Clinton’s Urban Sprawl Program Threatens Freedom and the Environment

What percentage of U.S. land do you think has been developed? 50%? 25%? 10%?

Answer: Less than 5%.

Yet the Clinton Administration believes that taxpayers must pay for a multi-billion dollar land acquisition program aimed at curbing "urban sprawl" – the suburbanization of rural areas that it believes is luring people away from the cities and threatening farm lands, open spaces and the environment.

Ironically, urban sprawl is far more likely to become a problem with the President’s anti-sprawl campaign than without it.

A recent study by Dr. Samuel R. Staley of the Reason Public Policy Institute helps put the issue in perspective. According to Staley, less than 5% of the United States has been developed, with 75% of the nation’s population living on just 3.5% of the land area. In more than three-quarters of the states, over 90% of the land is used for such rural purposes as forestry, pasture, wildlife preservation and parks. Farmland loss to development – once a serious problem – has declined from 6.2% per decade during the 1960’s to 2.7% now. And Americans need less farmland today. Demand for agricultural land has been declining due to technological advances, such as fertilizers, biotechnology and pesticides, that have increased crop yields. Agricultural output increased by more than 28% in the 1990’s alone.

The Administration’s anti-sprawl campaign could create new problems. By buying rural lands for open space and parks, the Administration could increase land prices in already developing suburban areas, placing home ownership out of the reach of Americans of modest means. That is precisely what a similar program in Portland, Oregon produced. Portland went from being one of the nation’s most affordable cities to one of the five or six least affordable.

Because families have an especially strong demand for the open space, large lot sizes, better schools and low crime rates that typically accompany low-density living, rising city and suburban prices caused by the Administration’s program could cause people to move to even more rural areas, beyond the reach of the Administration’s program. This would mean longer commutes and, yes, more automobile emissions: precisely the opposite of what the Administration says it wants.

Even if the Administration’s plan did successfully force Americans to live closer together in large urban areas, it is questionable that this would be good for the environment. Economist Randal O’Toole found that cities with the highest densities also have the highest smog ratings.

Some argue that curbing sprawl is an issue of fairness. Urban dwellers, they say, should not be forced to subsidize suburbanites who require new roads, sewers and other infrastructure. But it is unclear who is subsidizing whom. On average, people in low-density areas consume less government services than those in urban areas. At the same time, they also pay a tax imposed explicitly for the construction of infrastructure that many urban dwellers don’t – state and federal gas taxes.

The real issue here is not subsidies, but freedom. The Clinton Administration wants to restrict where people live, dictating that they must live in concrete jungles with no connection with the natural environment.

The American people deserve better.

David A. Ridenour is Vice President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank, where he oversees the group’s environmental and regulatory program. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.