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Legends of the Sprawl

by Steven Hayward
Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Liberals have a new scapegoat for their urban failures: suburban growth

The remarkable thing about liberal urban policy in Washington these days is not its ambition, but its conspicuous lack of it. A case in point is the Clinton administration’s second annual State of the Cities report, recently released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Beyond the self-congratulatory references to President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the substance of the report reflects the timidity of liberal policymakers.

On the one hand, the report details the good news about major cities: employment is rising, poverty and crime are down, and most cities are fiscally sound. A 1997 survey found that 85 percent of mayors rated the health of their cities at seven or higher on a scale of one to 10, a sign that can-do optimism has taken hold in city halls throughout the country. On the other hand, older central cities still face a set of problems that threaten to grow worse: Poverty is overwhelmingly concentrated in inner cities, urban schools are abysmal, and jobs and population continue to migrate to the suburbs. These "structural challenges," the HUD report warns, "could eventually undermine the long-term success of urban America."

So what does HUD propose to solve these problems? More zoning. No, not the usual regulatory kind, but "empowerment zones" that target distressed urban areas with modest tax breaks and federal investment for retaining and creating businesses and jobs. The HUD report also calls for "homeownership zones" to help provide affordable housing and "education opportunity zones" to funnel aid to the worst urban schools. Many of the initiatives described in the HUD report are existing programs in other agencies (such as job training and cleaning up polluted urban sites) shoehorned into the administration’s urban agenda. The report is, of course, silent on two ideas that would help cities immediately: school choice and local regulatory relief.

The report’s most striking element is the modest amount of new federal money it proposes for urban programs: less than $1.4 billion, mostly for the empowerment zones and subsidies for the worst urban schools. In this way the report sharply departs from liberal urban policy since the Great Society era, which has offered federal spending as the solution to urban woes. Lyndon Johnson would have thought this report’s low-budget liberalism was a Republican parody.

The Next Wave

But if the liberal imagination in Washington seems zoned out, there is a lot of ferment among liberal thinkers elsewhere. The next wave of liberal urban policy is coming not from Washington, but from the grass roots, and that wave is cresting fast. Having attempted urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s and failed, liberals in the 1990s are ready to try suburban renewal.

Perhaps no other individual epitomizes the new liberal vision as well as Myron Orfield. Orfield is a 37-year-old lawyer, law professor, and state legislator in Minnesota who has become one of the nation’s most vocal proponents of regional solutions to urban problems. In the view of Orfield and a handful of other liberal urbanists, the trouble with urban areas today is suburban flight. As more and more middle-class people flee the central cities for the suburbs, shrinking tax bases, rising crime, and poorly performing schools push the central cities into free fall. As suburbs attract new jobs away from central cities and expand their tax base, the (suburban) rich get richer and the (urban) poor get poorer.

"In the United States," Orfield wrote in his 1996 book, Metropolitics, "each generation builds a new ring of cities at the edge of our metropolitan areas, as a central city or an inner ring of suburbs becomes isolated and declines." Soon the problems of the central city begin spreading to the inner-ring suburbs, and middle-class people move further out, leading to a spiral of instability and socioeconomic segregation. Orfield has produced a series of dazzling color maps based on census data to illustrate the social and economic trends linking central cities, inner-ring suburbs, and edge cities, and he is in demand as a speaker and consultant around the nation. "Today," he claims, "70 percent of the nation lives in metropolitan areas that are destabilizing and polarizing to one degree or another."

If suburbs are weakening the cities,
then the solution seems to be:
tax them, annex them,
or constrict them.

Orfield says that "regional polarization" can be countered only through a "strong, multifaceted, regional response." This means, first of all, consolidating the regional tax base so as to redistribute suburban revenues to the impoverished central city. In its fullest expression, however, Orfield would prefer an elected regional government with strong powers to plan transportation and land use, impose "fair-share" low-income housing requirements on the suburbs, and direct reinvestment to the central cities. Orfield thinks a political coalition of the central cities and threatened inner-ring suburbs could carry the day in many places, though he has many bruises to show for his efforts to promote piecemeal regionalism in the Minnesota state legislature. (Governor Arne Carlson has vetoed the few Orfield bills that have managed to reach his desk.) But if ganging up on the suburbs doesn’t work in progressive Minnesota, it is not likely to work elsewhere.

Shaky Foundations

The chief argument in favor of Orfield’s broad regionalism is the "elastic city" hypothesis, expressed most fully in David Rusk’s book Cities Without Suburbs. Elastic cities are those that either embrace some form of regionalism or, better still, expand their boundaries by annexing suburbs. Premier examples of elastic cities include Jacksonville, Florida, and Indianapolis. Elastic cities, Rusk and Orfield claim, have fewer competing jurisdictions, stronger job growth and higher incomes, less segregation, and better fiscal management. Inelastic cities such as St. Louis and Chicago have many more suburban jurisdictions and suffer from concentrated poverty, racial segregation, and so forth.

This categorical comparison, however, may rest upon sloppy statistical analysis. A group of urban-policy scholars including the Buckeye Institute’s Sam Staley argued in the Journal of the American Planning Association that Rusk’s hypothesis was a mere "statistical artifact." A simple thought experiment illustrates the problem. Take a central city of 200,000 residents, with a per-capita income of $10,000 and a 15 percent poverty rate, and combine it with a suburb of 50,000 people with a $12,000 per-capita income and a 10 percent poverty rate. We would instantly create a new city of 250,000 with a per-capita income of $10,400 and a poverty rate of 13 percent—even though the social profile of the central city has not changed at all. Much of Rusk’s theory is thus based on a simple statistical capture of suburban well-being that masks inner-city problems rather than improving them.

The New Urbanism might be
summarized as the view that
neighborhoods were better when
porches were in the front of houses and
garages were in the back.

Rusk and Orfield also argue that elastic cities do a better job of reducing racial segregation in housing patterns. But their static statistical picture of cities overlooks a trend that refutes their thesis. One of their favorite segregation statistics is the Census Bureau’s "index of dissimilarity," which measures on a zero to 100 scale the proportion of the minority population that would need to move to achieve an absolute proportional distribution of minorities across all census tracts. (An index score of 100 would mean complete segregation, zero would mean complete proportional integration; or, in other words, zero would mean that each census tract has the same racial composition as the city as a whole.)

Rusk and Orfield argue that inelastic cities have higher index scores (that is, more segregation) than elastic cities. Yet neither takes note of the trend of the past 25 years, which shows a 10 percent decline in the index of dissimilarity for the 15 cities with the largest black populations (including the inelastic cities of St. Louis and Chicago). In America in Black and White, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom examined census data for 232 metropolitan areas and found that, between 1970 and 1990, the index of dissimilarity declined in 208 of the 232 areas. This is a clear sign that segregation is gradually decreasing, exactly the opposite of Rusk and Orfield’s hypothesis.

The biggest problem with regionalism is its premise that having major metropolitan areas divided into multiple jurisdictions is "inefficient" and undesirable. Rusk and Orfield fail utterly to consider one of the seminal ideas of modern urban economics: The Tiebout Hypothesis. University of Chicago economist Charles Tiebout posited in his 1956 article "A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures" that there is no objective way to determine the "right" level of public services that a local government should provide. Therefore, the optimal level of local public services is best determined through municipal competition, by which local jurisdictions offer different bundles of public goods and people express their preferences by voting with their feet.

It is not self-evident that regionalism is more efficient than municipal competition. Just as competition in the private sector keeps prices down, competition among cities, scholarly research has found, acts to keep local taxes down. Research has also found, not surprisingly, that regional government and municipal consolidations lead to higher local taxes. The federal Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations concluded 10 years ago that metropolitan consolidation would be "suboptimal." "A more consolidated local government structure," writes Sam Staley, "would probably decrease the ability of local governments to provide public goods efficiently and cost-effectively."

The New Urbanism

If the new liberal thinking began and ended with regionalism, it might not be worth much notice. The tradition of local home rule in America is sufficiently robust that citizens could be expected to limit or terminate regionalism whenever it reared its head. "The voters," Jane Jacobs observed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, "sensibly decline to federate into a system where bigness means local helplessness, ruthless, oversimplified planning, and administrative chaos—for that is just what municipal bigness means today. How is helplessness against conquering planners an improvement over no planning? How is bigger administration, with labyrinths nobody can comprehend or navigate, an improvement over crazy-quilt township and suburban governments?"

But there is a second, and rather imaginative, element to the new liberal thought on cities that is rapidly building momentum throughout the country with the support of some conservatives. The second element goes by the name of "new urbanism" or "smart growth." The new urbanism might be summarized as the view that neighborhoods were better when porches were on the front of houses and garages in the back, rather than the other way around, as most suburban subdivisions are built today.

The central insight of the new urbanism is that urban form influences our social interaction and well-being. Wide streets, "dependency" on the automobile, and low-density residential development that is segregated from commercial land uses isolates suburbanites from one another. The new urbanists embrace "neotraditional" planning, a return to higher-density neighborhood designs with narrower streets, houses with front porches and smaller setbacks from the sidewalk, and mixed-use development such as corner stores and other retail outlets. A few new communities have been built as models of neotraditional design, including Kentlands (a neighborhood in Gaithersburg, Maryland), Laguna West, California, and Seaside, Florida (where The Truman Show was filmed).

Conservatives can largely embrace this critique (as the American Enterprise magazine did in a 1996 issue), noting that conservatives like Russell Kirk were saying very much the same thing 40 years ago. After all, many of the problems that the new urbanists now decry are largely the product of a previous era of government land-use regulation and intervention. Conservatives weren’t the ones who urged governments to adopt rigidly proscriptive zoning systems in the suburbs and ram the interstate highway system through our big cities.

The new urbanists are not content, however, with repealing land-use regulations that have prevented communities and builders from experimenting with neotraditional neighborhood concepts and other ideas. The new urbanism seeks to mandate high-density, neotraditional neighborhoods as the only development pattern of the future and as the way to redevelop existing cities and suburbs. They approach urban problems with an attitude that could justly be described as "Planning Über Alles."

The Cancer Within?

This movement projects a visceral hatred of suburban sprawl and its accomplice, the automobile. Sprawl is attacked in the most pungent terms imaginable. Neal Pierce, a writer on urban affairs, has called suburban sprawl "a virus eating us from the inside out." Philip Langdon (one of the new urbanists featured in the American Enterprise) wrote in his book A Better Place to Live that "the suburbs we build are fostering an unhealthy way of life," though there is no solid data to support such a claim. "Insane," "destructive," and "nightmarish" are adjectives the Arizona Republic used in a series deploring sprawl in Phoenix. State officials in New Mexico, where urban and suburban development occupy about 1 percent of the state’s total land area, described sprawl there as a "cancer." Andres Duany, one of the leading neotraditional planners, wrote that "suburban sprawl is a cancerous growth rather than healthy growth, and it is destroying our civic life."

The intellectuals’ scorn for the suburbs is nothing new. The title of a 1957 article in the Community Planning Review—"Hell Is a Suburb"—neatly captures their attitude. It was to counter this scorn that sociologist Herbert Gans wrote The Levittowners in 1969. Elite opinion at that time, Gans wrote, regarded suburbanites as "an uneducated, gullible, petty ‘mass’ which rejects the culture that would make it fully human, the ‘good government’ that would create the better community, and the proper planning that would do away with the landscape-despoiling little ‘boxes’ in which they live." Gans found that the typical image of the suburbanite as an isolated dullard was a crude and inaccurate caricature. "The community may displease the professional planner and the intellectual defender of cosmopolitan culture," Gans concluded, "but perhaps more than any other type of community, Levittown permits most of its residents to be what they want to be—to center their lives around the home and the family, to be among neighbors whom they can trust, to find friends to share leisure hours. . . . If suburban life was as undesirable and unhealthy as the critics charged, the suburbanites themselves were blissfully unaware of it."

Denser Is Better

Since Gans wrote The Levittowners, a new policy has emerged to constrain the growth of suburbs: urban growth boundaries (UGBs). UGBs are necessary, their proponents say, because land is succumbing to suburban development at a much higher rate than population growth. While rapid land conversion is not surprising in the fast-growing metropolitan areas of the Sunbelt, the phenomenon in older midwestern and northeastern cities is more illuminating. Between 1970 and 1990, for example, the population of metropolitan Chicago grew by just 4 percent, while the area of developed land grew by 55 percent. In St. Louis, regional population has grown by 17 percent since 1960, while developed land area has grown by 125 percent.

To those with apocalyptic fears for the environment, this trend portends the "paving of America," even though all urban and suburban development has consumed less than 5 percent of the total land area in the continental U.S. The rate at which land is being used for suburban development is comparatively small as well: The current annual rate of suburban expansion is only about 0.0006 percent of the land in the continental U.S. The discrepancy between population growth and suburban development in metropolitan areas is really a reflection of growing affluence and consumer preferences. Opinion polls show large majorities of homebuyers and would-be homebuyers prefer to live in low-density suburban communities, even if it means a longer commute to work.

Critics warn of the "paving of
America," even though all
urban and suburban development
has consumed less than 5 percent
of the total land area in the
continental United States.

The critics of low-density suburban development, however, argue that the collective effects of these individual residential preferences are unacceptably harmful. Low-density development is inefficient or "unsustainable" because it imposes much higher costs on the public sector (for roads, sewers, water lines, and so forth) than compact development. The claim that "growth doesn’t pay for itself" has become axiomatic in urban-policy debates, though the scholarship suggests that this claim is highly debatable and location-specific. A 1993 Brookings Institution survey of the research on the issue concluded that sprawl and other "variations in urban form" appear to have "modest effects on infrastructure costs." And just as most liberal critics of urban schools seldom consider school choice as a remedy, the critics of suburban development seldom entertain the idea of privatizing infrastructure, which would immediately sort out much of the cost controversy.

Sprawl is said to be unsustainable also because low-density living patterns leads to dramatically higher traffic congestion and "auto dependency." During the 1980s, for example, U.S. population increased by about 10 million, but the number of autos increased by more than 20 million. Similarly, over the last 20 years the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has grown four times faster than the population.

But once again, this measure is misleading: It is a measure more of affluence and changing work habits than of the effect of residential density. A close look at travel data from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that average commute-to-work times have not increased appreciably in any urban area over the last 20 years. Very few people are driving longer distances to work precisely because the suburbs have generated employment for many of those who live there. Traffic congestion is rising because more people are driving and drivers take more non-work-related trips than they used to. The majority of the increase in VMT has taken place among women who have joined the work force in large numbers over the last 20 years and minorities who have entered the middle class and acquired cars. Enlightened people used to celebrate social trends like these.

The drive to curtail suburban development regardless of the facts is building momentum behind the banner of "smart growth." Smart growth sets boundaries on urban growth by regulating development according to a regional master plan. Sometimes, as in the case of Maryland, state and local authorities refuse to extend public infrastructure beyond a certain radius from downtown. A developer can in theory still build beyond the specified radius if it is willing to pay the full cost of infrastructure for new development, but state transportation planners actively discourage it. The confluence of "smart growth" and regionalism tends to attract a broad coalition of environmentalists, mass-transit advocates, urban planners, downtown political and business interests, and suburbanites happy to shut the development door behind themselves.

Laboratories of Bureaucracy

By far the favorite urban laboratory for regionalism and new urbanist and "smart growth" ideas is Portland, Oregon. That state embraced urban growth boundaries 25 years ago, but fully implemented the policy only in the last few years through its "Metro 2040" plan. Portland’s strict urban growth boundary is designed to double the density of its metro area over the next 40 years, and a powerful elected regional government (known simply as Metro) has the clout to enforce the plan. The city has already invested several billion dollars in light rail and plans to force people out of their cars and onto public transit by limiting new road-building and deliberately increasing traffic congestion over the next 40 years.

Portland has become the Potemkin Village of contemporary urban planning. Neal Pierce touts the Portland region as "a model of world-class, citizen-based planning." Urban planners from around the nation flock to Portland like miracle-seekers to Lourdes; Alan Ehrenhalt noted in Governing magazine that "it sometimes seems as if the whole country is looking to Portland as a role model for 21st century urban development." It is impossible to attend a conference on urban planning issues without hearing hosannas for Portland’s ostensible enlightenment.

A closer look suggests, however, that Portland’s 40-year plan is headed for trouble. In order to accommodate an estimated 700,000 to 1.1 million new residents within the existing growth boundary over the next 40 years, the plan attempts to impose much higher residential densities on existing neighborhoods. Metro wants to shrink the average lot size for single-family homes by almost a third, from about 9,000 square feet to 6,700 square feet. Plans for home sites in some neighborhoods call for home lots as small as 2,900 square feet. Planners have also proposed high-density multifamily housing such as row houses, which have never been popular anywhere in the West. "A nation in love with truck-sized sport utility vehicles," Tim Ferguson observed in Forbes, "is unlikely to embrace the housing equivalent of an Escort."

To preserve land for new housing and businesses, the Metro agency will not allow any "big box" retailers such as Walmart, Price Club, or Home Depot to build anywhere. In fact, it won’t permit any retail development larger than 30 acres, because it requires too much parking space and causes too much driving. This way, planners say, they’ll have room for the next Intel that wants to move in. Portland’s planners are untroubled that they are substituting political decisions for marketplace decisions, even though the track record of politicized decisions about economic development is abysmal. Housing prices in Portland have soared in recent years. Metro’s proponents blame the booming economy, but skeptics point out that other western cities with even faster population and job growth but without anti-sprawl controls, such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City, have experienced much lower inflation in home prices.

At a time when the world is deregulating markets for fundamental goods such as telecommunications, transportation, banking, and energy production and distribution, it is paradoxical that we should be considering stringent new regulations in the marketplace for land and housing. The new urbanists are telling us, in effect, that we had it all wrong before, but this time we know how to do it right. They have little regard for the spontaneous nature of neighborhood character or any appreciation for the unintended consequences that such ambitious long-range planning will generate. Even if the plan works exactly as intended, it is unlikely to be popular.

Randal O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute noticed that, while Portland residents think the plan will ease traffic congestion, the plan actually intends to make it dramatically worse. Throughout the West, Los Angeles is reviled as the epitome of sprawl and congested roadways. An anti-growth group in Phoenix, for example, calls itself "Not L.A.," and the original movement for growth control in Oregon in the 1970s adopted the slogan, "Don’t Californicate Oregon." In fact, the Los Angeles region is more than twice as densely populated as the Portland metro area, and one reason for L.A.’s traffic congestion is that the area, surprisingly, has fewer road miles per capita than most major cities, including New York City.

What will happen over 40 years as Portland’s density rises while the region deliberately avoids road-building? Even Metro predicts that the amount of congested roadway in the region will more than triple, while the proportion of people taking mass transit to get around will rise to only 6 percent of all trips. And these are the optimistic forecasts; light rail ridership so far is barely half of original projections, and two-thirds of the light rail riders are former bus passengers. O’Toole found a curious admission in an obscure Metro report. "In public discussions we gather that Los Angeles represents a future to be avoided," reads Metro Measured, yet "with respect to density and road per capita mileage it displays an investment pattern we desire to replicate."

A Popular Backlash

Not surprisingly, a backlash has begun in many Portland neighborhoods. West Linn citizens voted 4 to 1 against Metro 2040, and the close-in suburb of Milwaukie recalled its mayor and two city council members last year because they supported Metro’s plans to densify Milwaukie neighborhoods. The Multnomah Neighborhood Association is distributing lawn signs reading, "Save Our Neighborhoods: Rethink Zoning." Voters rejected the latest bond measure to fund rail transit, and an initiative to abolish the Metro agency and restrict future attempts at regional government is being circulated by Oregon Taxpayers United, a grass-roots group that has launched several successful initiatives in Oregon. O’Toole has joined forces with a citizens group called "Ortem" (Metro spelled backwards) that opposes the Metro 2040 plan.

Local attempts to rein in existing regional governments and prevent new ones from forming, however, may be frustrated by the federal government. Although the HUD’s State of the Cities report makes no mention of regionalism or "smart growth" ideas, the federal government fully supports regionalism and "smart growth" through the stealth mechanism of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). ISTEA does more than earmark federal transportation spending for mass-transit projects and local roads. It also mandates regional transportation planning on behalf of goals that serve as the opening wedge for the agendas of environmentalists and new urbanists. This is why ISTEA is heavy on lightly-used rail transit projects and slights road-building in favor of bureaucracy-intensive "congestion management plans."

Although ISTEA enthusiasts argue that the federal interstate highway system represented a massive intrusion by Washington into the hearts of our cities, they now propose to continue Washington’s massive intrusion into the hearts of our cities on behalf of a supposedly more enlightened understanding of mobility. Here’s a better idea: Cut the federal gas tax and let states and local governments make their own transportation policy. Experiments in "congestion pricing" (charging tolls according to user demand), transit deregulation, and privatization of infrastructure—all notably missing from new urbanist prescriptions—would offer a wide variety of models for urban planners to learn from, and would relieve planners from the impossible burden of finding all the right answers for every urban condition.

The latest liberal ideas to fix cities go under the banner of the new urbanism, yet it represents a 19th-century model for 21st-century needs. For all the concern for the supposed social dysfunction of the suburbs, it is disappointing that neither the regionalists nor the new urbanists recognize that the moral aspects of urban life have contributed so much to decline in the central cities. Regional approaches to metropolitan problems and new urban forms of development may make sense under certain circumstances. But they are increasingly offered as a panacea for urban problems, and their popularity is spreading. At the end of the day, however, we will find that suburban renewal has worked no better than urban renewal before it.

Steven Hayward, a Bradley Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of Churchill on Leadership (Prima Publishing).

Resources on Urban Growth

Reason Public Policy Institute’s Urban Futures Program • Contains a useful bibliography of scholarly research on a wide range of urban issues. Web site: www.urbanfutures.org

Thoreau Institute • Offers Randal O’Toole’s critique of the new urbanism and Portland’s 40-year plan. Web site: www.teleport.com/~rot/

Cascade Policy Institute • Environment adviser John Charles is a prime local critic of Metro 2040. Web site: www.CascadePolicy.org

Wendell Cox Consultancy • Offers a revealing comparison of Portland and Seattle, showing that "unplanned" Seattle performs better than Portland on several measures of growth management. Web site: www.PublicPurpose.com

Portland’s Metro Agency • You can download the Metro 2040 plan itself, along with other materials including Metro’s rebuttal to criticisms from O’Toole and Charles. Web site: www.multnomah.lib.or.us/metro.


High Demand for Neotraditional?

Neotraditional neighborhoods such as Kentlands, Maryland; Seaside, Florida; or Laguna West, California, look intriguing, but they are not setting homebuyers on fire. Homes in Laguna West, near Sacramento, have sold very slowly, and the community has not evolved according to the original plan. Homebuyers were not enthusiastic about having a transit stop without parking in the middle of their neighborhood (people were supposed to walk to the transit stop, but of course most drove and parked in the adjacent neighborhood), so the residents demanded that the transit stop be moved away from the neighborhood, and have conventional parking added. Mixed-use retail and commercial development has lagged as well. The first commercial outlet in the neighborhood was a Jiffy Lube—probably not what the planners had in mind. Laguna West may yet succeed, but it will not live up to its original hype. Meanwhile, conventional suburban developments in the Sacramento area have sold out quickly.

It is interesting that the makers of the recent film The Truman Show chose Seaside, Florida, as the backdrop for a story about the artificiality of life. Joe Morgenstern noted in the Wall Street Journal, "Truman’s candy-colored home lacks detail; it’s a set for a TV show, after all, and this an idealization of shallow ideas. Truman’s town, Seahaven, lacks variety and texture; its blank-faced neo-Victorian houses suggest a slapdash backlot evocation of America at the turn of the century. Scarier still, the movie’s exteriors were shot in the all-too-real town of Seaside, Florida, one of those planned communities where personal taste has been excised from the plan."


In the fullness of time, the new urbanism may come to resemble the New Coke. Just as new urbanists point to surveys showing homebuyers preferring neotraditional designs, Coca-Cola had found during thousands of blind taste tests that consumers expressed a strong preference for the New Coke formula. When it was brought to the market in the real world, however, consumers famously rejected it. Neotraditional designs should certainly be allowed by land-use regulators, but planners should be open to the probability that such designs are a boutique preference.

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