A recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that sub-urban sprawl
is tied with crime as the top concern for most Americans. The message hammered home by
this research is simple: Americans are sick and tired of sprawl.
So why do we keep sprawling? As this report has shown,
haphazard growth is being fueled by billions of dollars in government subsidies. From a
hundred-mile freeway to a single new sewer line, from a massive mega-mall to a single
subdivision - sprawl subsidies are perverting the free market and undermining our best
efforts to grow smarter. We've become trapped in an endless cycle that is destroying what
Americans hold dear -green spaces, healthy communities, clean air and water-while draining
us of crucial resources.
There is another way: Cut the subsidies that feed sprawl, ensure that the
costs of growth are fairly shared and employ tested smart-growth techniques.
We can change business as usual by starting with our transportation
spending. Currently, we spend about $200 million a day on building, expanding and
maintaining our huge network of roads. Meanwhile, we spend only a fraction of that on
other transportation options, such as light rail and commuter trains. We need to invest
more in public transportation and spend less on building new roads.
Though these changes could do much to stem sprawl, the real work needs to
happen at the state and local levels. Thankfully, smarter policies are already being
adopted in some places.
Virginia's Prince William County- which was mentioned in our previous
sprawl reports as a poster child for bad development-recently passed an ambitious set of
measures to better manage growth. Pressured both by citizen concern, and a more than $300
million deficit in funding for public projects, they plan to preserve the western half of
the county as farms and open space while increasing impact fees fivefold. Though the
visionary plan, which would take effect in 2001, is already under attack by builders, (30)
the lesson for other communities is clear: If Prince William can do it, anyone can.
And other cities and counties are following suit. (31) Lancaster, Calif.,
charges developers a fee that increases with the distance from the center of the city.
Palm Beach County, Fla.-which reached 1 million people in 1999-adopted a tiered system to
manage growth with four different land use designations: urban/suburban, rural,
agricultural reserve and glade. Capital funding for roads, sewer lines and the like are
tied to these tiers - reducing subsidies to sprawl. (32)
There are also fiscal policies that can help restore neglected urban
areas. Several Pennsylvania cities, including Pittsburgh, have benefited from an
innovative policy called a "split-rate tax." Taxes on buildings are reduced and
taxes on land are increased. This encourages development in our existing communities and
discourages the land speculation that leads to more sprawl. (33)
Cutting the subsidies that feed sprawl can help us grow in a more
controlled fashion. In turn, smart growth can save us billions of dollars in wasteful
spending-as well as conserving open space, reducing air pollution and making our
communities more livable. An in-depth study of
Virginia Beach, Va., vividly illustrates how the vicious spiral of sprawl and
subsidies can be reversed by smart growth and better planning. According to the study,
smart growth will save Virginia Beach well over $300 million in infrastructure costs-a 45
percent savings compared to sprawling development-while conserving farm land and
significantly reducing air pollution.
Comparison of Smart-Growth Versus Sprawl
Development for Virginia
||Benefits of Smart Growth
|Growth in number of dwelling units: 70,000
|Farm land developed: 12,691 acres
||Consumes 45% less land
|Annual fiscal impacts on general fund: Negative $19,067,709
||Costs 127% less
|Total infrastructure costs $613,681,094
||Infrastructure costs 45% less
|Total vehicle miles traveled per day: 1,711,124
||Citizens drive 65% less, air pollution cut by 50%
Note: This is a comparison between two different
scenarios for Virginia Beach, Va. 1990-2010. Source: Virginia Sprawl Costs Us All report
(Primary source: 1990 study by Siemon, Larsen, Purdy et al.)
Though cutting subsidies and using smart-growth techniques can do much to
help us reign in sprawling development, the impact of a rapidly growing population should
not be ignored. No matter how smart the growth, a rapid increase in population can
overwhelm our best efforts. That's why it is essential to work for population
stabilization along with smart growth.
The environmental costs of sprawl --like disappearing green space and
polluted air-are all too obvious. But, after five decades, the subsidies that power its
spread have become almost invisible. Our previous reports have demonstrated the
environmental costs of sprawl and showed us how we can use smart growth techniques to slow
out-of-control growth. This report illustrates that by cutting off the subsidies that fuel
sprawl, we can prevent poorly planned growth and build safer, cleaner communities-for our
families and for our future.
Where to go from Here
Want to know more about suburban sprawl? Want to get involved with the
fight to curb haphazard growth? The Sierra Club's Sprawl page is a
great place to start.
To find out what Sierra Club activists in your area are up to or to get
involved with your local Sierra Club chapter, please visit your chapter's web page.
If you want more specific help with organizing a Sprawl Costs us All
report, creating a Cost of Community Services assessment, or drafting a tax impact
statement, please check out our Sprawl Fighters Toolkit.
The American Farmland Trust's website
is a great source of general information on sprawl and has in-depth information on how to
create a Cost of Community Services assessment.
Sprawlwatch is an excellent
source of up-to-date news and information on efforts to control sprawl.
The Surface Transportation Policy
Project's website has lots of great information on issues related to transportation
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