Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Reynolds on Bruegmann on Sprawl

Glenn Reynolds has posted a review of Breugmann's book on sprawl.  I'd welcome additional comments, but many of the comments to this post would seem to apply here, as would much of the content of Kurt Paulsen and Michael Lewyn's discussion of sprawl here and here.

Hat tip:  Rick Garnett at PrawfsBlawg.

Ben Barros

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Nothing very interesting there.

The pro-sprawl arguments described in the Reynolds piece seem to fall into three categories:

1. "There's sprawl everywhere." This argument rests on a complete insensitivity to differences of degree. There are suburbs in Paris and there are suburbs in Detroit. But in Detroit, the suburbs have become the only way for most people to have a civilized, safe existence, while in Paris they are merely a lifestyle option. Clearly, the latter situation creates more individual choice than the former.

To justify sprawl on the ground that it exists everywhere is like saying that we should do nothing about terrorism in Iraq because after all, terrorism is everywhere and thus inevitable. The flaw in the argument is: terrorism is far more frequent and lethal in Iraq than in London or New York or Paris.

2. "Sprawl helps the poor by making houses cheaper." This argument overlooks the negative effects of sprawl upon the poor - that is, that sprawl actually hurts the carless poor and disabled by locking people without cars out of labor markets and civic amenities. Sprawl also hurts the urban poor by trapping them in municipalities with inadequate tax bases, few jobs, and inadequate government services- places like East St. Louis, Illinois and Camden, New Jersey.

And sprawl doesn't make houses cheaper, either. The absence of land use regulation makes houses cheaper. But land use regulation is more often pro-sprawl than anti-sprawl, reducing densities and thus strangling housing supply.

And under certain conditions, sprawl gives us the worst of both worlds: suburbs too expensive for the poor, combined with nosediving housing values in low-income areas- not a good thing if you live in a place like Cleveland or Buffalo, where if you bought a bungalow 20 years ago in what was then a lower-middle-class neighborhood and what is now a slum, your house is virtually worthless.

And of course, argument 1 contradicts argument 2. Argument 1 suggests that sprawl is everywhere and thus unavoidable. Argument 2, by contrast, suggests that sprawl is something that only happens in cheap housing markets such as Knoxville (as opposed to more expensive markets such as San Diego).

3. "The only people who worry about sprawl are suburbanites who want to keep the poor out of suburbs." This is just an ad hominem argument - arguing against the person rather than the argument. And the argument is factually incorrect. I live 5 blocks from the White House, and here I am inveighing against sprawl.

And of course, what is seductive about the ad hominem pro-sprawl argument is that it can be used against anyone. If the middle-class urbanite (like me) worries about sprawl, its just proof of how out of touch with reality those intown blue-state hipsters are. If a civil rights advocate complains about the inequities caused by sprawl, its just proof that those evil liberals want to desegregate our suburbs so their welfare-bum clients can ruin them. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Posted by: Michael Lewyn | Dec 13, 2005 11:12:37 AM

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