May 18, 2000
By Steven Hayward
To hear the critics of urban sprawl tell it, every new housing
development means we're "running out of farmland." Every new strip
mall puts us one step closer to "the paving of America." The danger
occurs when these clichés become the basis of public
Sound thinking about land use requires putting sprawl in its
proper perspective. Start with a simple fact: All development,
including roads, highways and military bases, as well as urban and
suburban housing and commercial buildings, consumes only about 5
percent of the total land area of the continental United States.
This is only about half as much as European nations, all of which
have thriving agriculture and ample open space. Even the Clinton
administration has concluded that "loss of farmland poses no threat
to U.S. food and fiber production."
The rate at which land is being used each year is hard to
pinpoint because up-to-date and comprehensive national data are
unavailable. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in the 1980s that
since the end of World War II, the annual rate of land development
has been about 1.3 million acres a year. This sounds huge, but it
is only 0.07 percent of the 1.8 billion acres of land in the
continental United States. At this rate, it would take nearly 15
years to develop just 1 percent of the nation's land area.
Recently, preliminary figures from the 1997 National Resources
Inventory (NRI) upped the estimated rate of land development to 3
million acres a year. But the Department of Agriculture, which
produces the NRI, has already withdrawn the estimates because of a
"computer programming error," and will restate them next month.
Some of the revisions, the Department of Agriculture has admitted,
will be "substantial."
Of course, the controversy involves more than just the raw
amount of land being used. Critics of sprawl think we are
developing land at too low a density. They like to cite examples
such as the Chicago metropolitan area, whose population grew by
just 4 percent between 1970 and 1990 while the developed land area
grew by 55 percent. St. Louis appears even more dramatic; regional
population has grown by 17 percent since 1960, but the developed
land area has grown by 125 percent.
These statistics are superficial, ignoring the fact that density
should fall as household sizes shrink and affluence increases. In
fact, density in the central cities has been gradually declining,
and the suburbs expanding, for more than a century. In the 19th
century, it was not atypical for U.S. cities to have densities of
up to 100,000 people per square mile. Urban reformers of the time
thought that cities were overcrowded, and that dispersing people to
the suburbs was an improvement. The technology for lowering the
density of crowded cities was, ironically, the same technology that
supposedly will raise density today: rail transit.
What is happening is simple to understand: the suburban
lifestyle that used to be only affordable to the rich and upper
middle class is now within reach of the working class. (The
fastest-growing demographic segment of suburban residents is
minorities.) It is unrealistic to expect that urban densities will
remain constant as the middle class grows more numerous and
prosperous, or that Chicago's new suburbs will develop at the same
density as the central city itself (12,000 people per square mile).
As Gregg Easterbrook, senior editor of The New Republic,
bluntly puts it, "Sprawl is caused by affluence and population
growth, and which of these, exactly, do we propose to
The sprawl controversy is really about our collective
unhappiness with the rapid changes that growth brings to our
communities. This is a reasonable issue and a challenge for
governance. But we aren't "running out of land," and policies that
that seek to lock up land will only have the effect of keeping
people from achieving their rightful share of the American
This essay by Steven Hayward, a senior fellow at the Pacific
Research Institute in San Francisco, is adapted from his chapter in
the new Heritage Foundation book, "A Guide To Smart Growth."
Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service.
The Paving of America?
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