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Why do cities 'sprawl' and what can officials do?

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Technology has brought us such innovations as highways, telephones and the Internet. These revolutions in transportation and communications allow people to move far from their places of work — or even to bring their offices with them. With a continuing exodus to suburbs, new communities and rural areas, many people have made it clear that their preferences lie far beyond the limits of traditional cities.

With all of that talent and money flowing beyond the reach of urban tax collectors and regulators, there's little wonder that politicians have cooked up schemes to choke off the exodus in the name of "growth management."

Growth management is generally justified in terms of preserving precious land from being gobbled up by developers, but the facts belie claims of necessity for drastic regulation. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, only 6.4 percent ofnon-federal land in the United States is developed — a percentage that drops significantly when federal lands are considered.

Local implementations of land-use controls just emphasize the point. Flagstaff is about to put a regional land-use scheme to public vote despite the fact that this city of roughly 55,000 people is located in a vast, rural county where only about 14 percent of the land is in private hands.

Clearly, the issue is more one of control than of preservation.

Fans of growth management policies claim that the dispersal of people from cramped urban quarters to far-flung homesteads is a lifestyle choice encouraged by subsidies and tax policies. Their favored restrictions, they say, just redress an unfair set of incentives.

But it's not at all clear that subsidies benefit only those who choose to flee urban life. Cities are the beneficiaries of tax-subsidized stadiums, transportation systems and urban renewal efforts — urban renewal efforts that displace existing homes and businesses, often adding to the flow of people from cities.

Besides, the flow of population from urban centers to the suburbs takes place in places that lack America's peculiar taxes and subsidies — even in countries that actively discourage the exodus.

Writing for the Cascade Policy Institute, an organization that has had ample opportunity to examine Portland, Oregon's long-established growth-management policies, Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson point out that so-called "sprawl" is found "in Canada without mortgage interest tax deductions, in Europe with high gasoline taxes, in Seoul with plentiful public transit, and in Mexico City with its huge subway subsidies."

Clearly, much of the population around the world simply doesn't care for urban life. That's a point that infuriates urban planners who think that everybody should share their vision of the good life.

In fact, as politicians and planners try to make people stay put in cities, they often favor policies that push people to leave. High taxes and intrusive regulations only encourage people to think of new lives in new communities. A 2001 study of business regulations by a coalition of think tanks, including the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Reason Public Policy Institute, found that cities from Boston to Los Angeles make climbing the economic ladder a grueling ordeal. Officials often outright bar people from entering many industries, or else erect "complicated, politically charged review procedures" that discourage entrepreneurship.

As a result, even people who like city life find good reason to move to the suburbs.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the technology that allows people to move their homes and business beyond city limits also lets them escape growth restrictions. Last year, USA Today reported that in Portland, Oregon, the national laboratory for plans that replace voluntarily chosen living arrangements with government dictates, growth continues undiminished.

According to the report, "[s]prawl simply hopped the green fields." People who wanted to escape restrictions moved farther away — an option that will only become easier as transportation and communications become more advanced.

That's not to say that cities are necessarily doomed. While many people prefer suburban and rural life, many others like cities — they just wish that city officials returned the affection. It's unlikely that these people can actually be forced to stay put, but the proper policies might induce them to stick around for a while.

Dr. Sam Staley of the Reason Public Policy Institute suggests that there are a few things that city officials might do to keep their constituents from seeking greener pastures. Staley recommends that urban officials make sure that schools within their communities "function at very high levels and meet individualized learning needs." He also urges attention to public safety and urban infrastructure.

These points are already much-discussed, but Staley then emphasizes concerns that usually escape the attention of politicians and planners. "In an environment of easy, international capital flow and migration, people will not put up with high levels of regulations and taxes."

As much as city officials might want to keep the flock at home to be fleeced, and as strongly as planners desire to force people into pre-determined ways of life, those approaches are counter-productive. People are increasingly free to leave and reestablish themselves elsewhere if conditions don't suit them.

In an age of technology and mobility, forcing people to stay put is a non-starter. But city officials might accomplish some of their goals if they'd stop wasting effort on coercive policies and try to make their communities attractive places to live with respect for people's wallets and liberties.

J.D. Tuccille is a Flagstaff-based Senior Editor of The Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net (

— Arizona Daily Sun


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