Wendell Cox Reviews 'Sprawl Costs'

A new book, "Sprawl Costs" evaluates the costs of unchecked dvelopment. The book merely recycles the tired claims that suburbanization (pejoratively called urban sprawl) is more costly, writes Wendell Cox.

Sprawl Costs: Economic Impacts of Unchecked Development, by authors Robert Burchell, Anthony Downs, Barbara McCann and Sahan Mukheri, is "an outgrowth of a study led by Burchell, which concluded that more compact (less suburban) development over 25-years could save $225,000,000,000 in government expenditures. The study made the all-too-common error of concluding that many zeros after a number make it significant. They do not. It will probably take the average reader at least 225,000,000,000 nanoseconds to read this article. $225 billion over 25 years is less than $30 per capita each year. This is a pittance in comparison with overall public expenditures, which have.risen more than 100 times that fast over the past 25 years after adjustment for inflation.

Aside from the shock value, the validity of the numbers is questionable. In fact, the suburbs are not more expensive. Joshua Utt and I published research covering more than 700 municipalities showing that actual (not theoretical) public expenditures are lowest per capita in the newer suburbs. Even sewer costs were found to be lowest in the newer suburbs. The principal reasons are that politics and labor costs drive costs higher in more compact development."

Full Story: Sprawl Costs: Toward A Nation of Renters



This piece is garbage

This piece is garbage. Where to begin? There's just so much wong with it

" Joshua Utt and I published research analyzing Bureau of the Census data for more than 700 municipalities concluding that actual (not theoretical) public expenditures are lowest per capita in the newer suburbs."

lower compared with what? The authors do not say. Lower than older more densely populated areas? I have no doubt, given the continual need for upgrading aging infrastructure in older areas. More information is needed here to give this statement meaning. What are the categories of development, and how are they being measured?

"To accomplish the more compact development that Burchell et al would prefer requires stringent regulation, such as urban growth boundaries, greenbelts and other limits on development."

Wrong wrong WRONG! It would require at least smaller lot sizes and ideally a whole new pattern of urban development - which is NOT what we're seeing in America at this time. Take note: SUBURBS where land restriction exists are compared with SUBURBS where they don't. Isn't the whole point that SUBURBS should not be part of the equation? Try comparing medium density townhouses where land restrictions exist to suburbs ANYWHERE if you want a little intellectual honesty.

"None of this is to suggest that suburbanization should be the favored form of urban development. Instead, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like"

Oh, boy. Yeah. I'm so tired of this attitude. "everyone should do what they like". And this is going to be our plan for development, let the market decide. OK. And watch Europe and Asia eat us alive when oil and gas costs get so high that we can't sustain our wasteful modes of transporation or heat our enormous houses.

If these are the people making "sense" to Americans, I'm afraid we are lost.

Based on Questionable Values and Double Standard

"...people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like.... Anti-suburban interests have yet to find a compelling reason why this should not be so."

Funny how he and like-minded commentators don't find reasons like permanent loss of wildlife habitat and permanent loss of agricultural land compelling enough at least to consider regulating how land may be subdivided and put to changed use.

And he doesn't address how so much existing zoning prevents more compact development (multiple contiguous square miles of exclusively low-density residential zoning, anyone?) and how the resulting lack of options frequently forces homebuyers to purchase more land than they will use--and then penalizes them if they don't maintain all that excess.

It goes to show that, in fact, he does implicitly "suggest that suburbanization should be the favored form of urban development," which he denies in the piece.

Michael Lewyn's picture

not quite so simple

Cox correctly points out that older municipalities have higher government spending. But it seems to me at least possible that this problem is in part yet another cost of sprawl.

How so? Because if a central city is dominated by poor people rather than middle-class families, government should, other factors being equal, cost more. If a city is dominated by the poor, it will have greater fiscal needs. For example, because poor people commit more crimes, the government of a poor city might have to spend more on police protection than that of a more affluent city. And because poor children are more likely to require special education, city governments might have to spend more on schools to reach the same level of educational mediocrity as their suburbs.

Even factors such as union power and employee compensation might be affected by sprawl. If middle-class families (typically the most Republican part of the electorate) leave the city, the city is left with low-income minorities and middle-class singles (both left-leaning, Democratic groups). One-party liberal rule in turn might lead to stronger public employee unions and higher public employee wages, thus leading to higher government spending.

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