All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1998

What Is This Thing Called Sprawl?

Debates About Suburbanization Must Be Grounded in Certain Fundamentals

Urban sprawl” is fast becoming the most important issue among so-called “land use” experts and in many state legislatures as well. If it isn’t understood correctly, laws enacted to deal with it are likely to become major threats to both liberty and economic well-being.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the old saying goes. This has never been more apparent than with the sprawl issue. “What you call sprawl, I call home,” a friend who lives in a suburban subdivision told me recently. Lacking a precise, universally accepted definition, what constitutes sprawl is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.

Holly Madill, a Michigan environmentalist writing in the Detroit News last spring, is passionately in the camp of sprawl opponents. She describes it as “the haphazard, unmanaged growth that is replacing our open space and farmland with asphalt and strip malls. . . . It is a threat to many things . . . that we hold dear: forests, wildlife, water, farmland, healthy ecosystems and communities, beautiful scenery and recreational opportunities.”

Supporters of this perspective insist we have a crisis. A 1997 report from the American Farmland Trust estimated that the United States is losing about 50 acres an hour to the growth of suburbia and other forms of economic development.

In contrast, Sam Staley, an Ohio economist, says sprawl is just another name for suburbanization, something that has been going on since the first Puritan settler left downtown Boston to live in the nearby countryside. He describes it as “the ongoing process of families moving outward [from cities] to live . . . in single-family homes,” prompting the construction of businesses and schools and a subsequent decline in farmland and open space. But he doesn’t see it as an inherent threat to civilization. He writes that it is simply the outcome of voluntary exchange and the use of resources for maximum value.

Are these two perspectives irreconcilable? Not necessarily. In fact, there are signs that people of these disparate views are coming together behind at least one principle. More on that in a moment, after a few important observations.

Debates about sprawl, or suburbanization, offer little but noise and emotion if they are not grounded in certain fundamentals. Like it or not, it results from the voluntary decisions of individuals who believe they will ultimately be better off. That’s just as true for the farmer who sells his land as it is for the developer and later the resident who buy it. Depicting sprawl as a “monster” or a “plague on the land” may capture headlines, but it doesn’t inform.

Suburbanization represents a significant improvement in the quality of life for those who make the move: larger houses, more land, safer neighborhoods, and better schools. The only real question seems to be, does sprawl harm other people or society at large because of pollution, traffic, noise, or even a smaller food supply owing to the shrinking farmland.

Those problems have solutions. Free-market economists have shown that both technology and clear definitions and enforcement of property rights can mitigate pollution. If private enterprise owned the roads, or if government did a better job of pricing their use so that users paid their full cost, traffic problems could be greatly ameliorated too. Pollution and traffic usually plague dense inner cities more than suburbia anyway.

As for food, at the same time that people have been gobbling up cropland with their buildings and roads, agricultural productivity has risen dramatically. Americans fed far fewer people when 90 percent of us lived on farms than we feed today with just 3 percent (or less) of us tilling the soil. And in terms of the amount of work required, food is cheaper than ever. The average family spends much less of its income to feed itself than it pays in taxes to feed the government.

The fear of food’s becoming more scarce indicates a misunderstanding of how prices work in free economies. If demand for food goes up at the same time that supply goes down, the inevitable upward pressures on prices would attract both land and profit-seeking people back into agriculture; or it would prompt research on how to obtain higher yields. With so few people producing so much food so cheaply these days, markets are telling us not to worry.

Moreover, economists like Sam Staley point out that it isn’t only the “pull” of suburbia’s attractions that draw people out of the cities. Quite often, it’s the “push” of bad city policies that drives them away. Instead of imposing new restrictions on the suburbs or rural areas, urban sprawl alarmists would do well to encourage American cities to cut their sky-high taxes, deregulate business opportunities, scale back burdensome bureaucracies, reduce crime, and let the market bring choice and competition to poorly performing schools.

These issues are controversial enough to keep both sides in the sprawl debate apart, but the one principle that has great potential to bring them together is this: whatever sprawl is and whether you think it’s good or bad, government should not subsidize it.

The unvarnished truth is that, from roads to sewers, government policies artificially stimulate sprawl at the expense of densely populated areas. “The residents of low-density developments pay taxes,” Phillip J. Longman wrote in U. S. News & World Report in April, “but are rarely charged the full cost of the government services they consume. Instead those costs are usually averaged across a whole region or state, in effect charging the people in the older areas for the costs of sprawl.”

Longman cites the example of a sewage treatment plant recently built by the city of Tallahassee, Florida, for an upscale neighborhood. Actual costs were about $4,447 for the mostly black, inner-city neighborhoods nearest the plant, but were $11,443 for the more exclusive area further away. “Despite this nearly $7,000 difference in real cost, all households pay the same price, about $6,000, for sewer connections,” Longman wrote. The poor get soaked paying part of the sprawl bill for the wealthy.

Recognizing that government’s spending and irrational pricing of its services is a major cause of sprawl, the state of Maryland adopted a bipartisan growth policy. Despite some inherent problems, the law is guided by an important principle: no longer will Maryland use taxpayer money to subsidize growth in rural or suburban areas at the expense of people in the cities. Amen.

Are you concerned about this thing called “urban sprawl”? Fine. Don’t start assaulting people’s liberty and property. Better to devote your time to getting rid of the policies that drive people away from cities and subsidize the suburbs.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is