NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Does Government Cause Sprawl?

October 2, 2003

Urban sprawl is generally defined as low-density residential and commercial development on previously undeveloped land. Those who oppose sprawl seek to preserve open space by concentrating future construction in already developed areas. Dozens of cities and counties have adopted urban growth boundaries to contain development in existing areas and prevent the spread of urbanization to outlying and rural areas.

The increase in demand for housing farther from inner cities is partly due to mistaken government policies. Zoning restrictions, for example, often lead to sprawl by requiring high-density residential construction and large parking lots for businesses. Such regulations favor sprawl while limiting the choices of homebuyers and business owners.

Other government policies have also contributed to urban sprawl:

  • Many families have fled the cities to take advantage of better-quality suburban schools.
  • High property, payroll and business taxes have pushed businesses and workers into suburban areas, where taxes are generally lower.
  • High crime rates in inner cities have frightened many residents into leaving for safer suburban communities.
  • The tax deduction for interest payments on home mortgages favors homeowners over renters.
  • Declining infrastructure has reduced the quality of urban life - with potholes, cracked sidewalks and poorly maintained public parks common.

If sprawl deserves to be the subject of public policy at all, it should be only to the extent that land-use restrictions are relaxed rather than increased. Given Americans' strong preference for lower-density housing, sprawl is not likely to decline. If state and local governments enact strong land-usage restrictions, growth will simply take place elsewhere.

Source: Mark Miller, "What Causes Sprawl?" Brief Analysis No. 459, October 2, 2003, National Center for Policy Analysis.

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