European Commission Sprawl Report Needs Rewrite
For any who perceive that "urban sprawl" (a pejorative term for
suburbanization) is an American phenomenon, the new European
Environmental Agency report Urban Sprawl in Europe: The Ignored
Challenge provides a radically new perspective. Yes, there is
suburbanization in Europe, and plenty of it.
Regrettably, Urban Sprawl in Europe is far from an objective,
comprehensive review of urban trends. It blindly repeats dogma and,
most importantly, fails to consider the momentous advantages that the
land use developments of the last one-half century have provided in
The Positive: Hysteria is Absent
Starting with the positive, Urban Sprawl in Europe generally uses muted
language and is devoid of the hysterical theology so often found in
anti-suburbanization reports in the United States, Canada and
Australia. This is, in itself, something of an accomplishment.
Repeating the Dogma
Nonetheless, there are serious problems with Urban Sprawl in Europe.
Predictably, the report finds all manner of problems with
suburbanization and no benefits. The report repeats the dogma that has
misled planners and public officials in the United States, Canada and
Australia. For example:
· The report ways that traffic congestion is greater is less compact
(more sprawling) urban areas. The international data, some of the of
which is cited by Urban Sprawl in Europe says the opposite. More
compact urban areas --- what the European Environmental Agency would
like, have more traffic congestion.
· The report says that air pollution exposure "may" be at higher
levels in suburban areas because of higher volume and slower traffic.
There is no "may" about it. Air pollution levels in suburban areas
tend to be lower in suburban areas because traffic is less dense and it
flows more quickly. While city versus suburban traffic data is
difficult to obtain, San Francisco illustrates the greater traffic
congestion that is evident in central cities compared to suburbs.
· The report claims that less compact urban areas are more costly,
claiming higher transportation and infrastructure costs. The higher
transportation costs are more than offset by much lower housing costs,
a matter the report does not address. Infrastructure costs are not
necessarily lower in more suburbanized areas, as Joshua Utt and I found
in a report published by the Heritage Foundation .
The Model for Europe: Los Angeles
The report applauds Munich and Bilbao for being the only two urban
areas studied that since 1950 increased their populations than their
land areas. In effect, this means that Munich and Bilbao "sprawl"
less in relation to their populations than they did in 1950.
It may be surprising to find out which urban area is the champion in
that regard. It is Los Angeles, which managed to increase its
population at more than double the rate of its increase in land area
from 1950 to 2000, a rate well above that of either Bilbao or Munich.
Moreover, during that period, urban development in Los Angeles was
largely market driven, rather than planning driven.
The European Environmental Agency acknowledges that suburban
low-density lifestyles are more attractive to people (so much for the
theory that Europeans like high rise city living, while Americans,
Canadians and Australians like the suburbs). Europeans have chosen
overwhelmingly to move to the suburbs, just like people in the new
world. Nonetheless, the report implies that it would be better for
bureaucrats to make lifestyle decisions, not the people who actually
live the lives.
The Usual Absent Public Transport Vision
Predictably, the report complains about Europe's automobile oriented
culture. Just as predictably, the European Environmental Agency offers
no vision that would get people out of their cars without seriously
hobbling their mobility and quality of life. There is, of course, good
reason for this. No such vision could be financed by any economy in the
world (see The Illusion of Transit Choice).
However, the most serious problem with Urban Sprawl in Europe is not
what it says. The principal problem is rather what the report ignores.
Somehow, over the past 60 years, the Western European (and other
high-income world nations) have suburbanized as never before and have
embraced the personal mobility of the automobile. These developments
that anti-suburbanites and the European Environmental Agency view as
negative have in fact been associated with the greatest expansion of
affluence in history --- what I call the democratization of prosperity.
Urban Sprawl in Europe simply ignores the important issues of
economics. Research indicates that personal mobility is associated with
greater economic growth and the reduction of poverty. There is plenty
of evidence that development of housing on less expensive land on the
urban fringe has created wealth and played a major role in producing a
comfortable middle class. These are issues that an intellectually
honest and comprehensive discussion would include.
The Risks of Ignoring Economics
The failure to consider these issues is already taking a toll in urban
areas that have blindly followed the anti-suburban pied pipers. Some
urban areas have consciously sought to limit personal mobility and seen
businesses locate to other urban areas. The urban areas of Australia
and New Zealand, along with Portland and a number in California have so
strangled their land markets by development controls that the (see
Second Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey)
historic relationship to incomes has been shattered. The result is that
millions of future households will not be able to own their own homes
or will have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more. This
translates, at least in part, into consumer spending that will not
occur, jobs that will not be created. United States Federal Reserve
Board has published research showing that metropolitan areas with more
stringent land use control experience less economic growth than would
have been expected.
Revisions are Needed
Urban Sprawl in Europe would best be thought of as a preliminary
working draft. Serious revision is required. The dogma needs to be
replaced with objective research. Most importantly, the missing
elements of economic impact need to be added.
Note: These issues are dealt with in greater detail in War on the
Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life, a new book
by Wendell Cox.