NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 17, 2004

Urban planners have made assumptions that building high-density housing and redeveloping neighborhoods with existing infrastructure costs less than urban sprawl, but a recent study by the Heritage Foundation puts the real cost of sprawl into perspective.

Urban experts Wendell Cox and Johsua Utt debunk the myths that higher densities cost less and that lower costs are associated with lower rates of population growth and older neighborhoods.

Anti-sprawl advocates claim that "uncontrolled growth" will cost about $227.4 billion between 2000 and 2025, which amounts to about $9.1 billion in gross costs per year. Yet, when spreading the cost out over 115 million households for 25 years, Cox and Utt conclude:

  • Sprawl only costs households about $80 annually -- $4.41 for sewer and water, $38.38 in road building, and $36.77 in expanded public services.
  • These costs are miniscule compared to the fact that between 1980 and 2000, personal per capita income increased 140 times more than the $9.1 billion cost of sprawl over 25 years.

Furthermore, the researchers discredit the idea that increasing density saves a significant amount of money. Cox and Utt found:

  • A 10 percent increase in population density in a city decreases the annual cost of municipal expenditures per capita by only $1.46.
  • Population growth and the redevelopment of existing neighborhoods in a city were not associated with any statistically significant cost savings.
  • Changes in wastewater costs were found to be statistically significant, but put in perspective, the cost of wastewater declines by about $4 per person annually for each additional 1,000 people per square mile.

Source: Wendell Cox and Joshua Utt, "The Costs of Sprawl Reconsidered: What the Data Really Show," Backgrounder 1770, June 25, 2004, Heritage Foundation.


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