Urban Sprawl for Dummies?

It's difficult for officials and citizens to deal with an issue when the terms have been pre-packaged by one side in the public debate. By drum-beating the term "urban sprawl" for years now, policy-makers and activists who favor government solutions to perceived problems have been able to take much of the public focus off some of their own most persistent urban failures.

Par for the course is that the term used to describe the solution to "urban sprawl" places a negative label upon all those who notice the sleight of hand. After all, the only people who would be against "smart growth" must be, well, dummies. So maybe it's time for a short lesson entitled, "Urban Sprawl for Dummies."

Market-oriented policy-makers and proponents are wrong to say that aesthetically ugly housing developments spreading across the countryside are "no problem." But the real problem has always been deterioration of the quality of life in our cities, and a refusal to acknowledge their causes in policy. Public school systems are willing to fail generations of minority youth rather than admit that market-oriented reforms like school choice might work. City governments are allowed to deliver services incompetently decade after decade rather than adopt more efficient, private-sector alternatives. Lawless, dangerous city environments are only now being changed, slowly, against determined resistance, through older, more traditional law enforcement methods-methods government planners discarded as anachronistic decades ago.

Think about it: U.S. cities are being deluged with proposals aimed at reversing 40 years of failure. How would you like it if your political opponents could credibly cite 40 years of living testimony against your policies and positions?

You'd be extremely grateful to anyone who came up with a way to divert attention from these failures. In the concept of "urban sprawl," those favoring government solutions have found a way to: a) refocus attention away from the real problems; b) avoid having to admit they were wrong about many things; and c) not just keep their coercive government powers, but actually expand them.

According to Albany Law School professor Patricia Salkin, the concept of urban sprawl inspired more than 1,000 legislative bills in 1999 alone, and 20 percent of these passed. The idea has empowered city governments and state legislatures to impose a host of growth control policies that limit private, individual, and community choices in favor of vast, restrictive government directives.

But the same people who gave us the problems aren't likely to come up with the solutions. After all, we've added 120 million people to America's population since 1950. That works out to about 55 million new homes. They have to be built somewhere.

Perhaps "New Urbanist" developments like Cherry Hill Village in Canton Township are the way to go. Developers-without either coercion or subsidies from government-were able to build high population density housing that minimizes the need to use automobiles because of mixed-use zoning that allows both residents and commercial properties to be built side-by-side.

The point policy-makers should understand about what they refer to as "sprawl" is that it's not wrong for individuals, families, and businesses to choose the most viable options open to them. Whenever an alarmist shows a picture of ugly housing developments "encroaching" upon pristine farmland, it might be appropriate to show him a picture of a typical inner-city neighborhood and ask which he would prefer, if his living arrangements were at issue. In fact, ask him where he lives now.

Policy-makers must look at the factors that cause families to leave cities. It's time to focus on such things as making schools not just tolerable but great. There are a number of ways to do this, whether through charter-school expansion or some kind of school choice program that gives parents a tax credit for tuition at public or private schools.

City officials also could do other things to fix the schools, improve the quality of city services, and lighten the tax load on citizens. They could open teacher certification so top-notch professionals who want to can become teachers. They could contract out to private firms garbage pickup, water and sewer services-even rodent control-so service providers will go out of business if they fail to show up on time to fix a problem. They could post a friendly, neighborhood patrolman on foot to walk the precinct. They could avoid traffic problems in the city and avert "sprawling" developments outside it by easing tough zoning requirements so stores can be built close enough for people to walk or ride a bike there.

In short, the solution to "urban sprawl" lies in fixing the problems that cause people and businesses to leave cities in the first place. But people must be allowed to come up with their own solutions. No one-size-fits-all solution policy-makers try to impose has worked or is likely to work, even if they do think it's "smart."

Samuel Walker is a communications specialist at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.