The Atlanta-based Turner Foundation blames it for contributing “to the nation’s most difficult problems.” It undermines the “basic national goals set by the Constitution or the Congress, including Equal Opportunity, economic strength, [and] environmental quality.” This insidious epidemic harms “critical local government functions” like “public safety and education.”
What is this terrible threat? It’s none other than the growth of suburban America, “sprawl” to its critics. Yes, according to the Turner Foundation, the suburbs, with their banal strip malls and myriad identical Starbucks, are in fact a leading cause of modern America’s most pressing problems.
The war against the suburbs has developed with astonishing speed. For decades, the ’burbs caused waves of aesthetic revulsion to wash over urban and regional planners, to little effect. But things have changed. Last year the Sierra Club made fighting sprawl its top environmental priority, and Vice President Gore began taking on the “soulless suburbs” in a series of speeches. Gore then won a mention of sprawl in President Clinton’s State of the Union address, and secured approval for $10 billion in related funding.
Nor is all activity confined to the federal level. Pennsylvania’s 1999-2000 budget is typical of state-level sprawl initiatives, with Governor Tom Ridge proposing “the most sweeping change in environmental budget policy in the last 30 years.” In a variety of provisions, this “Growing Greener” effort commits nearly $1 billion over the next five years to encourage “soundly planned growth.”
Ridge is implementing the findings of his 21st Century Environment Commission which asserts that sprawl—the “reckless, almost random growth of housing developments, strip malls, business parks and roads that connect them”—is a major threat to “our environmental and economic health and our sense of community.”
By accepting this finding, the governor, a relatively conservative Republican, has joined an unusual new coalition. The movement appeals to liberals, who like the idea of expanding government’s regulatory reach in order to combat sprawl. Conservatives find congenial the notion that sprawl is a result of inefficient government subsidies for development. The wealthy have signed on because they want to preserve the semi-rural character of their fringe suburbs. Farmers see sprawl as a threat to their lands, while advocates for the urban poor see a chance to share in suburban wealth.
Donors Against Sprawl
The philanthropic world has long been involved in trying to improve the quality of life of American communities. Both national and local foundations find that sprawl is a useful rubric that combines many concerns that previously were treated in isolation. At the Turner Foundation, executive director Peter Bahouth explains his organization’s interest in the issue:
We are seeing some very bad tendencies from current patterns of development: air pollution, drain of resources from the urban core, concentration of poverty, large increases in land used for small incremental increases in population, problems of water quality, habitat loss, isolation of people like the elderly when they can no longer rely on their automobiles—these are important considerations and concerns that people really care about. [Foundations want to] look at the information and the tendencies that exacerbate these problems and work across a broad constituency. So we think sprawl as an issue is a perfect combination of federal policies, local enforcement of law, and natural inherent local decision making—or lack thereof. It runs the whole gamut of jurisdictions.
Sprawl and land use will continue to receive public attention over the next few years, and foundation staff and trustees will have to decide whether to fund existing grant programs or even create new ones. But before donors decide to give to anti-sprawl activists, they should look critically at the statistics on land use and suburbanization, as well as the vision of communities promoted by anti-sprawl advocates.
Evaluating claims about the problems caused by sprawl is difficult for two reasons. First, sprawl is a notion so broad and encompassing as to approach meaninglessness. Not that all proponents view this as problem. Quite the contrary, in fact. Because it has “complex interconnections” with so many social maladies, sprawl may well be the ideal problem—the basis on which to justify virtually any grant. (If it turns out down the road that sprawl does not, say, threaten food production, it might still be said to waste resources and segregate the poor and elderly.)
The second problem in evaluating the claims of anti-sprawl activists is that sprawl is very much a local phenomenon. Although suburban growth is happening throughout the country, even throughout the developed world, it does not happen for the same reasons or with the same consequences in all areas. In the United States, land use has traditionally been regulated at the local and state level under the assumption that those closest to the decisions have the most legitimate claim to make them. Few anti-sprawl activists are comfortable with this tradition, hence Vice President Gore’s early attempts to federalize the issue.
Building The Case
Even with these caveats in mind, there is not much support for the case for a land-use crisis that imperils the American way of life. In The Sprawling of America, Dr. Samuel Staley, director of the Urban Futures project of the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, reveals that “less than 5 percent of the nation’s land is developed, and three-quarters of the nation’s population lives on 3.5 percent of its land area.” (Not only that, but more than 75 percent of states dedicate a whopping 90 percent of their land to rural uses.)
Staley also explains that just “one-quarter of farmland loss since 1945 is attributable to urbanization,” and the rate of loss has actually slowed since the 1960s. Even environmentalists have cause to be wary of the anti-sprawl bandwagon since, as Staley demonstrates, higher population density in cities might increase air pollution.
Data from the states bears out Dr. Staley’s thesis. For example, Dr. Jake Haulk of the Allegheny Institute in Pittsburgh has found that 28 percent of Pennsylvania’s non-federal land is farmland, while only 12 percent is developed. Forested land covers about 55 percent of Pennsylvania’s non-federal land, and Haulk argues that some eight to nine million acres of the farmland that the state has “lost” since 1900 have not been paved over but in fact have reverted to forest.
But what about the longer commuting times and increased traffic congestion we have heard so much about? Some routes are undoubtedly more congested, but, as Randal O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute in Portland points out, “average commuting times have remained at about 22 minutes each way for decades.” And only one out of six commutes takes more than 35 minutes.
One Big Government, Hold The Suburbs
Much of the legitimate debate about sprawl over the coming months and years will be over statistics like these. And reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which government policies and subsidies underwrite suburbanization. Statistics and subsidies, however, are not the whole story. Equally illuminating is the anti-sprawl advocates’ vision of a better urban world.
The sprawl-haters dream about densely-populated urban communities with plenty of green spaces, sharp distinctions between city and countryside, few cars, and lots of public transportation. Like two of their most famous urban planner forbearers, the French modernist Le Corbusier, and the British Victorian Ebenezer Howard, modern-day opponents of sprawl see higher population density as the key to the maximally “green” city that is their ideal.
Also like their forbearers, they tend to believe that their designs will herald an end to persistent human problems. The right plans, meaning their plans, they assure us, will help end poverty and unemployment. They will bring about the dawning of a new era of community happiness and civic peace. (The past failures of urban planning are seen as proof that planning should be “regionalized,” calling to mind the remark of planning critic Jane Jacobs that “a Region is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution.”) Thus, telling people how they should want to live, and the big government control that ineluctably follows, are at the heart of many anti-sprawl initiatives.
In this respect, at least, they are not breaking any new ground. Le Corbusier, who was explicitly and unapologetically authoritarian, dedicated his landmark book The Radiant City to “Authority.” Emphatically distinguishing planning from politics, he asserted that “the plan must rule.” Authoritarian or not, it is rather difficult to imagine that today’s Le Corbusiers see their role as empowering a suburb whose “vision” favors low-density homes occupied by long-distance commuters who drive Dodge minivans to their shopping destinations in regional malls.
Reframing The Issue
It is useful to remember that people left cities not only because of the pull of the suburbs. They were also increasingly dissatisfied with high taxes, urban crowding, dangerous neighborhoods, and crumbling public schools—problems that, ironically, can be laid at the doorstep of government planning efforts and failed “urban renewal” programs. Yet sprawl critics still frame the issue as one that requires latter-day planners to think up new tasks for government to undertake, new regulations to enforce, and new imperatives of redistribution.
Better to re-examine land use patterns from the point of view of how healthy communities can be encouraged by government doing less, and doing it better. Foundations that have an interest in the issues surrounding sprawl and who want to play a role in the debate can avoid enlisting in the cause of coercion and join a diverse coalition of their own—local government advocates who don’t want to be merged into “metropolitan” systems, communitarian liberals who know that there is something to be said for self-government over planning boards, libertarians and conservatives wary of a new round of government regulation, farmers who would like to dispose of their land as they see fit, and the many Americans who are perfectly happy to live in, or who aspire to live in, the suburbs.
Charles T. Rubin is an associate professor of political science at Duquesne University. He is the author of The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism (Rowman & Littlefield).