The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1556 on Smart Growth

May 30, 2002

May 30, 2002 | Executive Summary on Smart Growth

Executive Summary: Will Sprawl Gobble Up America's Land? Federal Data Reveal Development's Trivial Impact

Despite the insistence of America's artistic elites and environmental activists that people abandon the suburbs in favor of denser living arrangements, most Americans continue to exhibit a decided preference for single-family, detached, suburban-style housing on lots large enough to ensure some measure of privacy and easy access to nature's blessings. Efforts to force people into densely packed town and cluster housing or multifamily high-rise buildings consistently fail to attract public support. For the most part, many of those who choose to live in denser multifamily housing and townhouses do so for reasons of limited income and often forgo these arrangements once more expansive options become affordable.

Having failed to achieve their objectives in most communities, environmentalists and urban planners have turned to the federal government for help to enact legislation that offers federal tax dollars to encourage communities to adopt their "smart growth" plans. Typical of this effort is the Community Character Act, introduced in the Senate as S. 975 and in the House of Representatives as H.R. 1433. This legislation would provide $25 million of federal tax dollars each year to states, communities, and tribal councils to use in implementing land use planning schemes that conform more closely to how environmentalists want American communities to be arranged.

Among the factors driving environmentalists to discourage the traditional pattern of suburban development is a belief that such growth consumes undeveloped land at a pace that jeopardizes the availability of open space, natural settings, wilderness, and farmland. Federal data on land use reveal such concerns to be misplaced; in fact, only 5.2 percent of the land in the continental United States meets the government's definition of "developed." Nevertheless, so-called smart growth and new urbanist advocates are undeterred in their efforts to impose costly and constraining limits on how individuals may develop and use their private property.

Although there is no precise definition for a "smart growth" policy or what exactly the "new urbanist" strictures would entail, such policies generally seek to preserve land in its natural or agricultural state by encouraging people to live in denser, city-like communities that take up smaller amounts of land per housing unit. Such communities would achieve other related smart growth goals, such as encouraging residents to rely more on walking or public transit than on cars for mobility. The policies also recommend a closer mix of commercial facilities and residential units to foster easier access to jobs and shopping. In turn, these arrangements, combined with more sensitivity to aesthetic needs, are supposed to create a greater sense of "place" among residents.

While the adoption of land use strategies that lead to greater densification, or more housing units (and residents) per acre of land, would slow the already glacier-like development of the nation's unused land, very few Americans find crowded living arrangements appealing. With few willing to embrace the environmentalist's vision of more densely packed urban communities, smart growth advocates now seek to impose their vision on uncooperative households by limiting tenancy choices with policies that raise the cost of housing options they oppose. Among the popular cost-raising, growth-limiting mechanisms to control suburbanization in this way are charging homebuyers higher building and impact fees and/or taxes, adding more regulation and restrictive zoning, and establishing growth boundaries to deny land for building.

Critics of these costly and coercive growth-management schemes have been aware of the problems such regulations create for potential homebuyers with modest incomes, especially minorities. Such concerns have begun to influence the smart growth debate in recent years.

In 2001, for example, Heritage Foundation scholars expressed alarm about the connection between high costs and diminished opportunity in a study titled "Smart Growth, Housing Costs, and Homeownership." They concluded that, "By raising home prices, such policies force households of modest means into smaller units, or out of the community altogether." Largely, the burden is borne by entry-level homebuyers and other households with low to moderate incomes. And as more of these households are forced into the rental market as such policies become more commonplace, the rate of homeownership will fall. "Those who are harmed by escalating prices," noted the scholars, "are those who are not yet owners, and this group consists largely of those with household incomes below the median, especially racial minorities."

The Administration is correct to oppose the Community Character Act, and Members of Congress who have not yet made up their minds on such legislation should carefully review this bill's potentially adverse effects and the elitist land use schemes behind it. Rather than promote policies that limit opportunity, the Administration and Congress should confirm long-standing American principles of free choice and market solutions, including the right of people to live and work how and where they like. Federal leaders should reject centralized planning by any level of government, encourage diversity in neighborhood design, and foster decentralized decision-making on land use.

The 10 principles in the so-called Lone Mountain Compact developed at a conference on sprawl in 2000 should serve as guidelines for local officials, builders, citizens, journalists, and academics who want to make better judgments about the benefits and appropriateness of policies that will affect community growth. They should also keep in mind the question that Democratic Party candidate Adlai E. Stevenson posed during the 1952 presidential campaign:

Our people have had more happiness and prosperity, over a wider area, for a longer time than men have ever had since they began to live in ordered societies 4,000 years ago. Since we have come so far, who shall be rash enough to set limits on our future progress? Who shall say that since we have gone so far, we can go no farther? Who shall say that the American dream is ended?

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., is Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D. Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow