The Decline of Urban Civilization:

The Sprawl Years

Ralph Nader

[Reprinted from the San Franciso Guardian, May 1998]

THE NEXT time you are sitting bumper to bumper in rush-hour traffic, pass by a blighted inner city neighborhood, or stumble upon a new housing development replacing what was once farmland, remember this word: sprawl.

These phenomenon are all different facets of urban sprawl, the low-density, unplanned patterns of development that have largely defined American life since the '50s. Sprawl lies at the heart of urban decline, racial polarization, worsening air and water quality, and the erosion of community.

Do not despair! The Sprawl monster can be contained. Many of these detrimental trends can be reversed. Writer, thinker, and civic philosopher David Bollier has just completed a new monograph, "How Smart Growth Can Stop Sprawl." Bollier does a remarkable job of examining this burgeoning problem and then outlining practical steps that citizens can take to remedy them.

It comes as no surprise that one of the major factors exacerbating sprawl is the automobile. Still, we subsidize the use of automobiles with highway budgets and tax subsidies for parking facilities. We also pay for automobiles with military expenditures that ensure the flow of oil from foreign lands and underwrite the cleanup costs of gasoline and oil spills that harm the ecosystem. Competition between local jurisdictions in metropolitan regions also fuels urban sprawl.

"Favored quarter" suburbs are using zoning rules to keep out low-income residents and minorities -- while reaping a disproportionate share of government money for new schools, highways, sewer lines, and public services. So while the city remains critical to a region's economic fortune, competition among towns ends up draining the city of its vitality and turning it into the region's poorhouse. And people begin to move away. The end result? This exodus forces outlying suburbs to build new infrastructures and raise tax rates to crushing levels. According to Maryland governor Parris Glendening, every new classroom costs $90,000; every new mile of sewer line costs roughly $200,000; and every mile of single-lane road costs at least $41 million. But that's not all. Farmland is being destroyed as sprawl moves ever outward. Commuting times grow longer and longer. The environmental consequences here are appalling. Governor Glendening notes that 5,000 people left Baltimore in the first six months of 1997 -- and that during this same period over 3,000 new septic-tank permits were issued in the Baltimore suburbs. This kind of growth creates more water pollution from storm runoff; more flooding as pavement interferes with natural water flows; and the faster disappearance of plants and wildlife. Fortunately, citizens from Portland to the Twin Cities are introducing some effective remedies.

  • Regional tax-base sharing offers some hope for metropolitan areas to more equitably share tax dollars and allocate infrastructure costs, and thus to reduce the pressures propelling sprawl.

  • Site-value property taxation may also spark greater development in cities by taxing land, not buildings. Unlike traditional taxation -- which rewards developers who put up cheap, tacky housing and strip malls -- site-value taxation gives developers the incentive to build gracious, durable buildings. Allowances for affordable housing, however, need to be part of site-value schemes.

  • Several Bay Area communities have adopted "Urban Growth Boundaries" (UGBs) to channel new development into areas with existing infrastructure, so that open spaces and farmlands can be preserved. UGBs help force a community to set long-term priorities and develop more rational approaches to development.