April 29, 2000

April 29, 2000 | News Releases on Smart Growth

New Book Mows Down Myths about "Urban Sprawl"

WASHINGTON, APRIL 26, 2000-"Urban sprawl" has become a top issue nationwide, trumping such mainstays as education and crime in many polls and contributing to the election of anti-sprawl politicians. Yet Americans continue to cite detached, single-family homes on ample lots as their ideal. Can these trends be reconciled?

Yes, but not without dispelling some common misconceptions about sprawl, a new book says. Edited by Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow Ronald Utt and Jane Shaw, a senior associate at the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Mont., "A Guide to Smart Growth: Shattering Myths, Providing Solutions" examines sprawl in detail, explaining which solutions work, which ones don't, and why.

Foremost among those myths, Shaw writes, is the notion-touted by the Sierra Club, among others-that suburban growth represents an assault on local wildlife. But the abundance and variety of animals and plants found in many communities, from deer and hawks to bears and even mountain lions, proves co-habitation is not only possible but thriving.

Which isn't surprising, Shaw says: People move to the suburbs as their incomes rise, and studies show that as wealth increases, "people begin to take better care of their surroundings, and show greater interest in protecting their environment."

Another myth, Utt says, is that suburbs grow at the expense of their urban cores. U.S. Census Bureau data suggest the opposite: A vibrant inner city usually yields rising population numbers throughout its metropolitan area, while a deteriorating urban center discourages such growth and limits the rise of suburbs.

The debate over sprawl is further muddied by the fact that the term itself is seldom defined with any precision, says Steven Hayward, a senior fellow at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, in his chapter. "The irony is that a metropolitan area such as Los Angeles, which virtually defines sprawl in the public mind, has a density on the order of what anti-sprawl advocates are now seeking," he writes.

Many critics of sprawl assume that federal projects such as the interstate highway system have exacerbated the problem, but there's little evidence they have, according to Utt. Most older American cities hit their population peaks in 1950-six years before the highway system became law-and declined steadily over the following decades. And Federal Housing Administration loans can't be blamed either, since the market share of FHA mortgages has shrunk since 1950, even as most major suburbs were booming.

To understand how not to address sprawl, the editors say, consider Atlanta or Portland, Ore., often viewed as a model for "smart growth." Portland has had "urban growth boundaries" since the 1970s. While these artificial limits have created the greater population density favored by critics of sprawl, they have also forced housing prices up, as land available for development becomes scarcer, writes John Charles, environmental policy director for the Portland-based Cascade Institute.

Atlanta, meanwhile, chafes under federal growth restrictions put in place following a poor air-quality assessment from the Environmental Protection Agency in 1998, writes Angela Antonelli, director of Heritage's Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

And those who grumble about traffic jams shouldn't back the "smart growth" agenda either, says consultant Wendell Cox in his chapter on roadway congestion. Many major cities have found that encouraging greater population density lengthens travel times, increases traffic congestion, and worsens air pollution.

If cities want to curb sprawl, they should avoid top-down, "one-size-fits-all" directives and instead let market-driven solutions take root, the editors say. For example, they can use "performance zoning," which sets standards for congestion, landscaping and open space without spelling out how the standards must be met, writes Samuel Stacey of the Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute.

PERC Senior Associate Donald Leal covers innovations such as "traditional neighborhood developments," which try to capture an old-fashioned community feel, and "eco-developments," which promise a rural setting with access to modern-day conveniences. And Richard Stroup, professor of economics at Montana State University, compares the real-world dynamics of central planning versus market solutions.

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