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Capitol Comment 244 – Smart Growth or No Growth: A Case of Euro-Envy

“Smart growth is great, as long as you keep the dumb ideas out of it.”1

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.

Recently there has been much talk in Washington about how so-called “suburban sprawl” is ruining our quality of life, and how “smart growth” is the answer. Many “smart-growthers” argue that since Europeans seem able to control the spread of their urban areas, we should follow their example. But can European policies that prevent “suburban sprawl” be incorporated into a sensible quality-of-life agenda for America?

The American Way. Before going down the European path, smart-growthers should realize that there are several differences between the United States and Europe. First, with approximately 2.3 billion acres of land, Americans simply have much more space in which to live.2 Second, the United States has a younger population than Europe, a population that needs more space to raise families. Third, the United States has consistently generated higher economic growth than Europe. This economic growth has increased incomes, which, in turn, has allowed for higher rates of home ownership. Finally, the United States has a lead in the use of decentralizing technologies, such as automobiles and computers, that allow people to live some distance from their place of work. Most Americans would consider all of these differences beneficial to their quality of life.

The European Approach. These differences explain, in part, the expansion of urban areas in the United States. But what has prevented the spread of cities and suburbs in Europe? The answer is simple – government policies that restrict personal freedoms, limit economic growth, raise costs on consumers, impose high rates of taxation, and maintain costly subsidies. Smart growthers note that Europeans live in cities because goods and services are available there. Indeed, in many European cities there are small shops on almost every street with more traditional “mom and pop” operations than are found in the United States. The reason? Strict government regulations on business hours, shop locations, large retail chains, and discount stores – regulations that significantly raise prices on consumer products. Small wonder that when many Europeans visit America, they bring empty suitcases to fill with competitively priced goods.

Europeans also live in high-density urban areas because of punitive tax structures. Energy taxes are so high that it is prohibitively expensive to even contemplate a daily commute of any distance – especially by car. High rates of both sales and income taxes also leave much less disposable income available for buying large homes. Such tax policies may limit the spread of urban areas, but few sensible Americans would wish to adopt them.

Preserving farmland is a mantra of smart-growthers, and Europe has certainly kept much of its farmland intact – even land that, in America, would have been developed long ago. However, to maintain farms in these areas, Europe must give its farmers vast subsidies. These subsidies are a heavy burden on taxpayers and also significantly raise the cost of food.

A Sensible Course? Importing European-style tax and regulatory systems would dramatically lower Americans’ standard of living and restrict personal freedoms. Yet without these systems, most elements of the smart-growthers’ agenda, such as dense population centers and mass transit projects, would be nearly impossible to implement. Must Americans choose between a future of unchecked sprawl or new economic and regulatory burdens?

Fortunately, the answer is no. Despite Al Gore’s lament over the “acre upon acre of asphalt [that] have transformed what were once mountain clearings and congenial villages into little more than massive parking lots,” the last forest in America is not about to be paved over.3 Urban areas comprise a mere 4.8 percent of land in the continental United States.4 Even if one accepts at face value smart-growthers’ assertion that development is consuming 50 acres per hour, that still amounts to less than 0.02 percent of America’s total acreage per year. The United States has also set aside substantial acreage for conservation, including 77 million acres of national parks and more than 104 million acres of land designated as “wilderness.”5 In addition, concerns about the disappearance of farmland are over-inflated. The rate at which farmland is converted to development has plummeted from 6.2 percent per year in the 1960s to 2.7 percent per year in the 1990s.6

Rational Policies. There are, however, steps lawmakers can take that could channel growth into already existing urban areas and help revitalize city cores. The federal death tax should be abolished so that landowners do not need to sell property to developers just to meet the tax bill. The Superfund law should be reformed to allow for the rapid redevelopment of waste sites in urban areas. Costly mandates – such as stringent new air quality regulations offering marginal environmental benefits at best – that force cities to raise taxes, which, in turn, drives out residents, should be revoked. Regulatory barriers that leave brownfields languishing should be revamped, and the administration’s so-called “environmental justice” policy should be scrapped. These policies could help tame the spread of urban areas while preserving freedom of choice and economic growth. However, legislators should realize that these steps are unlikely to satisfy smart-growthers. As Rep. Moran (D–Va.) stated, many smart-growthers are really “no-growthers.”7 A no-growth agenda, rather than “suburban sprawl,” is the real threat to quality of life.

1Rep. Moran, Congressional Sprawl Briefing, 6/29/99.

2Betsy A. Cody, “Major Federal Land Management Agencies: Management of Our Nation’s Lands and Resources,” Congressional Research Service, 5/15/95.

3Capital Research Center, Foundation Watch, July 1999.

4Samuel R. Staley. “The Sprawling of America: In Defense of the Dynamic City,” Reason Public Policy Institute, 1999, p. 10.

5Ross W. Gorte, “Federal Land and Resource Management: A Primer,” Congressional Research Service, 12/22/98.

6Staley. Ibid., p. 16.

7Rep. Moran. Ibid.