The Small Problem of Suburban Sprawl

As America’s population nears 300 million, she faces the small problem of suburban sprawl. Why small? Because contrary to the impression made by the mainstream media, environmentalists, and suburban home-owners opposed to letting others become suburban home-owners, sprawl is consuming a tiny fraction of America’s land. The hysterically environmentalist Sierra Club estimated a few years ago that developers build on an additional 400,000 acres of land annually (they since inflated their estimate since it apparently wasn’t scary enough). That is 0.02% of America’s land area.

Thus, over the next 50 years, sprawl will consume an additional 1% of American land. This is less than a crisis.

Right now, only 4.7% of America is built up (20% is farmland). Many forget that as more and more people move to growing metropolitan areas, America’s small towns and rural areas continue to empty out, freeing up land in some areas just as land is developed in others.

In addition, sprawl is becoming more efficient. Between 1950 and 1990, metropolitan land use increased by 66% while the number of people living in metro areas grew by 89%. Americans are consuming less and less space per capita. And since 1990, many states and localities have imposed “smart growth” policies that direct developers to redevelop land rather than build on virgin soil and employ more efficient building patterns. In addition, the rise in real estate prices of recent years has prompted people to make better use of this resource.

Other techniques have been and will continue to be employed in mitigating the effects of sprawl. More people commute suburb-to-suburb instead of into choked cities. The Internet and e-mail enable a growing number of people to avoid commuting at all, and even to avoid sprawl: They continue to work for city-based companies while living in the countryside, keeping in touch via phone, fax, e-mail, Internet, and occasional package shipping as America’s free market has reduced the costs of each one to easily affordable levels.

Most of those reading this who reside in metropolitan areas will think something along these lines: “How can this be true? I have seen a huge amount of development in my area in the past few years. The roads are much more congested than they were ten years ago. My friends in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Washington say the same about their areas.”

Such perceived suburban sprawl is then used as an argument to push the American subset of the overpopulation myth, the idea that our country has become too crowded. Yet the fact remains that sprawl is taking up only a tiny proportion of our land. According to the United Nations, the United States’ population density is 31 people per square kilometer, well below the world average of 48 and far below those of comparable nations in Western Europe, almost all of whose population densities are more than triple our own. The UN projects that our population density will reach a still-small 41 by 2050. In contrast, right now, Britain’s is 246 and France’s is 110.

So any problems from suburban sprawl cannot result from too many people overall or too much land development overall. Sprawl is simply too small a problem for that. In fact, sprawl is too small a problem to afflict the United States overall: Since such a small amount of land, almost always next to previously developed land (developers rarely start building in virgin forest miles from any city), is affected, sprawl is not directly affecting the USA as a whole. Whether population growth, separate from sprawl, is adversely affecting America is a topic for a future article.

Yet poorly planned sprawl can adversely affect the areas in which it occurs. Gripped by environmentalist-based anti-car fervor, states and localities slackened their road-building decades ago — and after all, roads without tolls don’t generate income for local governments whereas businesses and homes can be taxed. Both mass transit rail and bus systems lose money, making them another drag on localities’ finances. It is this failure to plan roads and mass transit that has most obviously degraded the quality of life in areas with substantial amounts of sprawl. (Note: Pollution emitted by cars has dropped dramatically over the past 40 years, making the increasing number of vehicles on the road an ever-shrinking environmental concern.)

It’s true, too, that many schools are overcrowded. This again is a failure of local governments to plan for growth that everyone knew was coming. With more people come more taxpayers to pay for more schools and roads; it is not as if population growth didn’t increase the tax base. If much of population growth is due to illegal immigrants who don’t pay taxes and commit a disproportionately large amount of crime, well, that’s not a problem with the size of population per se, but with the kind of people who live in an area — and is due to the deliberate failure of the federal government to secure America’s borders.

And what of the advantages of sprawl? Sprawl allows more American families to live in detached homes with yards. It allows people to move out of unsafe cities with incompetent governments and schools to safe areas with better-run institutions. These are major advantages. A longer commute is a trade-off. And those who wish can still live in the city, a legitimate freedom to choose.