Tuesday, January 17, 2012

All Sprawl is Not Created Equal

The ever-generous Matt Festa (of Land Use Prof fame) recently sent me a link to a blog post about sprawl in the Pittsburgh area.  The main thrust of the story is that Pittsburgh has been very, very naughty; Over the last 70 years, the city's urban footprint has tripled while the population has remained constant.  For the author of the post, this is the very essence of "bad" urban sprawl.




Since I'm contractually obligated to say nice things about my hometown, I want to argue that the criticism is (mostly) misguided.  It's true that Pittsburgh has spread out over the last few decades, and it's equally true that a lot of the new construction looks like classic McMansiony suburbs.  But that development isn't entirely bad and, moreover, it doesn't tell the whole story.

The new spawl-y construction isn't an altogether awful thing because a lot of Pittsburgh's urban housing was of terrible quality.  Many of the old stock houses in the city limits are extremely narrow row houses that aren't completely suited for modern living.  Remember, too, this was a place that was once described as "Hell With the Lid Off."  Kids got sent home from school because the coal dust in the air was too thick.  It makes perfect sense that many families wanted to get away from the worst of the smog, and the crowding, and the flooding along the rivers. Sprawl, at least in Pittsburgh, reduced the amount of total human suffering.

Perhaps more importantly, the growth of housing options has kept real estate prices within the city remarkably low.  Pittsburgh, unlike most cities, has a bevy of walkable urban neighborhoods that remain affordable.  From my vantage point, this is key.  If some rich people want to live far away from the central city in ugly, soul-crushing places, they should have the option to do that.  I'm way more concerned with the housing options for people on the bottom and it seems clear that some amount of sprawl preserves more and better choices for people on the lower rungs.   

Steve Clowney


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Steve, you are one of a tiny handful of people who "gets it". Stay active on this issue and this point. Every city with growth controls has inflated urban land prices. The land inflates in value but the structures on the land do not. Land values slope up from fringe to centre of a city. The inflation in price raises this land value curve across its entire length. The inflation actually means LESS people can afford to locate centrally than BEFORE the land prices were inflated.
The planners will tell you that people can save on transport costs what they pay extra to locate near a centre (assuming they work there - a large majority of workers do NOT). But this was true BEFORE the planners inflated land prices; by inflating land prices, they have ONLY DECREASED the number of people who MIGHT have located where the planners wanted.

Posted by: Phil from NZ | Jan 18, 2012 8:37:02 PM

As I can say about respecting property rights with the title in your blog, "All Sprawl is Not Created Equal". I believe it is true that there should be known publicly, even though it could be difficult to explain how - I suspect ideological motivations behind the antagonism against it.

Also, what concerns me is that criticisms against so-called "sprawl" are like telling a lie to those who purchase a particular real estate in a particular location. Can you please give me proof, sir? Thank you.

Posted by: JPK | Jan 20, 2012 3:30:54 PM

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