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Sprawl isn't the result of the free market

Finally somebody in the mainstream press gets it. From the Atlanta Journal Constitution, 12/5/2005:

There are two kinds of people: Us and them. And where the line falls between the two depends entirely on context.

Sometimes us and them is a matter of gender — "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," as the book title goes. Or, as columnist Maureen Dowd asks in her new book, "Are Men Necessary?"

At other times, we define us and them by racial or political differences, or even by something as frivolous as the sports team we follow. In fact, a lot of the appeal of sports is the opportunity to root hard for our side against their side; as a lifelong New York Yankee hater, I can personally attest to the pleasures that can bring.

Then there's the line we draw depending on how and where we live. To suburban dwellers, the city is often viewed as a corrupt heart of darkness, in more ways than one. To city dwellers, the suburbs are perceived as rather soulless and pale, again in more ways than one.

Those tensions play out in a lot of ways, even coloring discussions about how booming areas such as Atlanta ought to develop. Too often, what ought to be a straightforward, even technical discussion of various land-use approaches can devolve into just another battleground in the ongoing culture wars, just another example of us against them.

For example, one of the Atlanta region's biggest challenges is controlling sprawl, a development pattern that consumes tax dollars and open land and greatly complicates transportation planning and environmental problems. One of the options available to mitigate sprawl and its impact is an approach called "smart growth" — areas of higher-density development that mix residential, commercial and business uses.

Unfortunately, though, some suburban dwellers hear criticism of sprawl as some sort of a value-laden condemnation of suburban life. They respond by launching a defense of sprawl that can be paraphrased with the following:

"What others deride as sprawl is actually just the free market at work, the result of millions of Americans choosing the lifestyle they prefer. And any effort to control or limit 'sprawl' is a misuse of government power promoted by elitists who want to instruct us common folk how to live."

Well, I've covered enough county commission and zoning board meetings to know that's just romantic mythology.

First of all, the free market, left to its own devices, produces dense development, not sprawl. Developers want to put as many units as possible on their property, because that's how they make the most profit; you don't see them going to court demanding the right to build fewer homes per acre.

Sprawl is possible only through intense government regulation. It is an artificial growth pattern achieved by laws that frustrate the free market's tendency toward density. The free market, left to its own devices, would never produce five-acre minimum lot sizes, or 2,500-square-foot minimum house sizes, or bans and moratoriums on apartments. The free market, left to its own devices, would produce growth patterns more like "smart-growth" policies.

In fact, smart-growth alternatives impose fewer restrictions on developers than does sprawl-inducing zoning, and infringe less dramatically on developers' property rights. Philosophically speaking, it ought to be a conservative's dream.

The claim that critics of sprawl are elitist is equally hard to swallow, given that one of the hallmarks of sprawl is economic segregation. Go to a county commission meeting and you'll see owners of $500,000 homes on five-acre lots protesting the construction of $250,000, one-acre homes nearby, and owners of $250,000 homes fighting against apartments and town houses.

Sprawl is not a rejection of elitism; it is the expression of elitism. It is people using the power of government to protect "us" against the incursion of "them."

That is not, however, an argument in favor of trying to eliminate suburban growth patterns or the suburban lifestyle. Such things are ingrained in metro Atlanta, and are a large part of the region's success. Here in Georgia, only the most zealous of smart-growth advocates want to ban large-lot zoning and other sprawl-inducing mechanisms. Instead, they ask only that zoning laws be relaxed enough to allow smart-growth developments to compete for customers, so that people can be given a real choice.

Given the success of smart-growth projects around metro Atlanta, when people are given that choice, they jump at it.

• Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

This entry was posted in the following categories: I Told You So , Politics (Outside Austin) , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad


Dude what are you talking about. Have you ever been to Houston. They have very limited zoning. You can build as dense as you desire. And what do they have? Sprawl. Lots of sprawl. This idea that dense downtown development will get rid of sprawl is a fantasy. Its not based on logic. And letting the market decide. Well its already been tried in Houston. And it didnt get rid of sprawl.

Try this recent entry:


Turns out, Houston's other set of rules are strict enough to effectively qualify as zoning (in some cases they're even stricter than traditional suburban zoning).

Interesting article, especially dovetailing it with the aforementioned "Houston" paper.

But I don't fully agree with the assertion that the market automatically pushes for density. That statement needs some heavy qualification like "pushes for maximum density for any particular development." Above and beyond anything else, the developer is going to push for profit maximization, which partly means density but also requires cost minimization. Land is a critical component, so the perfect developer scenario is dumping as much revenue-generating stuff as possible on cheap land. Even removing market distortions, there's an inherent drive to push dense development away (but not too far) from population centers towards less expensive land.

The statement becomes more applicable when you factor in subsidized roadways and water, urban zoning limitations, and bureacratic wrangling. The the distortions clearly work to promote sprawl by pushing development away from artificially expensive land and pulling it towards artificially cheap land.

So it seems to me that until there's a fundamental shift away from demand-driven priorities (i.e. big lots, white picket fences, etc.) that glorify the 'burbs, and supply-driven factors that ignore traffic, pollution, and other externalities, some level of sprawl is inherent. But it might be preferable if we didn't help it along so much.