Curb the Sprawl of the Suburbs

Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University

June 21, 1997

This opinion piece also appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer June 21, 1997

Congress soon will decide how to allocate $175 billion over the next five years to preserve, modernize and expand U.S. highways and transit systems.

This legislation will fundamentally shape the physical form and social fabric of our cities and metropolitan areas for decades. Most significantly, it will help determine whether suburban sprawl—with its profound environmental, social and economic consequences—remains the prevalent development pattern in the early 21st century.

The Washington policy conversation to date has focused little on the question of sprawl. It centers instead on several vital but technical and abstract issues. Should the highway and transit trust funds be on or off budget? Is each state receiving its fair share of federal transportation dollars? These issues are the stuff of Washington policy debates. Yet they do not recognize key changes in the metropolitan communities where 80 percent of Americans now live, work and play.

Metropolitan America is experiencing frighteningly similar patterns of growth and development—explosive sprawl where farmland once stretched, and decline and abandonment in central cities and older suburbs.

Between 1970 and 1990, for example, the population of the Philadelphia metropolitan area increased by only 3.8 percent, but the amount of land in the region used for urban purposes grew by 36 percent. That created a development explosion in the northwestern low-density suburbs.

Sprawl has enormous consequences for all of us, but particularly those left behind in older communities—families in poverty, the elderly, minorities.

About 8 million people now live in neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of the residents are poor—almost double the number in 1970. And their local governments suffer constant drains of taxable resources as more households, firms and jobs move to far suburbs.

For the rest of us, no matter where we live, sprawl also has costs. It diminishes the competitiveness of metropolitan areas, worsens traffic congestion, increases the costs of highways and other infrastructures and abandons assets that still could be used.

These patterns are reversible. They are not the inevitable product of the marketplace and consumer preferences. Rather, sprawl depends on many government subsidies in the form of spending for new roads, sewers, schools, fire and police protection. Without these subsidies, many housing subdivisions, malls and industry on the outer fringe of our metropolitan areas would simply not be economically feasible.

And who helps pay for these subsidies? Often the city and older suburban communities that are the ultimate losers when sprawl takes hold.

After years of silence, diverse local coalitions are now beginning to “get it” and are assessing the role of federal and state money in fueling sprawl and undercutting their own economies.

Mayors of cities and older suburbs are asking why newly developing suburbs are receiving disproportionate shares of federal transportation and state infrastructure funds. Downtown business and civic leaders are questioning the wisdom of providing public subsidies to economic interests that compete with established concerns in older areas.

Farmers and families in small towns are bemoaning the loss of quality of life in rural areas with the onset of people and congestion.

People in metropolitan areas are coming out against sprawl and in favor of preserving open spaces and rebuilding older communities.

Minnesota has upgraded metropolitan governance in the Twin Cities area and has enacted a regional tax-sharing plan to create more equity and stability in paying for services across jurisdictional lines.

Maryland recently enacted a “smart growth” legislative package, which steers billions of state road, sewer and school money away from farms and open spaces to areas targeted for concentrated growth.

Colorado, Delaware and other states are working on alternative versions of smart growth to curb sprawl.

The federal government should be a partner, not just an observer, in these efforts. Here are three simple things that can be done in this year’s transportation bill:

  • Think metropolitan. Congress should preserve and strengthen, not scale back, the metropolitan role in transportation planning and spending. In metropolitan areas, transportation, land use, economic development and environmental issues come together in practical ways.
  • Empower citizens. For all the national talk about “civil society,” basic information about how and where federal funds are spent rarely is shared with the public or presented in a form that average citizens can understand. Congress should require state and metropolitan transportation entities to disclose their spending patterns by political jurisdiction, to use computer mapping tools to illustrate the disparate patterns, and to make such information widely available. Such right-to-know laws already govern housing, banking and environmental areas.
  • Reward smart growth. Congress should reward states and regions that make smart growth a central part of their transportation mission. For example, Congress could provide additional incentives—regulatory relief, supplemental funding—to those communities. Or it could send direct grants to state and metropolitan governments to integrate transportation and land-use planning.

The problems of explosive growth in one half of the region and little growth in the other are inextricably linked, and must be solved together.

© Copyright 1997, The Philadelphia Inquirer