Urban Growth: An Opportunity, Not a Problem

Commentary by Pete du Pont

For some odd reason urban sprawl - which is really nothing more than suburban development outside central urban areas - has sparked a national debate over land use. Indeed, in a survey of 1,000 registered voters, the Competitive Enterprise Institute found that two-thirds of the respondents identified "sprawl" as a concern.

Many people are frustrated with the traffic jams they associate with urban sprawl. Others who moved out of cities to get a taste of country life are disturbed to see the farms neighboring their homes disappear. Big city mayors blame suburban development for the decline of the inner cities. And environmentalists claim that suburban growth - for that's all "sprawl" is - damages the environment by contributing to air pollution and the development of scarce wild lands.

Are these charges true? Not really. Actually only about 5 percent of our land is developed, and three-quarters of the population lives on 3.5 percent of the land. In addition, more than three-quarters of the states have more than 90 percent of their land in rural uses. And more than five 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.

What about air pollution; aren't all those suburban SUVs causing it? No, the number of vehicle miles traveled actually increases (with New York the sole exception) with population density in the United States. So it is the city autos that cause most of the pollution.

As for the mayors' claims that the rise of suburbs caused a decline in cities, suburbs were largely a response to the failure of municipal governments to meet their core responsibilities. As cities aged, they began to suffer from bad schools, high tax and crime rates, anti-competitive regulations and a deteriorating housing stock. This drove people, especially working-class families, from the cities to the suburbs. People naturally wanted better lives for themselves and their children, and ceased to believe that they could find it in inner cities. Though sprawl is more a problem of perception than reality, it is likely that some level of government will respond. The Clinton administration and Al Gore are making sprawl a federal issue. People generally recognize that land planning is appropriately a local concern, but if the federal government is determined to get involved, here are two constructive steps it could take:

End so-called death taxes. Many family farms are sold to housing developers when a farmer dies and his heirs, facing a huge tax bill, sell the farm for subdivisions. Ending the death tax would allow those who inherit land to stay on it if they so choose.

Spend highway dollars on roads, not on public transportation projects like light rail service. Public transit, especially light rail, does not serve the needs of commuters. Most people live in suburbs and they commute to businesses outside of downtown areas. In addition, most folks shop, dine, and play in their own or in neighboring suburbs - but trains always run from downtown to the suburbs. More roads would reduce traffic congestion and its associated air pollution and high stress levels.
In contrast to these common-sense solutions, both political parties want to expand the role of the federal government in land use control. Democrats want to take tax dollars from people, siphon some off to pay EPA bureaucrats who would manage growth, and then send the rest to other bureaucrats in the cities and states to be spent according to the Environmental Protection Agency's 10, 25 and 50 year plans. Republicans want to take tax dollars from people, siphon off a smaller portion as a pass-through to federal bureaucrats and then block grant the rest to the states and cities, allowing state growth boards and city planners to spend it according to 10, 25, and 50 year plans which they develop.

Here's a better idea. Let's reject the failed Soviet idea of a centrally planned utopia and instead embrace the truly American notion that tastes and lifestyles change, leave the money in the people's hands in the form of a tax cut allowing them, as free people, to choose their own housing, travel, and shopping arrangements. This would ensure citizens'' right to develop their property as they choose (be it for housing or as a private park), and since choice rather than paternalism is more productive of happiness, it should increase the general welfare. Now there's a "smart growth" plan our Founding Fathers could get behind.



The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.