Mythical Underpinnings:
The New Urbanism, Smart Growth
and the Crusade Against Urban Sprawl

The Problem: "Urban Sprawl:" An increasing amount of attention is being directed toward the development of American urban areas, especially the phenomenon of "urban sprawl." A number of states and jurisdictions have enacted "smart growth" initiatives and adopted "urban growth boundaries" to control urban sprawl. Recently the issue received "top billing" at the White House, when President Clinton and Vice-President Gore announced their "Livable Communities Agenda," which, it was promised, would reduce traffic congestion, promote cleaner air, preserve open spaces and retard urban sprawl.

For decades the land area growth American urban areas has been much greater than the population growth. This geographic expansion is often attributed to increasing dependence upon the automobile and the construction of the interstate highway (freeway) system. A relatively new school of urban planners, "the new urbanists" blame a number of problems on the expanding urban area, including increased traffic congestion, higher air pollution, the decline of central cities and a reduction in valuable agricultural land (new urbanist policies also go by the label "smart growth"). Moreover, new urbanists believe that more spacious urban areas typical of the United States are inherently inefficient relative to more compact cities, exhibiting higher costs for infrastructure and public services.

Mythical Underpinnings: A fundamental problem with the "new urbanist" formula is that most of the facts and assumptions on which it is based are patently false.

  • 1. There is a strong relationship between urban sprawl and air pollution --- but not the one the new urbanists suggest. In the United States, air pollution tends to increase with population density.

  • 2. Similarly, traffic congestion tends to be worse in higher density urban areas

  • 3. Work trip travel times have decreased since 1969.

  • 4. Agricultural land is not being lost to urbanization. Since 1950, increased agricultural productivity has caused agricultural land to be taken out of production at a much greater rate than that of urbanization.

It can be expected that the results of "new urbanist" or smart growth policies will be the opposite of what is promised: more serious traffic congestion, increased air pollution and more time spent commuting to work. DEMOGRAPHIA specializes in analyzing and critiquing the local policies of new urbanism and smart growth, and in proposing alternative policies that improve both the standard of living and the quality of life.

(c) 2001 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
Demographia is "pro-choice" with respect to urban development.
People should have the freedom to live and work where and how they like.

are undertakings of
P. O. Box 841 - Belleville, IL 62222 USA
Telephone: +1.618.632.8507 - Facsimile: +1.810.821.8134