The Public Purpose
Number 27 . February 1999

Mythical Underpinnings:
The New Urbanism, Smart Growth
and the Crusade Against Urban Sprawl

The Problem: "Urban Sprawl:" An increasing amount of attention is being directed toward the development of American urban areas, especially the phenomenon of "urban sprawl." A number of states and jurisdictions have enacted "smart growth" initiatives and adopted "urban growth boundaries" to control urban sprawl. Recently the issue received "top billing" at the White House, when President Clinton and Vice-President Gore announced their "Livable Communities Agenda," which, it was promised, would reduce traffic congestion, promote cleaner air, preserve open spaces and retard urban sprawl.

For decades the land area growth American urban areas has been much greater than the population growth. This geographic expansion is often attributed to increasing dependence upon the automobile and the construction of the interstate highway (motorway) system. A relatively new school of urban planners, "the new urbanists" blame a number of problems on the expanding urban area, including increased traffic congestion, higher air pollution, increasing work trip travel times, the decline of central cities and a reduction in valuable agricultural land (new urbanist policies also go by the label "smart growth"). Moreover, new urbanists believe that more spacious urban areas typical of the United States are inherently inefficient relative to more compact cities, exhibiting higher costs for infrastructure and public services.

Flawed Foundations: A fundamental problem with the "new urbanist" formula is that most of the facts and assumptions on which it is based are patently false.

  • 1. There is a strong relationship between urban sprawl and air pollution --- but not the one the new urbanists suggest. In the United States, air pollution tends to increase with population density.

  • 2. Similarly, traffic congestion tends to be worse in higher density urban areas

  • 3. Work trip travel times have actually decreased --- from an average of 22.0 minutes in 1969 to 20.7 minutes in 1995. Work trip distances have increased and travel speeds have also increased. This has occured at the same time that urban sprawl was increasing the greatest.

  • 4. Agricultural land is not being lost to urbanization. Since 1950, agricultural land has been taken out of production at a rate eight times that of the urban land area increase. At the same time, US agricultural production has increased more than 100 percent.

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