Moving Beyond Sprawl: Toward a Broader Metropolitan Agenda

Amy Liu and
Amy Liu Headshot
Amy Liu Deputy Director - Metropolitan Policy Program

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

March 1, 2000

In the past few years, widespread frustration with sprawling development patterns has precipitated an explosion in metropolitan thinking and action across the United States. A new policy language—”smart growth,” “livable communities,” “metropolitanism,” “sustainable development”—has emerged to describe efforts to curb sprawl, preserve open space, and balance growth and is now common not only among political, civic, and corporate leaders, but also among developers and others in the real estate industry.

The involvement of governors and state legislatures in smart growth efforts has been particularly noteworthy. Since 1997, states have made progress on several fronts, including growth management, infrastructure policy, metropolitan governance, and land acquisition. Tennessee, for example, recently became the eleventh state to direct local governments in managing growth. Both New Jersey and Maryland channel transportation and other state spending back into older communities. Georgia created a regional transportation authority in Atlanta with sweeping powers over transportation and air quality. In 1998, New Jersey voters approved a $1 billion, 10-year plan to conserve a million acres of open space.

The metropolitan reforms taking hold in state legislatures and elsewhere are ambitious and will alter some of the government policies that have spurred the decentralization of economic and residential life in America. But will they be enough to tame sprawl and help shape an alternative form of growth? The discussion to date has focused mainly on the negative consequences—the symptoms—of rapid growth: traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, diminishing open space. Rarely mentioned are other factors, such as school quality and the location of affordable housing, that influence where families choose to live and businesses choose to locate.

This raises an intriguing set of questions. What is the full range of forces that shape metropolitan growth? To what extent does today’s metropolitan agenda address the major factors driving current growth patterns? What other issues do metropolitan areas (and the federal and state governments) need to address to grow smarter?

How Metropolitan America Grows: The Greater Washington Example

To answer these questions, the Brookings Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy is working with local scholars to examine growth patterns in the Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas. Early findings of our analysis of Greater Washington are particularly instructive.

Greater Washington spans two states, one federal district, and nine local jurisdictions. The area prospered in the 1990s and now boasts a booming high-technology sector. But some side effects have been unwelcome. The metropolitan region is the second most congested in the country, trailing only Los Angeles. Loudoun County (in Virginia) is the nation’s third fastest growing county and expects to build 22 new schools in the next six years. The metropolitan area is losing 10,300 acres a year to development.

Congestion, school overcrowding, loss of open space—these are the elements usually associated with metropolitan growth. Yet the Greater Washington study found the causes and consequences of growth more complex than generally portrayed. The region is starkly divided by race, income, jobs, and opportunity. Economic and residential growth have been highly uneven, favoring one portion of the region over another. The eastern half of the region, particularly the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County, Maryland, bears the burden of poverty and social distress; the western half, notably the north and west of the central city, as well as Fairfax, Montgomery, and Loudoun counties, enjoys most of the fruits of prosperity.

The divisions in the region do not follow the traditional “city versus suburb” paradigm. Because the rough dividing line cuts through many counties and the central city itself, it is not simply a matter of strong suburbs surrounding a weak city, or even of strong outer suburbs ringing a weak urban and inner suburban core. The District of Columbia, for example, has within its borders both affluent neighborhoods richly endowed with jobs and the region’s largest concentration of poor families and welfare recipients. Many suburban counties face the same economic and social divisions.

And the divide is growing. The population of Greater Washington grew from 3.8 million in 1990 to 4.3 million in 1998, with most growth occurring in the region’s western counties. Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia gained respectively 82,000 people (a 13.5 percent increase) and 58,000 people (a 67 percent increase). Montgomery County in Maryland gained 84,000 people (a 10 percent increase). The District of Columbia lost 87,000 residents (down 14 percent).

Increasingly the region’s jobs are located not just outside the central city but beyond the traditional urbanized area as well. As of June 1998, the District had a quarter of the region’s jobs—down from a third in 1990—while the suburbs outside the Capital Beltway had half of all regional jobs and two-thirds of all suburban jobs.

While jobs have moved westward, lower-income and minority families have tended to stay in the east. In 1996, for example, the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County had 70 percent of the region’s black population and 57 percent of the nonwhite population, but only 32 percent of the total population. In May 1999, 64 percent of the region’s welfare recipients lived in the District, 15 percent in Prince George’s County.

Because school populations tend to mirror those of their neighborhoods, most schools with large shares of students from poor families are in the east. Of the 75 public schools with more than three-quarters of their students eligible for subsidized lunches in 1996, all but three were in eastern D.C. Of the 53 public schools with roughly half to three-quarters of students eligible for subsidized lunches, 39 were in older suburban neighborhoods, including 20 in Prince George’s County.

The Greater Washington study reveals a wealthy metropolitan area out of balance, struggling with the consequences of little growth on one side and extraordinary growth on the other. As Myron Orfield, David Rusk, and others have illustrated, divisive growth patterns repeat themselves throughout the country.

These out-of-balance growth patterns are inextricably linked. Poor schools in one jurisdiction push out families and lead to overcrowded schools in other places. A lack of affordable housing in thriving job centers leads to long commutes on crowded freeways for a region’s working families. Expensive housing—out of the reach of most households—in many close-in suburbs creates pressures to pave over and build on open space in outlying areas.

This analysis yields several conclusions about the policies that shape a region. First, the location of affordable housing is crucial to metropolitan growth patterns. Low-income families in Greater Washington live in the east because they cannot afford housing elsewhere. Subsidized housing is confined mostly to distressed inner-city and older suburban neighborhoods, and wealthier suburbs limit affordable housing within their borders. The lack of affordable housing is also a problem for middle-class families. The dearth of housing for middle-income families, especially in centrally located areas on the west side, drives these families to the region’s edge and fuels development of the outer suburbs.

Second, the composition of schools affects metropolitan growth. Because of the strong correlation between a school’s share of low-income students and its students’ performance on standardized tests—the higher the share of low-income students, the lower the test scores—families with the means to do so leave poorer neighborhoods in search of more solidly middle-class schools. Their departure further weakens declining communities and creates more pressures on rapidly developing outer suburbs.

Federal and state spending programs, tax expenditures, and regulatory and administrative policies shape metropolitan growth patterns. Most highway funds in Greater Washington have been invested in the growing western suburbs, hastening decentralization without resolving the traffic problems faced by older communities. Although substantial resources have gone to expanding the area’s Metrorail system, the benefits from this investment have been blunted by the rapidly decentralizing economy. Low-income workers without cars face a bewildering array of bus schedules and rail transfers to get from their homes in the east to the job-rich west, making these commutes unsustainable for many families.

Federal programs can also exacerbate the concentration of the poor. The housing voucher program, which now subsidizes rents for thousands of low-income families in Greater Washington, is administered by 10 separate bureaucracies. Although the housing market is fundamentally metropolitan in nature, such governmental fragmentation makes it hard for low-income recipients to understand, let alone exercise choice in, that market.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The current smart growth discussion must move beyond questions of traffic congestion and the loss of open space to take into account the full array of forces that drive growth in some parts of a region and not in others. To curb sprawl and balance growth, regions must wrestle, first of all, with the problem of affordable housing. The challenge is particularly vexing because of persistent racial and ethnic discrimination in the marketplace. But public programs and policies, federal, state, and local, have also impeded housing mobility and choice.

The first step for metropolitan areas is to produce and preserve affordable housing in suburban communities. Since the mid-1970s, for example, Maryland’s Montgomery County has required new housing developments to make 15 percent of their units affordable to moderate-income families. This effort has allowed many communities to enjoy a reasonable level of economic integration without any apparent negative effect on housing values or the county’s economic growth.

Governance of the federal housing voucher program must shift to the metropolitan level. Competitions should be held to determine what kind of entity (whether public, for-profit, nonprofit, or a combination thereof) can do what it takes to make this program work, from counseling voucher recipients about housing choices, to recruiting new landlords to increase the supply of housing, to working with suburban churches and civic groups to place recipients who want to move.

Second, metropolitan areas must make education a high regional priority. To some extent, making all schools in a region competitive and attractive depends on success in the housing arena. Creating stable, mixed-income neighborhoods will lead to a more diverse mix of students in many elementary and secondary schools. Urban school reformers would be wise to make those linkages explicit as they struggle to reform systems tasked with educating an overwhelming proportion of a region’s poor children.

Recent efforts by some state legislatures and by the judiciary to ensure funding equity between school jurisdictions also have enormous implications for metropolitan areas, where large fiscal disparities exist between central cities, declining older suburbs, and tax-wealthy developing suburbs.

The private and nonprofit sectors can also contribute. Corporations and philanthropic foundations can go beyond their laudable investments in technology, tutoring, and after-school programs in individual urban schools to make collective regional investments in reforms to turn around urban school systems.

Third, transportation strategies need rethinking. Although some states and regions are becoming aware of the spatial distribution (and economic and environmental impact) of highway spending, transportation reforms have not gone far enough. States and metropolitan areas need to connect their evolving plans for infrastructure investment with the discordant realities of land use patterns. The pattern of low-density settlement and the emergence of an “exit ramp” economy make the private automobile the only realistic form of transportation for most people. Keeping residential, commercial, office, and industrial land uses separate has all but dictated congestion. Only by strengthening the central city and remaking the suburbs—by creating greater residential density in some areas, by clustering different forms of development to make transit and other transportation alternatives feasible—can we move beyond sprawl. In Atlanta, for example, BellSouth will soon consolidate 75 dispersed offices, with 13,000 workers, into three centers within the beltway that are easily accessible by mass transit for employees in both the fast-growing north and the less affluent south.

Transportation strategies must meet the real needs of firms and workers in rapidly decentralizing economies. In Washington, D.C., as in other metropolitan areas, express bus service from labor markets in central cities to job centers in suburbs is rare. Washington, D.C., and some states are using demonstrations to test reverse-commute routes, but the challenge is to design mainstream transportation strategies that provide reliable and timely access to jobs for low-income workers.

Chicago has one successful reverse-commute bus system. Since 1986, the PACE system has been running buses from Chicago to suburban office parks, malls, and other work sites. It makes about 25,000 trips a day on more than 1,000 buses and vans and is augmented by private firms such as Suburban Job Link, which provides central city workers reliable transportation to (and job training for) firms near O’Hare Airport.

Finally, regional economic development strategies can leverage local and regional assets and improve the economic competitiveness of the entire region and its parts. The challenges of little growth in some communities have been seen by leaders in other jurisdictions as specifically urban or local rather than regional issues, even though conditions in distressed communities powerfully affect growth in metropolitan areas. A metropolitan economic development strategy is the natural outgrowth of metropolitan transportation activities. It can promote reinvestment in the central city and older suburbs and strengthen ties among all jurisdictions in the region. These options complement, not supplant, more conventional reinvestment strategies pursued by local governments.

Metropolitan economic development could take many forms. For instance, metropolitan areas could pool tax resources to pay for specific projects, particularly those that strengthen the economic position of the central city. Pittsburgh and Denver have used regional tax revenues to fund projects, like sports stadiums, cultural institutions, and zoos, that can anchor a downtown revitalization strategy and leverage other urban reinvestment efforts.

Or metropolitan areas could design tax-sharing schemes to reduce the fiscal inequities between separate municipalities. Since the 1970s, Minnesota has maintained tax base sharing for the Twin Cities region, dedicating 40 percent of the net gain in the area’s commercial and industrial development to a metropolitan pool and distributing funds to communities based on their comparative commercial and industrial values. Such redistribution is not only socially and politically healthy for a region; it also discourages wasteful public subsidies to lure businesses from cities to suburbs and vice versa.

States and metropolitan areas could also promote broader regional partnerships. In Seattle, for example, government, business, and civic leaders come together to discuss regional trade challenges, explore strategic options, and visit leading regions at home and abroad. In a globalizing economy, such partnerships help reinforce the corporate stake in particular places and regions.

As a fourth option, regional leaders could also establish joint business improvement districts (“BIDs”) for commercial corridors that cross jurisdictional lines. Many cities have created BIDs downtown and in other defined market areas. The BIDs give local merchants a forum to design and implement collective strategies on infrastructure repair, community policing, workforce development, and regulatory issues. Sometimes local jurisdictions grant special tax and other powers to such entities to leverage private-sector engagement and direction.

A Broader Agenda

Sprawl is a simple term but a complex phenomenon. If American metropolitan areas are to experience a new kind of growth, leaders and citizens alike need to develop policy solutions that reflect the many forces driving development patterns.

The metropolitan agenda as currently defined is a big step in the right direction. It will alter some government policies, such as the lack of sensible land use restrictions and uneven highway spending, that have subsidized and facilitated sprawl.

Yet the current agenda is too limited in scope and application. It ignores the other side of the metropolitan equation: pervasive patterns of class and racial separation, of social and economic exclusion, of failing schools and economic disinvestment. It ignores the government policies that limit affordable housing in the suburbs, help concentrate poverty in the cities, and impede access to opportunity.

Sprawl, in the end, is not just about too much growth. It is also about too little growth in many parts of metropolitan America. Understanding that linkage and bridging that divide is the key to resolving some of our major social and economic challenges.