On Sprawl

by Don Boudreaux on March 16, 2006

in Complexity & Emergence, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

I’m on a listserve pioneered by Michael Strong, Chief Executive Officer of FLOW.  A recent posting caught my eye and impressed me with its wisdom.  Its author is Gary Hoover.  (I post with his permission.)

I was just yesterday thinking how much I hate even the conception of sprawl -- a bad word for a something that does not exist (at least not in the sense that is usually implied when that word is used, as this obvious evil that needs to be stopped or restrained).  What others call sprawl appears to me to be a longstanding and continually evolving desire of people to have land, privacy, and quiet.  The resort or rural retreat is well-entrenched, as is the countervailing desire for urbanism.  They vary by mood, by stage in the lifecycle, and by family structure.  Many of us have a love of the country and a love of the city in one self.  What has changed is that, in the old days, only the rich had options.  The poor -- there wasn't much middle class -- could neither leave the city nor leave the country.

The huge rise in the world's wealth has allowed a new fluidity, one that extends to more nations all the time.  Drive around the outskirts of Dubai or Bangkok or Jakarta or Monterrey and look at all the new housing developments springing up in the countryside.  Come to my neighborhood and see the mobile homes a mile away from the million dollar "McMansions" (another term that hurts more than it helps understanding).

To blame this on Wal-Mart or on developers is ridiculous.  Wal-Mart, like all retailers, has zero institutional preference for locations, all they want to know is, "where do our types of customers live and how can we be convenient to them?"  It is all about being of service to others.

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justin August 29, 2009 at 12:57 am

I feel like this is pretty dangerous grounds, but I am a geography community planning student and I work in a neighborhood association. I love reading these posts because it does give me the other point of view that I do not necessarily get from school and my little liberal urban enclave in Michigan. I usually take the capitalist approach in my argument of sprawl vs. cities. Residents are consumers and they vote with their feet and if they do not like their living situation then they have the option of moving. I believe that many people move not because cities are inherently undesirable, but because many cities failed their residents. When students graduate from college in Michigan, they opt of living in Detroit and move to Chicago. I realize that Detroit has a bad reputation mostly from people who have never been the city, but metro Detroit has many nice suburbs with good schools, safe streets, world class amenities, and culture. Yet, more and more people pass up metro Detroit for Chicago.

There is no doubt that some urban planners do not listen to the residents and build the community they want. This is not my experience, I have been surrounded by great planners works hard to implement the kind of city that there residents want.

“The world is run by those who show up”
It is so hard to get people to show up to planning meetings. The city I live in is updating their master plan. They arranged free daycare, food, and games to get people to show up to help plan the city. If anyone has ever watched the TV show Parks and Rec, in my favorite scene Amy Pohler was conducting a public city meeting and thanked the crowd for such a great turnout. I laugh every time I see it because there were only about 15 to 20 people in the audience and that was a great turnout.

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