Make Way for Sprawl

Pietro S. Nivola

A high-level planning commission in America’s largest city issues a warning: Development has “proceeded indiscriminately” on urban fringes. It is threatening “areas which are predominately rural in character” and is “injurious to the central community.”

Sounds a lot like Vice President Al Gore explaining the need for federal incentives to combat sprawl. In fact, the words are those of the New York Regional Plan of 1929.

Concern about the haphazard pattern of urban growth in this country is an old story. So are periodic, and largely quixotic, proposals to undo the pattern. Now from the administration comes a proposal for $9.5 billion in tax-preferred bonds to finance more parks and greenbelts, and protect farmland and wildlife areas from encroachment by suburban subdivisions. Whatever its merits, this “smart” growth scheme, like various others already tried by a number of local governments, is likely to be of modest consequence at best. Here’s why.

Cities can only grow in three directions: in, by crowding; up, into high-rises; or out, to the periphery. The outward mode of growth befits a nation with abundant space, a young and expanding population, plentiful energy resources and a dynamic economy.

New technologies that have helped disperse people and businesses in metropolitan areas caught on rapidly in the United States. By the mid-1920s, well over half of all families in this country owned an automobile. The West Europeans began to reach that level only after World War II. Americans were commuting between dispersed residences and workplaces long before this kind of human ecology was imaginable in other industrial countries. In place for the better part of a century, the decentralized U.S. cityscape is a fact of American life, not a recent trend that can be reversed.

Urban sprawl in the United States is also hard to slow, much less roll back, because numerous government policies actively encourage it. These inducements would have to be removed before a subsidized credit program such as the one Clinton and Gore have proposed could hope to make a perceptible difference.

Consider federal tax policy. The current system hits earnings and savings, while interposing preferences for selected economic activities such as home-buying or the bond issues that finance new sports stadiums, industrial parks and malls. This blend of incentives frequently overstimulates the exodus of population and jobs from central cities to outlying areas.

Why, a family might ask, should we bother to save a lot if our savings are taxed twice, first on our income, then on the interest from that income? Why not pour all of what we do save into as large a dwelling as possible, the mortgage interest on which is deductible? And why search anywhere but in suburbia? After all, that’s where our mortgage will buy more house, as well as where the latest commercial and recreational conveniences are being built. Living in a distant suburb will mean owning several vehicles and driving them more, but this luxury is so lightly taxed it scarcely gives pause.

Or look at government spending on transportation. Almost 85 percent of transportation expenditures are earmarked for roads. This paves the way for sprawl. No policy agenda intended to “bring back” denser cities—through regional planning, community reinvestment, “empowerment zones,” lavish urban renewal projects, mass transit subsidies, and so on—stands a chance when it collides with a juggernaut like last year’s $200 billion highway bill, which seems certain to eviscerate more metropolitan centers and pull new waves of development to their outer reaches.


Plenty of other U.S. policies have scattered households to the edges of metropolitan regions. Mortgage guarantees by the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration facilitated the abandonment of city neighborhoods by subsidizing more than a quarter of all suburban single-family homes built soon after World War II. Meanwhile, the federal public housing program concentrated the urban poor in the inner cities, turning more of them into breeding grounds of social degradation and violence. The effect was to accelerate the flight of middle-class residents from the vicinity of these places to safer locations on the metropolitan fringe.

More recently, a growing tendency of the federal government to impose on localities scores of unfunded mandates—requiring everything from costly “special ed” to separate storm-water sewers—indirectly abets sprawl. Wealthy jurisdictions may easily absorb these added burdens, but fiscally frail central cities often can’t. Forced to raise their local tax rates and cut essential services, these municipalities frequently end up driving more inhabitants and firms away to greener pastures.

Whether urban America’s spread-out style of settlement is a national problem requiring a national solution is a complex and debatable question. To think it through, policymakers will need to ponder a lot more than the Clinton-Gore “Livability” initiative.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.