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Urban Sprawl: Pro and Con

By Randall G. Holcombe


The term “urban sprawl” has a bad ring to it. The name reinforces the view that metropolitan growth is ugly, inefficient, and the cause of traffic congestion and environmental harm. Before we decide we are against urban sprawl, however, we should be clear about what it is and why we do not like it. Once we look at its specific characteristics, we can recognize their causes and what, if anything, to do about them.

My study of metropolitan growth indicates that three kinds of development are typical of what we call “urban sprawl.” They include: leapfrog development, strip or ribbon development, and low-density, single-dimensional development. Let us look at each type in turn.

Leapfrog development occurs when developers build new residences some distance from an existing urban area, bypassing vacant parcels located closer to the city. In other words, developers choose to build on less expensive land farther away from an urban area rather than on more costly land closer to the city.

Because land prices are lower, housing in these developments is more affordable. Some people decide to accept longer commutes in exchange for more comfortable, lower-priced housing.

What few people realize is that leapfrog development nurtures compact commercial development-retail stores, offices, and businesses. The empty parcels that have been “leapfrogged” create an ideal location for commercial activity. It is a fact of economic life that developers are reluctant to place new commercial buildings on the outskirts of an urban area because these areas lack a large market to draw shoppers from. When new development bypasses vacant land, however, the land in between is suddenly accessible to more people and thus attractive to commercial developers. Thus, leapfrogging is a vital part of development in growing areas.

Leapfrog development does create some extra costs. Infrastructure must be extended farther and the longer distance creates more traffic and longer commutes into the city. For a leapfrog development to be cost-effective, the outlying development must pay the full costs of the infrastructure it requires. It is the responsibility of local governments to see that the costs of water, sewer, roads, and so forth are charged to the development.(1) As long as the new residents pay their share of the costs, leapfrog development benefits those who choose to live there and encourages commercial development at the edge of the urban area.

Strip or ribbon development, the second category, takes place when extensive commercial development occurs in a linear pattern along both sides of major arterial roadways. Like other aspects of urban sprawl, it is viewed as ugly and as a cause of traffic congestion, since shoppers and workers are often entering into and exiting from the street.

Yet strip development has its benefits. It brings together businesses that depend on high auto traffic. In fact, strips reduce overall traffic, since fewer cars must travel long distances from store to store or office to office. Strip development also creates natural locations for residential development. Between the commercial arteries, residential streets can have relatively little traffic yet be conveniently located near commerce.

In many situations, strip or ribbon development does cause problems, but the reason is poor planning. Every business fifty feet from another business does not have to have a driveway opening onto a major thoroughfare, creating congestion as people enter and leave. Access lanes can be built to permit the smooth merging of traffic entering and leaving.

Nor does strip development have to be unsightly. If the rightof- way is wide enough, landscaped buffers can separate the road from the businesses. To achieve this separation, though, governments must plan ahead to secure sufficient rights-of-way for major streets before they are built.

The third characteristic of “urban sprawl” is low-density, single-dimensional development. This is typified by large residential subdivisions. Houses are situated on relatively large lots, with only other houses nearby. Residents must drive nearly everywhere they go.

Critics say that low-density developments take up too much space, especially space that ought to be preserved in a pristine state. They say that they lengthen commuting distances, and, in general, that they harm the environment.

Low-density developments do take up space and may increase driving time. However, they have an important argument in their favor: People like them. Low density means more room and a higher standard of living. While every city has apartments available for those who prefer them, many people choose (and more people aspire to have) their own detached homes.

Low density is likely to help the environment. Yards filled with trees and shrubs absorb dust and chemicals, so smaller amounts of pollutants escape into the air and water. In contrast, in dense urban areas buildings, roads, and parking lots take up a higher percentage of the land, leaving little of the natural environment to absorb pollutants.

As for single-dimensional development (that is, residences only), this is often the result of zoning laws. Some zoning laws flatly prohibit mixed uses of property. Prohibitions against leapfrogging mean that development on the perimeter of a city is mostly residential, since no business wants to put its commercial establishment on the edge of an urban area. Prohibitions against strip or ribbon development also keep commercial establishments distant from residential areas.

Thus, when the components of urban sprawl are examined, they can be seen as components of a healthy and efficient development process that is sometimes thwarted or distorted by regulations. I do not mean to imply that all instances of these development processes are efficient but that they can be.

Underlying all the complaints is what troubles people most about urban sprawl-transportation problems. Many of these problems arise because the government has not effectively controlled access to its roads. Traffic is clogged because there are too many access points to highways and because insufficient rights-of-way were planned to handle the traffic load. To avoid these problems, local governments should obtain adequate rightsof- way for roads, limit the number of allowable curb cuts, and require access lanes or separate access roads rather than direct access to thoroughfares.

Specific policies to stop or slow down urban sprawl reflect a more general vision of how metropolitan development takes place. Planners assume that suburban areas spread out from a central urban core. They assume that people work in the central cities, commuting from the suburbs. Growth management policies are designed to keep people living and working in central districts.

But this picture of metropolitan areas is not an accurate portrayal of today’s actual commuting patterns. In Los Angeles, for example, only 3 percent of the total workforce works downtown. There are 19 major activity centers in the Los Angeles area, but even these areas account for only 17.5 percent of the area’s total employment. Most people both live and work in the suburbs, and the average commute for individuals in the Los Angeles area is 20 minutes.(2) While the statistics for each metropolitan area will differ, patterns in many cities are likely to be similar; today’s jobs are primarily in the suburbs.(3)

If left to its own devices, development will occur in a decentralized manner, which will usually lead different types of activities to be conveniently located in relation to one another. Decentralized growth will provide nodes of development. People can live close to the node where they work, allowing a more efficient pattern of two-way traffic as people travel between nodes. Decentralized development keeps commuting distances short but allows the amenities of suburban living for those who want them.

In sum, the invisible hand of the market guides property owners to develop their property in ways that result, over time, in efficient land-use patterns. When government land-use planning is examined, we find that land-use decisions made under the name of growth management will more likely hinder than help the development process.

1. This does not necessarily mean that the percapita infrastructure costs will be higher in the new development than in the older ones because there may be offsetting economies of scale.
2. These figures are from Peter Gordon and Harry Richardson, “You Can’t Get There from Here,” Reason (August/September 1989), 34-37.
3. See Christopher B. Leinberger, “Metropolitan Trends of the Late 1990s,” in Land Use in America, Henry L. Diamond and Patrick F. Noonan (Island Press 1996), 209.

Americans Are Saying No To Sprawl

By Carl Pope

On Election Day 1998, Americans from California to New Jersey voted to slow growth, save forests and farmlands, and rein in development. In an unmistakable signal of rising saliency and political power, growth and land-use measures appeared on more than 200 state and county ballots nationwide.


  • In New Jersey, voters approved a 10-year plan to raise $1 billion to preserve 1 million acres of open space.
  • In Ventura County, California, voters overwhelmingly supported an initiative to prevent local planners from rezoning farmland and open space without voter approval.
  • In Florida, voters decided to extend the Florida bond authority to protect public land from sprawl.


What do millions of Americans know that Randall Holcombe’s defense of sprawl ignores? To begin with, Americans are reacting to the actual impact of sprawl on their lives, not to Holcombe’s abstract economic argument that it could be good.

In fact, it turns out not to be good. Sprawl is a ubiquitous problem, and Americans-whether they live in urban Atlanta or rural Washtenaw County, Michigan -are deciding that current planning and development practices come with more costs than benefits. Development plans that may have worked fifty years ago are no longer the answer for today’s growth.

There are the obvious environmental costs of sprawl-lost open space and natural habitats, increased air pollution from more traffic, depleted water quality caused by urban runoff. Holcombe’s argument that “low densities” help the environment shows an abysmal shallowness. He seems to assume that if yards were not filled with trees and grass, there would be less vegetation in the metropolitan area. In reality, of course, sprawl neighborhoods typically replace farmland or open space that was 100 percent vegetation and permeable soils and replace them with neighborhoods that are 30 percent or more concrete, asphalt, or structure with unvegetated, impermeable surfaces.

The worst environmental impact of sprawl is the least avoidable. Sprawl, by definition, fragments landscapes-and fragmented landscapes are the biggest threat to America’s wildlife heritage. Sprawl is very good for the most adaptable and common creatures-raccoons, deer, sparrows, starlings, sea gulls-all do well-and devastating for wildlife that is more dependent upon privacy, seclusion, and protection from such predators as dogs and cats.

There are obvious qualityof- life problems caused by sprawl-more time caught in traffic caused by auto-dependent lives, abandoned urban communities, remote and isolated suburban neighborhoods.

But sprawl has an economic cost, too. Tax policies contribute to the public’s growing dissatisfaction with sprawl. American taxpayers are actually subsidizing the extent and pace of sprawl through local, state, and federal spending, which increases to fund new development. That means a choice between more taxes or less spending in other deserving areas.

Some advocates of sprawl argue, “Well, then just get rid of the subsidies.” Holcombe blithely opines that “it is the responsibility of local governments to see that the costs of water, sewer, roads, and so forth are charged to development.”

I wonder what planet he lives on. When localities try to charge developers even a fraction of the true costs, those developers and other sprawl advocates fight back fiercely. In California efforts to charge new developments the full costs of new water supplies, which are far greater than those of the more efficient reservoirs built first, have run into tremendous resistance. In Alabama and New York developers are trying to hold on to federally subsidized flood insurance on the ground that it is a “right.” The reality is that if we really got rid of the subsidies to sprawl, we would also get rid of sprawl.

The sums involved in the subsidies are huge. In Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., the 1997 budget of $1.8 billion ran a deficit of $146 million. In nearby Prince William County, taxpayers spend $3,838 to provide services to a single household, but only receive $2,150. A report released last month by Rutgers University looked at the costs of sprawl to South Florida. Adding up the price tags on new land development, new roads, and new infrastructure, the report found that sprawl in South Florida alone is costing an astounding $6.15 billion.

Holcombe does not cite a single case in which the kind of low-density sprawl he defends occurred in the absence of massive public subsidies. He doesn’t because he can’t. There are no such examples.

It is not accidental that in the last era of metropolitan growth prior to the massive federal and state subsidies for highways, sewers, etc., the development pattern that emerged was of compact suburban developments with mixed use, light and heavy rail transit, and an almost total absence of leapfrog and strip development-America’s streetcar suburbs from the 1900Ð 1925 era.

Taken together, these factors are fueling local action and a national debate. Americans are demanding common-sense solutions and smarter growth.

Fortunately, there are at least three options that provide guidance for urban growth planners charged with preparing plans for future growth:

  • The first option is purchasing open space and farmland for preservation. Citizens in Peninsula Township in Northwest Michigan recently voted to pay farmers to keep farming rather than sell their land to developers for subdivision. Voters in Austin, Texas, supported an increase in water rates to raise money to protect thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land around the city. Such purchase programs, ideally, could be financed from the windfall profits made by landowners who benefit from new publicly financed infrastructure -those around a new
  • The second option growth planners should utilize is marking and promoting urban growth boundaries (UGBs). Oregon and Washington states have blazed trails in this area by requiring all communities to design long-term UGBs. Portland, Oregon, has had an urban growth boundary in place since the 1970s. While Portland is one of the most popular cities in America and has witnessed significant population growth, its urban growth boundary has preserved open space around Portland and helped make Portland one of the world’s most livable cities.
  • The third option planners should pursue is reinvestment in urban areas and revitalization of existing towns and cities. In 1997 Maryland enhanced its existing planning requirements with Smart Growth legislation, which promotes state funding to priority growth areas such as existing municipalities and enterprise zones.


Taken together, these three options for controlling growth will help alleviate the costs and consequences of new development.

Holcombe argues that “left to its own devices, development will occur in a decentralized manner, which will usually lead different types of activity to be conveniently located in relation to one another.” This fascinating argument overlooks hundreds of years of urban history in which development, left to its own devices, prior to the era of either zoning or governmental subsidies, followed anything but a decentralized pattern.

Indeed, the classic original argument for both regulation and subsidy in urban landscapes was that, left to its own devices, development was too centralized and intense for human welfare. Freeways, zoning laws, and urban renewal were all developed to overcome the “natural” tendency of development to concentrate and cluster.

If there is any one constant in our history, it is our nation’s ability to learn from our mistakes, to change with the times, to try something “new and improved.” We have come to a new day in national growth policy. The economic and social benefits of urban renewal far outweigh the national drain accompanying sprawl. Americans everywhere are promoting a new approach to community planning, and the time has come for the planners to catch up with the public.

Live And Let Live

By Randall G. Holcombe

Carl Pope raises a number of issues in his critique of urban sprawl, but does not challenge the main point of my essay, which is that the development patterns often characterized as urban sprawl can produce more efficient land-use patterns and enhance people’s quality of life. Nobody forces people to live in single-family detached homes. Developers build them because that is where people want to live.

Because he does not disagree with the main point of my essay, I take Pope’s criticisms to say that the choices individuals are making to increase their own well-being impose substantial costs on everyone else, and that if we take those costs into account, we should (and do, at the ballot box) oppose urban sprawl.

Pope cites examples from New Jersey, California, and Florida to support his hypothesis that voters oppose sprawl, but in all three cases what voters actually favored was preserving undeveloped or agricultural land, not stopping the development of subdivisions and shopping centers that create sprawl. Voters can favor decentralized development and still want to set aside some land for preservation. In Florida, which has state-wide growth management laws similar to those in Oregon, the main reason voters favor growth controls is to control traffic congestion. Ironically, by mandating more compact development and more urban infill, more traffic is placed on already-congested roads, making traffic problems worse. The emotional responses of voters do not always reflect informed opinion, but even if they did, voters are not voting against urban sprawl or decentralized development. They are voting against traffic congestion and in favor of environmental preservation.

Pope writes as if urban sprawl were about to take over the continent unless swift action is taken through government purchase of land, but the fact is that most of the nation is undeveloped, and the government already owns a huge percentage of the nation’s land area. Most people understandably overestimate the amount of the nation that is developed because most people live in developed areas, but developed areas in the United States, excluding Alaska, are only 6.2 percent of the nation’s total land area (Bureau of the Census 1997, p. 229, table 370), and the federal government is by far the nation’s largest landowner.

Pope speaks favorably about Oregon’s urban growth boundaries, but the federal government owns 60 percent of Oregon’s land area, effectively placing most of Oregon’s land off-limits to developers. In the other states Mr. Pope praised because voters approved land preservation measures, the federal government owns substantial chunks as well. It owns 13.3 percent of New Jersey’s total land area, 7.8 percent of the land in Florida, and 46.9 percent of the land in California (Bureau of the Census 1997, p. 228, table 369). Pope suggests purchasing open space for preservation, but how much more land should be kept out of the hands of private owners?

Pope praises the preservation of farmland, but in my state, Florida, farming is viewed as an environmental menace because of fertilizer runoff from fields. Florida environmentalists are trying to shut down sugar farms near the Everglades even as Pope defends the preservation of farmland. Surely in this case Mr. Pope would side against the farmers, but he should give the same thoughtful attention to urban development patterns as he gives to environmental protection. Decentralized development and detached single family homes are not necessarily a threat to the environment, especially when one considers how much undeveloped land there still is, and how much of our land area already is government-owned.

Pope and I agree that government should not subsidize urban sprawl. He argues that were it not for subsidies, there would be no urban sprawl, but I doubt that. Pope notes that hundreds of years of human history show that, left to its own devices, urban development was dense and centralized. But those hundreds of years of history predated the automobile. Only since World War II has suburban living actually been feasible. I am not arguing in favor of urban sprawl, but in favor of market-determined land-use patterns.

For that reason, I would question Pope’s proposal for collective reinvestment in urban areas. There are good reasons why urban areas have declined. Partly, the decline is due to people wanting to move to more spacious accommodations in the suburbs and, with the automobile, having the opportunity to do so. Partly, it is because misguided policies of city governments place heavy tax and regulatory burdens on city businesses and residents, causing citizens to flee. I favor revitalization efforts focused on reducing government-imposed costs, and I certainly favor private-sector revitalization initiatives. However, I oppose subsidizing urban development for the same reasons that I oppose subsidizing suburban development.

In many ways Pope’s response to my essay on urban sprawl mirrors public opinion on the issue. He does not directly address the features of urban sprawl, but rather discusses environmental preservation and growth controls. My hope is that readers will see that environmental protection is not necessarily at odds with market-determined growth patterns, and, furthermore, that regulations that try to alter growth patterns can have significant unintended negative consequences.


Bureau of the Census. 1997. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1997, 117th ed. Washington, DC.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Professor of Economics at Florida State University and Chairman of the Research Advisory Council of the James Madison Institute. This article is adapted from his book, Public Policy and the Quality of Life, available from Laissez Faire Books for a special price of $9.95 plus $1.50 shipping. Call 800-326-0996 or e-mail, and mention PERC.

Carl Pope is Executive Director of the Sierra Club. Based in San Francisco, he can be reached at For more comments critical of urban sprawl, you may wish to consult the Sierra Club Web site ( and search for “urban sprawl.” For example, an article in the May/June issue of Sierra, “Twelve Gates to the City” by Francesca Lyman, is available on the site. It discusses the “new urbanist” approach to curtailing leapfrog, low-density, and single-dimensional development. The site also has information about the Sierra Club’s “Challenge to Sprawl Campaign.”

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