Facing Sprawl in Texas

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Ask anyone in Texas, whether born here or newly arrived, and one thing they'll tell you about the state is that it's growing. Texas is expected to grow by more than 7 million people by the year 2025 - the second largest increase in the nation. With population growth a virtual certainty, the question is "How will Texas grow?"

Lately, the development associated with population growth (e.g., houses, roads, fast-food restaurants, multiplexes and mega stores), has taken on a bad name: "urban sprawl." Although a clear definition of sprawl remains elusive, the notion seems to be that too much of the U.S. land base is being developed or at least that what is being developed is being developed badly.

Politicians have been quick to respond to public concern about sprawl. Nineteen states have instituted growth-management programs. In North Texas and nationwide, dozens of cities and counties have either instituted temporary moratoriums on new housing and/or commercial development or adopted urban growth boundaries to contain development in existing areas and prevent the spread of urbanization to outlying and rural areas.

However, despite widely cited reports on the pace of urban growth, urban land remains a very small part of overall land. Only about 5 percent of the nation's land is developed and three-quarters of the population lives on 3.5 percent of the land. By comparison, more than three-quarters of the states have more than 90 percent of their land in rural uses, including forests, cropland, pasture and parks. Indeed, more than 5 times as much land is set aside in national parks, wilderness areas, federal forests and federal grazing lands than has been developed for housing and industry. In the scheme of things, cities just do not take up that much space.

Sprawl has been blamed for the decline of big cities and older, inner-ring suburbs. But this is simply not so. While cities do have a number of features that attract businesses and people - roads, cultural activities, cultural diversity and sometimes, easy access to mass transit. However, cities suffer from serious problems as well - suburbanization is largely a response to the municipal governments failure to meet their core responsibilities. As cities aged, they began to suffer from poorly functioning school systems, high tax and crime rates, anticompetitive regulations and a deteriorating housing stock. People, especially working-class families, who naturally wanted a better life for themselves and their children, ceased to believe that they could find it in inner cities.

In addition, many planners have acknowledged previous "bad planning" (for example, large-lot zoning and restrictions on multi-use neighborhoods) contributed significantly to urban sprawl.

Another criticism of "sprawl" is the argument that low-density development means more pollution and more congestion, arguing that higher density compact development would mitigate those impacts. However, population density does little to alleviate smog. Metropolitan areas with the lowest population densities have the fewest air pollution problems. Furthermore, population density or compactness has little relationship to how much commuters depend on automobiles. Studies show that more than 75 percent of commuter trips are by car in every area except New York and that the number of vehicle miles traveled actually increases with population density in the United States. Counterintuitive but true. Thus a policy strategy that attempts to increase population density could lead to more traffic congestion and worsening air pollution.

There is little evidence that governments are better suited than real estate markets to provide the kinds of housing and communities people want. Los Angeles is perhaps the city with the longest sustained urban planning effort, yet it is the city most commonly cited as the paradigm example of sprawl.

More recently, Portland has become the poster child for the anti-sprawl movement, but preliminary results of its planning efforts are not encouraging. Regional growth control rules have resulted in Portland going from being among the top fifty (out of nearly 200) most affordable housing markets in the country in 1989, to ranking among the five least affordable housing markets. Portland's urban-growth boundary led to a seven-fold increase in land prices. In addition, Portland's regional planning authority admits that its transportation plan will increase smog by 10 percent.

Texas can't afford this kind of "success" in growth management. Fortunately, there is little evidence that North Texans need grandiose five, 10 or 50-year regional growth management plans to attain some of the goals sought by sprawl's critics. The EPA notes that air-pollution has decreased substantially in Texas during the past decade - all while population has boomed. And, while Dallas's population grew 59 percent from 1970 to 1990, its per-person land consumption declined by 15 percent. In other words, new development in the D/FW Metroplex has naturally tended to be denser and take up less open space.