Monday, December 12, 2005

Sprawl Part I: What is Sprawl, and Why is it Bad?

Inspired by a chain of comments on a post that I made a few weeks ago, I asked Michael Lewyn (George Washington Law School) and Kurt Paulsen (Temple University Urban Planning) if they would be willing to participate in an on-line discussion of sprawl, its causes, and its potential cures.  When both graciously agreed, I posed the following questions to them:  (1) What exactly is sprawl, and why is it bad?  Put another way, how can you distinguish between sprawl (bad) and growth (maybe bad, maybe good)? (2) What creates sprawl? (3) Can we do anything about it?  Below I’ve posted their response to the first question.  Their lengthier responses to the other questions are here.  Both Lewyn and Paulsen provided their responses without seeing the other’s response.  My hope is that they will continue the discussion in the comments, joined by anyone else who wants to participate.  Please note:  Because this site uses moderated comments, all comments are held for my approval.  So there will be some delay before your comment is posted.

Ben Barros

What exactly is sprawl, and why is it bad?  Put another way, how can you distinguish between sprawl (bad) and growth (maybe bad, maybe good)?

Michael Lewyn:

Sprawl is a term commonly used to describe one or both of the following phenomena:

1) Development far beyond a region's historic core- in other words, WHERE we develop.

This type of sprawl is NOT growth.  Growth is an increase in the number of people in a place. Sprawl is just the redistribution of those people from one place to another.  In most of the Sun Belt, you have sprawl AND growth. But in Buffalo or St. Louis, you have sprawl WITHOUT growth.

2) Development that is extremely automobile-oriented (usually due to street patterns and/or design that discourage walking, very low density, etc.)- in other words, HOW we develop.

Sometimes people use the term "sprawl" to describe (1) only (as in "The vitality of our older neighborhoods is being threatened by sprawl.")

Sometimes people use the term to describe (2) only (as in "Downtown Bethesda is very nice, but once you get north of X Avenue, its just pure sprawl out there.")

Often, (1) and (2) go together.

In my humble opinion, the most serious problems arising from sprawl are as follows.

First, people too old/young/poor/disabled for the dominant auto-oriented lifestyle are shut out of economic and civic life.   Even in our auto-oriented society, 1/3 of Americans don't have a drivers' license due to youth or disability, and some unknown number of the other 2/3 can't exactly drive due to poverty, disability, etc.  Freezing these people out of the mainstream of American life is just not right, and leads to wasted lives that generally reduce social welfare.

Second, sprawl eliminates individual choice as to the people who can drive.  If Oklahoma passed a law saying "every human being physically capable of doing so has to spend $X,000 on a car to get a job or live in neighborhood X or go to school X" we would, I think, all recognize that law as a serious imposition on individual freedom.  To reach the same result through dozens of seemingly unrelated laws is equally despotic.  (And as a subset of this, I think my personal quality of life is worse in places where I am subject to this "law.")

There are also a variety of environmental arguments against sprawl (relating to air and water pollution, traffic congestion, global warming, etc.).  I think these arguments are less compelling because they involve difficult scientific judgments.  For example, I don't think I am qualified to have an informed opinion about (a) the seriousness of global warming or (b) whether a less "sprawling" American lifestyle would reduce pollution enough to make global warming less serious.

Kurt Paulsen:

First, a disclaimer:  much of what I have to say in this and following posts summarizes  the work of people far more intelligent than I.  Without implicating them in my errors, I borrow ideas from:  Jan Brueckner, William Fischel, George Galster, Ed Glaeser, Mark Alan Hughes, Jonathan Levine, Stephen Malpezzi, and Richard Voith.

A survey of all Americans regarding land use would probably reveal the following  results.  There are two types of land use patterns which nobody likes: one is called "sprawl" and the other is "density".

There has been a flurry of academic activity of late to define and measure "sprawl."  The reason "sprawl" is such a popular term is that everyone can make it mean whatever they want it to mean.  We all agree that, since "sprawl" is a pejorative term, sprawl is bad.  But, you see, what we have here (as opposed to over there) isn't sprawl.  I am not the first to make the connection, but it bears repeating that "sprawl" as a term is like the famous definition of pornography – one can't define it, but one knows it when one sees it. 

As an academic, I avoid the term sprawl because of its plasticity, lack of specific definition, and non-neutrality.  The best definition I have seen of sprawl comes from Prof. Jan Brueckner at the University of Illinois, defining sprawl as "excessive spatial growth of cities."  This definition, of course, begs further elaboration as to the nature of suburbanization and when it becomes "excessive."

Many definitions conflate cause, effect and characteristics of sprawl.  For example, one of the most common definitions of sprawl within my field (urban and regional planning) is low-density, auto-dependent, fragmented land use patterns (including "leap-frog", commercial strip, and single use zoning).  This definition conflates cause and effect.  For example, is auto-dependence (or, more precisely, dependence on single-occupancy privately owned automobiles for journey-to-work trips) a cause of sprawl, a consequence of sprawl or simply a necessary characteristic of sprawl?  One of the hottest topics in urban planning research is the land use-transportation connection, which attempts to answer the question: what is the effect of urban form (land use patterns) on travel behavior?  It is fair to say that we are not even close to a consensus answer.  I therefore prefer to leave the question of auto-dependence aside in definitions of sprawl, and focus on sprawl as a characteristic of land use patterns.

Defined as excessive, exclusionary suburbanization, sprawl is bad because it is overly land consumptive and therefore environmentally destructive.  The numerous environmental consequences of "sprawl" include habitat fragmentation, forest fragmentation, soil erosion, water quality, water quantity, stormwater runoff, increased impervious surface, and the like.  Sprawl is also bad because it unjustly creates segregation by race and class and an unequal geography of opportunity.

[Comments are held for approval, so there will be some delay in posting]

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And just to kick off the discussion: sprawl and density aren't exact opposites. Metro Los Angeles has higher density than eastern regions such as Los Angeles and New York, but any definiton of sprawl that defines Los Angeles as less "sprawling" as New York doesn't make much sense.

Posted by: Michael Lewyn | Dec 12, 2005 8:08:40 AM

You both came up with similar descriptions of the problems caused by sprawl, though with different degrees of emphasis. Michael, I'm curious if you agree that sprawl has a negative environmental impact w/r/t the use of land. I recognize the scientific debate on global warming, but the issue seems clearer on the land-use side.

On the sprawl v. growth issue, are there any examples that you can point to of non-sprawling growth?

Posted by: Ben Barros | Dec 12, 2005 8:55:07 AM

Re sprawl and land: it seems to me intuitively obvious that new development on the suburban fringe (the "Where We Develop" element of sprawl) at least creates a risk of adverse impact on wetlands and species habitat. Of course, some lands are more environmentally sensitive than others, so the magnitude of this problem varies by locality and even by site. Having said that, I think most regions have more than enough land in sprawl in, so keeping development away from wetlands and endangered species would be more likely to affect the location of sprawl rather than its existence.

Re non-sprawling growth: I think any infill development is non-sprawling growth. Obviously, there has been some infill development everywhere. Just as obviously, most new development is not infill.

It seems to me that a relatively "non-sprawling" metro area in this regard is one in which the city population grows as fast as the suburban population. New York City was quite successful in this regard during the 1990s: the city grew by 9%, the suburbs by slightly less. Portland came pretty close: the city grew by 21%, the suburbs grew by 28%.

On the other hand, Rust Belt cities like Buffalo, Cleveland and St. Louis present the worst-case scenario: a declining city in a stagnant region surrounded by growing suburbs.

Posted by: Michael Lewyn | Dec 13, 2005 6:46:38 AM

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