Sierra Club logo    

Stopping Sprawl campaign home page - click here.
Get an overview. Sign up for an e-newsletter. Find out what you can do to help.
Environmental Update Main
Sprawl Main
In This Section
Sprawl Overview
Reports & Factsheets
Activist Resources
Get Involved!
Articles & Research
Population and Sprawl

Get The Sierra Club Insider
Environmental news, green living tips, and ways to take action: Subscribe to the Sierra Club Insider!


Stop Sprawl
Sprawl Costs Us All


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 Beach, Virginia

Sprawl Development Smart Growth Benefits of Smart Growth
Growth in number of dwelling units: 70,000 70,000 none
Farm land developed: 12,691 acres 7,559 acres Consumes 45% less land
Annual fiscal impacts on general fund: Negative $19,067,709 Positive $5,121,592 Costs 127% less
Total infrastructure costs $613,681,094 $338,270,087 Infrastructure costs 45% less
Total vehicle miles traveled per day: 1,711,124 600,635 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 and sprawl.

Next: Acknowledgments | Report Main

Up to Top | Printer-friendly version of this page