By Stan Holt
Sprawl, “the spread of cities […] propelled by the impetus of depopulating large, congested, polluted, and crime-ridden industrial cities,” continues to expand across the United States (Neuman 15). Environmental responsibility and economic freedom are opposing ideas argued in an attempt to approach a practical and timely resolution to sprawl. Those in favor of environmental responsibility advocate Smart Growth while those advocating economic freedom oppose it. Due to an increasing scarcity in preserved land regions, an ethical debate among public policy planners, environmentalists, and land developers is brewing. Economic freedom, human responsibility to the environment, and property ownership are rights and ideologies that have become threatened and, consequently, are pivotal issues of concern in this dilemma.
In order to grasp a thorough understanding of sprawl and smart growth, it is important to define them. An article published for the Fannie Mae Foundation entitled “Housing Facts and Findings” defines urban sprawl as “one name for many conditions.” According to this article, sprawl “has been attached to patterns of residential and nonresidential land use, the process of extending the reach of urbanized areas (UAs), the causes of particular practices of land use, and the consequences of those practices.” Sprawl has been “denounced on […] efficiency, equity and environmental grounds.” Smart Growth focuses its attention on “town-centered” areas, “is transit and pedestrian oriented, and has a greater mix of housing, commercial and retail uses. It also preserves open space and many other environmental amenities” (Smart Growth Online). In addition “Smart growth invests time, attention, and resources in restoring community and vitality to center cities and older suburbs” (Smart Growth Online).
Smart growth attempts to address detrimental side effects experienced by society created by sprawl. These issues include transportation problems (automobile dependency, insufficient and inefficient public transportation), environmental concerns (an expectation of scarce preserved land, pollution), and health issues (inactivity from automobile dependency, inhalation of smog). In an attempt to solve specific, problematic issues of sprawl, creators of smart growth formulated the following ten principles and goals:
- Mix Land Uses
Smart growth supports the integration of mixed land uses into communities as a critical component of achieving better places to live. This includes incorporating commercial developments near residential areas to maximize land plots.
- Take Advantage of Compact Building Design
Smart growth provides a means for communities to incorporate more compact building design as an alternative to conventional, land consumptive development.
- Create Range of Housing Opportunities and Choices
Providing quality housing for people of all income levels is an integral component in any smart growth strategy.
- Create “Walkable” Neighborhoods
“Walkable” communities are desirable places to live, work, learn, worship, and play, and therefore a key component of smart growth.”
- Foster Distinctive, Attractive Communities with a Strong Sense of Place
Smart growth encourages communities to craft a vision and set standards for development and construction which respond to community values of architectural beauty and distinctiveness, while expanding choices in housing and transportation.
- Preserve Open Space, Farmland, Natural Beauty and Critical Environmental Areas
Open space preservation supports smart growth goals by bolstering local economies, preserving critical environmental areas, and improving our communities’ quality of life.
- Strengthen and Direct Development Towards Existing Communities
Smart growth directs development towards existing communities already served by infrastructure, seeking to utilize the resources that existing neighborhoods offer, and conserve open space and irreplaceable natural resources on the urban fringe.
- Provide a Variety of Transportation Choices
Providing people with more choices in transportation is a key aim of smart growth.
- Make Development Decisions Predictable, Fair and Cost Effective
For a community to be successful in implementing smart growth, it must be embraced by the private sector.
- Encourage Community and Stakeholder Collaboration
Growth can create great places to live, work and play—if it responds to a community’s own sense of how and where it wants to grow.
Although smart growth attempts to control sprawl with intriguing ideas, evidence supporting practicality and sustainability is lacking. Hence, various planners, developers, and homebuyers reject numerous smart growth principles. Additionally, smart growth, if adopted by the government, would lead to poor public policy; its components are contradictory to the freedoms of capitalism, the basic laws of supply and demand, and to consumer sovereignty. While smart growth provides a limited number of ideas on how to control the nationwide problem of sprawl, they are too restrictive to be accepted at the city, state, or federal level as public planning policy.
One solution to sprawl that smart growth advocates is to build high-density housing through Compact Building Design (principle number two). Often times, high-density housing is achieved in urban areas through remodeling existing buildings. In the process, this redevelopment enables conservation of undeveloped open space. However, proponents realize that new buildings must be constructed due to an expected population increase. The US Census Bureau projects that the number of people living in the United States will exceed 419 million—an additional 126 million people—by 2050 (Cooper). To cope with this increase, smart growth would emphasize high-density buildings as a means of creating strong community relations. They reason that densely populated areas would allow for an increase in the sense of unity.
But numerous communities that must be redeveloped have higher crime rates due to a declining tax base: “as people and wealth leave the city, its property values decline, tax rates increase, services decline, and social problems and crime often increase” (DeGraaf). These communities do not have sufficient tax-generated revenues to subsidize necessary public programs or local law enforcement. Many homeowners feel safer in suburban areas, gated communities, or homes hidden from beaten paths and high traffic areas. For most families, safety is paramount when a decision is made concerning community and homeownership.
Many people are also discouraged from buying into the high-density idea for fear of losing appreciation. Construction of high-density housing sometimes requires that as much as 30 percent of a building is designated as low income. As a result, low-income housing must have stable prices that rarely fluctuate. This allows people of low socioeconomic status the opportunity to consistently purchase homes in a specific building. Because purchase prices are stable, it is difficult for other units in the same building to show a significant increase in value. Individuals and their families concerned with buying a house, waiting for its value to rise, then selling it for a profit, would not find the challenges smart growth presents to this economy appealing.
Sprawl has been credited with the creation of serious health issues, resulting from auto-dependency and lack of physical activity. Smart growth activists believe that “walkable” communities (principle number four) are important to new and redeveloped areas. One critic of sprawl exclaims that “it is estimated that physical inactivity and obesity are contributing factors in 300,000 to 500,000 deaths each year in the US” (DeGraaf).
But is sprawl really to blame for the physical inactivity of American citizens? High-density buildings, which do not necessarily have yards or play areas for physical activity, are the types of solutions smart growth encourages. It seems counter-intuitive to neglect regions where physically activities can be performed.
As mentioned previously, transportation concerns have also plagued cities as an effect of sprawl. Smart growth proponents want to gradually increase reliance on mass transit. But this strips Americans of the freedom an automobile provides. In addition, the budget to implement a structured network of public transportation can cost billions in taxpayer money.
Another misconception of smart growth is that if mixed-use developments are constructed, people living in them will work in the immediate surrounding area. Smart growth advocates believe “mismatching,” a term to describe the problem that exists between the location of workers and the proximity of available jobs that match those workers’ skills, would be solved with mixed-use developments. But individuals may not desire or necessarily qualify for the available jobs neighboring their homes. The industries that develop near residences may not be well suited for the community that immediately surrounds it.
According to an article in the CQ Researcher, Samuel R. Staley, President of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, makes a case against smart growth in the conclusion of his article by arguing the following:
Local policymakers should be cautious about adopting smart-growth principles too quickly. Housing options become scripted by state and regional planners, not the decisions of thousands of households haggling with developers and real-estate agents in the local housing market. The result could be less affordable, less competitive communities and neighborhoods. (Staley)
In sum, there are a variety of problems with smart growth which include impractical ideologies that are unrealistic and difficult to implement. Smart growth, if adopted as public policy, would challenge fundamental economic principles, such as consumer sovereignty, which are core to the market system in the United States. Americans enjoy residences with yards for their children to play in, located in safe neighborhoods away from the negative aspects that come along with central downtown cities and urban areas. Supply and demand proves this fact because developers continue to build single-family homes and sell them easily, often before the construction phase is even complete.
About the Author:
Stan Holt majors in Psychology and would like to add Business Administration with a concentration in Real Estate Development. His dream job is to coach college basketball here at USC. Outside of school, Stan loves to spend time with his family, play basketball, read, and go to SC football and basketball games.
- Cooper, Mary “Smart Growth” The CQ Researcher Online. May 2004: 469-492. 7 Oct. 2005.
- Dear, Michael, et al. Up Against the Sprawl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
- DeGraaf, Don, et al. “A New Perspective on Urban Spaces.” Parks and Recreation August 2005: 56-64.
- Galster, George, et al. “Wrestling Sprawl to the Ground: Defining and Measuring an Elusive Concept.” Housing Facts and Findings Winter 2000. 7 Oct. 2005. Available here.
- Neuman, Michael. “The Compact City Fallacy.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 2005: 11-26.
- O’Toole, Randal. The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths: How Smart Growth Will Harm Urban Cities. Bandon: Thoreau Institute, 2001.
- Smart Growth Online. The Smart Growth Network. Nov. 2003. 7 Oct 2005. Available here.
- Staley, Samuel R. “Pro/Con: Are Smart Growth Policies the Best Solution for Suburban Sprawl?” The CQ Researcher Online. 2004. 4 Oct. 2005.
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