Rural Sprawl Outpaces Urban Sprawl

On January 11, 1999, Vice President Al Gore unveiled the Administration’s $10 billion program to stop urban sprawl by preserving open space and curbing suburbs. But urban sprawl isn’t the problem the Vice President claims it is, with land set asides (or, what could be termed “rural sprawl”) outpacing urban sprawl. Worse, the Administration’s anti sprawl initiative could create new problems. Consider:

The Amount of Land Reserved for Parks and Wilderness Areas Exceeds Urbanized Land. Between 1949 and 1992, the amount of land developed increased from 18.2 million acres to 57.9 million acres, an increase of 39.7 million acres. But the amount of land set aside for parks and wilderness areas increased from 27.7 million acres to 86.9 million acres, an increase of 59.2 million acres.

Only a Small Fraction of Land has been Developed. Because 75% of the nation’s population lives on just 3.5% of the land, development tends to be concentrated in small areas near cities – precisely the areas where people will see it on their way to and from work. Furthermore, since the rate land is being consumed for suburban development is only .0006% per year, the United States will have open space well into the foreseeable future.

Urban Sprawl Does Not Threaten Food Supply. Vice President Gore has asserted that “America… could become the largest net importer of food, instead of the world’s largest exporter” by the 21st century because of urban sprawl. This is not true. A study by Ohio State University economist Luther Tweeten estimated that only 26% of the farmland loss between 1949 and 1992 was due to urbanization. The other 74% was due to changes in the economic fortunes of the agricultural industry. Most important, a 1997 report by the United States Department of Agriculture concluded that “losing farmland to urban uses does not threaten total cropland or the level of agricultural production which should be sufficient to meet food and fiber demand into the next century.”

Anti-Urban Sprawl Policies Exacerbate Traffic Congestion and Pollution. Under Portland, Oregon’s anti-sprawl plan, traffic congestion is likely to triple because officials plan to increase highway capacity by no more than 13% even though the population is predicted to jump 75%. Such congestion increases commuting time and hurts the environment. The more time people spend on the road, the more automobile emissions there will be. Indeed, cities with the highest densities also have the highest smog ratings.

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