail or subway system, due to the excessive cost. Instead, Curitiba relies on an extensive system of busways, privately operated, that carry passenger volumes substantially higher than any US light rail system and are competitive with some of the world's best subway systems.

America and Europe:
City Limits suggests that the higher levels of automobile use per capita in the United States are not due to higher incomes, because US per capita income is below European levels. This assertion is simply not true. On a purchasing power parity basis, as calculated by the World Bank, average incomes in the United States were approximately 50 percent higher than that of the European Union in 1990.

Indeed, no nation in the world larger than Fresno, CA (population 400,000) has a higher purchasing power than the average United States citizen.

Automobile use and suburbanization are largely driven by higher incomes. This is evident around the world, as the American Dream of homeownership and access to automobiles have become the Universal Dream.

In 2000, only five cities in the industrialized world reached record level populations. All five were in North America, and four were in the United States.

Between 1990 and 2000, 83 percent of U.S. cities with populations of over 100,000 experienced an increase in population.

The Costs of Sprawl:
City Limits claims that suburbanization costs much more than more compact development.

In fact the additional costs per new house over the next 25 years cited by City Lights from less dense development are barely one-fourth the incremental increase in average house prices in Portland over the last 10 years.

But the reality is more stark. More dense areas cost more to build in, tend to have higher taxes, higher levels of pollution, and a higher cost of living. Otherwise, it would cost less to live on Manhattan's upper east side than in Atlanta's suburbs.

Smart Growth and the Quality of Life:
The more compact cities of Europe, which have been implementing "smart growth" like policies for 50 years have:

  • Greater traffic congestion. The average European urban area has twice the concentration of automobile use as in the US (vehicle miles per square mile.)

  • The more concentrated European urban areas also produce, on average, at least two times the concentration of automobile related air pollution as American cities (part of this is because the greater concentration of traffic results in slower and more stop and go operation, which creates more air pollution).

  • Despite the more concentrated nature of European urban areas, their shorter commute distances and greater reliance on rail rapid transit systems, the average American living in an urban area takes 50 hours less annually traveling to work

National Home Ownership Implications of Smart Growth:
Home equity represents a major source of wealth for the nation's middle income families, with the average net worth of homeowner households being more than 30 times that of renters ($132,100 v. $4,200 in 1998).

Although the overall homeownership rate in America reached a record 67.8 percent last year, this rate reflects an ownership rate of 74.3 percent among non-Hispanic whites, but only 46.8 percent for black Americans and 46.7 percent for Hispanics.

Will green-lining replace red-lining?
In recent years, Hispanic and African-American home ownership has been rising at approximately double the rate of non-Hispanic whites. Smart growth's higher housing prices will therefore fall hardest on Hispanic and African-American households. The housing cost increases that accompany growth areas would relegate thousands of minority and other lower middle income households to permanent renter status. History could well show that shortly after ending red-lining, which suppressed minority home ownership rates, cities began green-lining, through imposition of growth areas, with virtually the same effect. There is much more at stake here than urban planning.

Wendell Cox, Principal of the Wendell Cox Consultancy in St. Louis, Missouri, is a former Visiting Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Dr. Ronald D. Utt, is Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


1 Wendell Cox, American Dream Boundaries: Urban Concentration and its Consequences, Georgia Public Policy Foundation, 2001.

2 Wendell Cox and Ronald D. Utt, "Smart Growth, Housing Costs, and Homeownership," Heritage Backgrounder No. 1426, April 6, 2001.


Wendell Cox

Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy

Ronald Utt
Ronald Utt

Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy