The Campaign Against Urban Sprawl: Declaring War on the American Dream, by John Carlisle

From the White House to Main Street, urban sprawl is the latest environmental crisis vexing America. The Clinton Administration and environmentalists warn that urban sprawl, or unregulated suburban development, undermines our quality of life. They argue that urban sprawl exacerbates traffic congestion, scars the landscape with ungainly strip malls and consumes the scenic open space that attracts people to the suburbs in the first place. Even more alarming, Vice President Albert Gore says, if steps aren’t taken now to curb sprawl, urbanization will consume so much farmland that the United States may run out of enough agricultural land to feed itself in the 21st century and, for the first time in the nation’s history, become a net importer of food.

So serious is the threat allegedly posed by sprawl that the Administration has proposed a $10 billion program aimed at combating its pernicious effects by funding more mass transit programs, increasing the purchase of land for parks and open space and funding other projects ostensibly aimed at improving the quality of suburban living.

But the threat posed by sprawl to rustic open spaces and farmland is grossly overstated by the Clinton Administration. While the Administration plays upon people’s understandable but misguided fears about the destruction of open space, the record from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service show that less than 5% of the United States is developed. Moreover, for several decades now, the amount of land that is dedicated to parks and other conservation uses has greatly exceeded the amount of land that has been urbanized.

What is most disturbing about the crusade against urban sprawl is that anti-sprawl activists portray their agenda of “smart-growth” initiatives as “pro-suburban” to receptive voters concerned about improving the quality of life in their communities. In reality, anti-sprawl policies are profoundly anti-suburban. In cities such as Portland, Oregon, where aggressive anti-sprawl policies have been implemented, government planners have deliberately tried to increase traffic congestion, not diminish it, and have tried to force people to live in smaller houses in more crowded urban-like neighborhoods. To these activists, suburbs are the cause of sprawl, and the only way to stop sprawl is to dissuade people from moving to the suburbs. The campaign against urban sprawl is perilously close to a campaign against the American Dream.

Urban Sprawl Poses No Threat to the Nation’s Open Spaces
Politically, the Clinton Administration’s crusade against sprawl makes good sense as it resonates with voters. In the November 1998 elections, there were 240 state and local ballot measures designed to preserve parks and open spaces and implement other “smart growth” initiatives. Voters approved more than 170 of these ballot measures which will result in the expenditure of more than $4 billion in taxes, bonds and lottery money.1 In addition, 19 states have adopted statewide growth management plans to combat sprawl or started task forces to study farmland loss.2

The motivation for these initiatives is understandable. Many people are concerned that rapid, sometimes seemingly haphazard, development is consuming much of the scenic open space that helps make suburban living so attractive. The Clinton Administration has been quick to exploit the uneasiness many Americans have about development to advance its case for federal control over land decisions that have traditionally been the purview of local communities. On January 11, 1999, Vice President Gore announced the Administration’s “Livability Agenda,” a myriad of proposals to combat sprawl by providing resources to preserve open space, promote clean air and water, sustain wildlife and ease traffic congestion. The $10 billion initiative includes a record $6.1 billion for mass transit, $570 million for bike paths and pedestrian walkways and a five-year $700 million program of tax credits to secure no-interest “Better America Bonds.” These bonds would allow states and cities to leverage as much as $10 billion to acquire land for open space and parks.3

To make the case for this kind of program, Vice President Albert Gore paints a bleak picture of the American landscape today. “From the desert Southwest to the forested Northeast, from the most pristine snowfields of Alaska, to the loveliest hollows of the Carolinas – thickets of strip development distort the landscape our grandparents remember,” Vice President Gore has said. “Acre upon acre of asphalt have transformed what were once mountain clearings and congenial villages into little more than massive parking lots.”4

But the Administration’s assertion that the U.S. is in danger of running out of open space due to unbridled suburbanization is unfounded and needlessly exacerbates public anxiety over the issue. Only 4.8% of the nation’s land is developed.5 That means that after more than 200 years of rapid industrial development and an explosion in population from 4 million to 265 million people, more than 95% of U.S. land area remains undeveloped. Many people perceive sprawl as a problem because they constantly see new developments being built. 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.

The reality is that, in more than three quarters of the states, over 90% of the land is in rural use such as forests, cropland, pasture, wildlife reserves and parks.6 In even the most urbanized state in the nation, New Jersey, less than one-third of the land is developed, while the rest is rural. Furthermore, within metropolitan areas themselves a large percentage of the land is rural or agricultural in nature.7 For example, Michigan is the 11th most urbanized state. In Michigan, urban areas make up 26.8% of the state’s land area. Even in Michigan’s urban areas, however, almost 60% of the land is used for rural or agricultural purposes. On average, counties with large cities dedicate more than 40% of their area to cropland, grasslands, pasture and forest.8

Despite the overwhelming amount of undeveloped land, politicians and environmentalists can easily mislead the public into thinking there is a serious loss of open space through the clever, even deceptive, use of statistics. Despite the abundance of open space, cropland and wilderness, many Americans are under the impression that much of this land has disappeared. The reason? Environmentalists cite statistics like “Michigan is losing rural land at the rate of 10 acres an hour” or “Ohio is losing 5 acres an hour”9 or “the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area is losing 21 football fields a day.”10

But these statistics don’t tell the whole story. They don’t, for example, tell the public that more acres of land are being set aside for rural parks and wilderness areas than are being developed. The ratio of land being set aside for rural parks and wilderness areas is much higher than the ratio of land undergoing development. Between 1949 and 1992, the amount of urbanized land 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 was even greater, increasing from 27.7 million acres to 86.9 million acres, an increase of 59.2 million acres. In other words, the nation has protected one-third more land than it has developed since World War II.11

Concerns that open space will disappear in future years if suburbanization is left unchecked by government-imposed growth controls are similarly unfounded. The rate at which land is being used for suburban development is .0006% per year.12 With such a low urbanization rate, the United States will have open space well into the foreseeable future.

Food Supply is Not Threatened by Urban Sprawl
Critics of development often argue that development is consuming so much farmland that the United States will lose its ability to feed itself in the next century. Vice President Gore, for example, stated that “America, which is losing 50 acres of farmland to development each hour, could become the largest net importer of food, instead of the world’s largest exporter, by the next century.”13

Even though there is little evidence to suggest that this kind of an agricultural crisis will occur, many Americans now believe it is imminent. In 1998, for example, members of a local Utah Future Farmers of America club wrote essays for Earth Day on the future of farming. A common theme of these essays was the concern that there would be no land in the future to farm – despite the fact that 99% of Utah’s land is still undeveloped.14 To date, seven states have started task forces to specifically devise ways to stop farmland loss to urbanization.15

Dr. Samuel Staley of the Reason Public Policy Institute notes that, at first glance, a significant decline in farms and farmland acreage in the 20th century can leave one with the impression that there will be farmland shortages in the coming decades. Between 1950 and 1997, the amount of land dedicated to agricultural activity fell from 1.2 billion acres to 968 million acres, a decrease of 19.3%. The greatest losses in farmland occurred in the 1960s when the nation lost an average of 7.3 million acres annually.16

Anti-sprawl activists point to this dramatic decline as evidence that sprawl will rapidly consume farmland in the near future. However, Staley points out that since the 1960s the amount of farmland loss has significantly moderated. During the 1970s, the nation lost an average of 6.3 million acres of farmland per year, an average of 5.2 million acres in the 1980s, and just 2.6 million acres in the 1990s.17

An analysis of farmland loss patterns in representative states provides perspective on how remote a threat sprawl poses to farmland. In California, for instance, the state lost 5.7% of its farmland to development during the 1960s. Had that rate continued, California would have lost all of its farmland in 140 years. However, by the 1990s the rate of farmland loss had declined to just 3.7%, which means that the state has another 400 years at the present rate of development before it runs out of farmland. Other states show similar patterns. During the 1960s, Michigan lost 2.7 million acres of farmland to development. Had that rate continued the state would have run out of farmland in 50 years. By the 1970s, however, the state lost just 1.3 million acres, leaving the state with 100 years of farmland, assuming this development rate continued. Now, at 1990s acreage loss rates, Michigan has at least another 200 years of farmland left. Minnesota lost nearly 5% of its farmland in the 1960s, a rate that would have led to the disappearance of all farmland in 200 years. But by the 1980s and 1990s, the loss rate fell to just 1%. At this rate, Minnesota will continue to have farmland for at least another 1,500 years.18

More important than the moderating rates of farmland loss is the fact that urbanization doesn’t even appear to be the chief cause of declining farmland acreage. The main reason for the reduction in farmland is improved technology and the economics of the agricultural industry. 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.19 In Indiana, for example, farmland acreage fell by 645,000 acres between 1982 and 1992. Yet, urbanization accounted for only 139,000 acres, or 22% of the total.20

Notwithstanding losses in farmland acreage, agricultural land is still nearly 20 times the area of cities.21

What is often overlooked in the farmland debate is that major technological advances in food production require less and less farmland to produce record crop yields. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) index of national farm output shows that the United States increased its food production by nearly 48% since 1970, despite a reduction in agricultural acreage. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that total farm income increased by 63% between 1980 and 1994.22 The value of farm production is expected to grow nearly 26% even though the number of farms continues to decline and the number of farmworkers is expected to fall by 4.9%.23

The impressive growth in agricultural production is attributable to a number of factors, including advancements in the use of fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation and other technologies. According to Ohio State’s Tweeten, capital investments account for more than two-thirds of agriculture’s productivity while land accounts for 20% – and its share is declining.24

Before claiming that urban sprawl poses a significant threat to the U.S. food supply, Vice President Gore should have checked with his own USDA. In a 1997 report, the USDA’s Economic Research Service 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.”25

Urban Sprawl is Anti-Suburban
The greatest irony of the urban sprawl debate is that the Clinton Administration has tailored its anti-sprawl proposals to appeal to suburban residents frustrated with congestion and concerned about the loss of scenic open space when, in fact, the anti-sprawl campaign is at its core anti-suburban.

Environmentalists, urban planners, central city governments and a school of anti-suburban architects called New Urbanists are the primary advocates of initiatives to control urban sprawl and their common article of faith is that the source of sprawl is the very existence of suburbs themselves. To these anti-sprawl crusaders, the only way to combat urban sprawl is to force people to live in smaller homes or – even better – apartments and force them to reduce their use of automobiles. In other words, get rid of the suburbs.

The Sierra Club has a smart-growth web site called “The Conservation Potential of Compact Growth” which rails against the traditional American preference for the single-family home. Apartments and townhouses should be the preferred choice of accommodation, according to the Sierra Club, because they require fewer resources and save energy. Says the web site, “Sharing walls shares and saves heat… The single family home consumes four times as much land for streets and roads and ten times as much for the houses themselves. The single family house uses nearly six times as much metal and concrete, the mining of which threatens to destroy many of our natural areas.”26 To the Sierra Club, the American Dream of owning your own home is a wasteful, selfish indulgence that Americans should give up if they want to be environmentally responsible.

The automobile is especially vilified by the anti-sprawl activists. Suburban living would not be popular without the automobile because the

American people have historically been reluctant to use public transportation. The American people overwhelmingly prefer the automobile to publicly-financed buses and light rail systems as the car is the only mode of transportation that affords people the convenience and independence upon which they place high value. For anti-sprawl activists, however, the automobile, requiring its network of roads and freeways, is the raw fuel for sprawl. To stop sprawl means to force people out of their cars.

This is a central tenet of the New Urbanists, a school of urban architects who want to build cities that don’t require cars. The New Urbanists take as their model 19th century cities.27 In these cities, more people lived in apartments, and the single family homes that did exist were row houses on tiny plots of land often mingled with retail shops, professional offices and other businesses. So the New Urban design, the antidote to urban sprawl, is a significantly more urban neighborhood more akin to a turn-of-the-century New York City neighborhood than a typical 1990’s suburb.

The Portland Lesson
Portland, Oregon is the Mecca for anti-sprawl activists. Its highly restrictive growth limits that aim to stop further development and heavy investment into mass transit epitomize the kind of policies anti-sprawl activists would like to see implemented everywhere. Says Alan Ehrenhalt in Governing magazine, “It sometimes seems as if the whole country is looking to Portland as a role model for 21st century urban development.”28

Let’s hope not.

A regional planning agency in Portland, called Metro, has been given the authority to regulate growth in 24 cities and three counties. In its 40-year plan to manage growth, Metro aims to accommodate 700,000 to 1.1 million new residents within its existing Urban Growth Boundary by radically increasing the residential densities in existing neighborhoods.29 Metro’s anti-sprawl campaign includes eight initiatives:

* Establishing an Urban Growth Boundary beyond which little or no development will be allowed.

* Imposing highly restrictive zoning within the Urban Growth Boundary which requires landowners who are allowed to build at all to only construct buildings with high residential densities that increase congestion.

* Increasing highway capacity by no more than 13%, even as the region’s population grows by 75%, in the 40-year period.

* Spending most of the region’s federal and local transportation money not on roads but on a light-rail mass transit system even though the system will carry no more than 2% of the area’s daily commuters.

* Requiring owners of shopping and office complexes to reduce parking space by 10% and eventually charge for parking.

* Banning new shopping malls and stores like Wal-Mart.

* Subsidizing small shops in mixed-use areas.

* Instituting “traffic calming” measures, such as reducing the number of lanes on major streets, to reduce roadway capacities.30

To achieve higher living densities, Metro wants to shrink the average lot size for a single-family home by almost a third, from 9,000 square feet to 6,700 square feet. In some neighborhoods, it plans to restrict lot sizes to as little as 2,900 square feet.31

Because of the anti-sprawl controls, housing prices have soared in Portland. The city went from being one of the nation’s most affordable cities to one of the five or six least affordable. Proponents of Metro blame these rising costs on Portland’s booming economy. This ignores the fact that other western cities, – including Phoenix, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City – have experienced even greater growth than Portland while keeping housing costs under control. The difference between Portland and these cities is that Portland has implemented onerous anti-sprawl controls while the other cities have not.32

It is ironic that many of the anti-sprawl regulations imposed to improve environmental quality actually have the opposite results. Under Portland’s Metro 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 is not only inconvenient because it increases commuters’ time on the road, but it is also unhealthy for the environment. The more time people spend on the road, the more automobile emissions there will be.33 Indeed, cities with the highest densities also have the highest smog ratings.34

That is not what most people have in mind when they support initiatives to limit sprawl. Even the Vice President says that one of the biggest motivations for the Administration’s “Livability Agenda” is to enable commuters to get home in time to read bedtime stories to their children.35 Yet, the anti-sprawl activists the Administration proposes giving billions of dollars to support policies that exacerbate congestion.

What happened in Portland should serve as a warning to other communities that are considering anti-sprawl initiatives of their own and the Administration’s promise of federal dollars. In 1992, the citizens of Portland voted to give Metro greater powers to regulate growth because Metro promised that it would save Portland from turning into Los Angeles, the counter Mecca of congestion, sprawl and overreliance on the automobile.36

What Metro planners didn’t tell the voters was that Los Angeles was precisely the kind of congestion they wanted to replicate in Portland.

In 1994, Metro planners examined 50 U.S. cities

to see which one had the elements they deemed most effective at countering sprawl – highest population density, lowest number of freeway miles and most spending on a new rail system. The answer was Los Angeles. Portland’s Metro planners said that Los Angeles “represents the investment pattern we desire to replicate.” Of course, Metro never mentions this in the glossy brochures it distributes to the public to tout its regional planning strategy.37 Already, the commuting speed in Los Angeles, 32 miles per hour within the central city, is better than Portland’s 27 miles per hour.38

National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” noted that while most transportation planners try to ease congestion, Portland’s planners “are embracing congestion; they want to create more of it.” Metro planner Mark Turpel approvingly says that Portland has become so congested that “people are learning to walk more in these neighborhoods.” Economist Randal O’Toole, a leading critic of Portland’s planning policy, says that, thanks to Portland’s planners, once-pleasant residential streets are now clogged with traffic, busy streets have been turned into one continuous traffic jam and people must park many blocks away from where they want to shop. But that doesn’t seem to bother anti-sprawl politicians. U.S. Representative Earl Blumenaeur, who represents Portland, says that this “is the kind of congestion that is exciting.”39

Portland is not the only city, however, that has implemented anti-sprawl policies that deliberately encourage congestion. Minnesota’s Twin Cities Metropolitan Council has announced that it will not build any roads in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for the next 20 years in the hope that the resulting congestion will make mass transit more attractive. “As traffic congestion builds, alternative travel modes will become more attractive,” noted the Council. Texas state Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, Chairman of the Austin Transportation Study which developed a 25-year plan for the area, bragged that even though the population in the Austin area will increase by 100% by 2020, “Our plan calls for only a 33% increase in highways.”40

Longer commutes, more congestion, more apartments, smaller houses, smaller yards and less personal freedom. That is the result of initiatives to combat urban sprawl. And that is precisely the opposite of what voters think they are getting when they support proposals to contain growth and preserve open space.

The Clinton Administration’s campaign against urban sprawl is deeply flawed in that it purports to combat problems that don’t exist (such as disappearing farmland), grossly exaggerates the amount of open space that is consumed by urbanization and, worst of all, encourages anti-sprawl policies that are anti-suburban. What is especially ironic about the Administration’s crusade against sprawl is that the anti-sprawl program is also anti-environment.

Anti-sprawl initiatives are inaccurately portrayed as efforts to improve the quality of suburban living by reducing congestion. Yet, the deliberate goal of anti-sprawl activists, such as the Sierra Club and New Urbanist planners, is to deliberately promote policies that exacerbate traffic congestion and force people to live in crowded cities. Since high density urban areas almost always have the worst air pollution, the likely result of a federally-financed campaign to restrict growth to less healthy urban areas in the name of protecting undeveloped open space would be to worsen the quality of the nation’s environment. Hence, the Clinton Administration’s campaign against urban sprawl is not just another wasteful spending program to fight an environmental crisis that doesn’t exist; it could very well create environmental problems that we don’t yet have.


John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. Comments may be sent to [email protected].



1 Debra S. Knopman, “The Trouble With Sprawl,”, January 28, 1999.

2 Dr. Samuel R. Stately, “The Sprawling of America: In Defense of the Dynamic City,” Policy Study No. 251, Reason Public Policy Institute, 1999, p. 2.

3 Mark Muro, “Finally, Washington Responds to Growing Problem of Urban Sprawl,” Earth Times News Service, January 19, 1999.

4 Albert Gore, Vice President of the United States, Remarks to the Brookings Institution, September 2, 1998.

5 Dr. Samuel R. Staley, “The Sprawling of America: In Defense of the Dynamic City,” Policy Study No. 251, Reason Public Policy Institute, 1999, p. 10.

6 Ibid, p. 10.

7 Ibid, p. 11.

8 Ibid, p. 12.

9 Ibid, p. 13.

10 Glenn Frankel and Stephen Fehr, “As the Economy Grows, the Trees Fall,” The Washington Post, March 23, 1997, p. A1.

11 Staley, p. 22.

12 Steven Hayward, “Here Comes Suburban Renewal,” Capital Ideas, Vol. 4, No. 3, Pacific Research Institute, January 19, 1999.

13 Gore, September 2, 1998.

14 Jerry Spangler, “Farmers and Activists Share Fear: Loss of Land,” Deseret News, April 22, 1998.

15 Staley, p. 18.

16 Ibid, pp. 18-19.

17 Ibid, p. 19.

18 Ibid, p. 21.

19 Luther Tweeten, “Competing for Scarce Land: Food Security and Farm Preservation,” paper presented to the American Agricultural Law Association at Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 17, 1997.

20 Staley, p. 22.

21 Randal O’Toole,”The Coming War on the Automobile,” Thoreau Institute’s web site, downloaded February 17, 1999,

22 Staley, p. 25.

23 U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates for 1998 through 2010.

24 Luther Tweeten, Farm Policy Analysis, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1989), Table 1.4, p. 9.

25 Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 1996-97, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Office, July 1997, p. 13.

26 Virginia Postrel, “Misplacing the Blame for Our Troubles on ‘Flat, Not Tall’ Spaces,” Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1999.

27 O’Toole.

28 Steven Hayward, “Legends of the Sprawl,” Policy Review, September-October 1998, No. 91.

29 Ibid.

30 O’Toole.

31 Steven Hayward, Policy Review.

32 Ibid.

33 O’Toole.

34 David Ridenour, “Clinton’s Urban Sprawl Program Threatens Freedom and Environment,” National Policy Analysis No. 235, National Center For Public Policy Research, February 1999.

35 Gore, September 2, 1998.

36 O’Toole.

37 Ibid.

38 Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson, “Why Sprawl is Good,” Cascade Policy Institute, January 1999.

39 O’Toole.

40 Virginia Postrel, “The Pleasantville Solution,” Reason, Vol. 30, No. 10, March 1999, p. 5.

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