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Economic Consequences of Sprawl

Government and academic studies consistently find that sprawl is much more expensive than compact patterns of development

January 17, 2005 |

1974The Costs of Sprawl, a three-volume report by the Real Estate Corporation for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, concluded that compact development patterns were much less expensive and environmentally damaging than sprawling residential and commercial development. It is one of the most significant critiques of sprawl ever published.

1997Fiscal Impacts of Alternative Land Development Patterns in Michigan: The Costs of Current Development Versus Compact Growth, by Rutgers and Michigan State Universities, found that, in the 18 communities studied, land consumption and costs for infrastructure and municipal services were far less expensive when Smart Growth principles replaced sprawling patterns of development.

1997 The Cost of Sprawl, published by the Maine State Planning Office, found that residents of fast growing “new suburbs” were paying many “hidden costs,” including higher taxes, homeowners insurance, and school construction costs. Although its student population declined by 27,000 from 1975 to 1995, the state spent $727 million to construct and maintain new suburban schools. Although Maine’s population declined 10 percent in the 1980s, its residents drove 57 percent more miles, highway costs increased by a third, local governments added 100 miles of new roads annually, and police employment increased by 10 percent, even with a 20 percent fall in the crime rate. 

1998 The Costs of Sprawl – Revisited, prepared for the National Research Council, analyzed nearly 500 studies of the fiscal, economic, and environmental effects of sprawl and concluded that while “most of the American public is not unhappy with the current patterns of development in metropolitan areas – it simply can no longer afford it.”

2000The Costs of Sprawl – 2000 concludes that even modest new Smart Growth policies would save 4.4 million acres of farmland, $12.6 billion in sewer and water expenses, $109 billion in road construction costs, and $420 billion in private sector development costs.

2000 The Costs of Sprawl in Pennsylvania, published by 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, reported that costs for infrastructure and housing are significantly higher in sprawling regions than in planned-growth areas. Compact development can save up to 25 percent of road and utility construction and up to 20 percent of water and sewer costs. Applied to local road construction, “the savings would be $52 million per year.”

2000The Costs and Benefits of Alternative Growth Patterns: The Impact Assessment of the New Jersey State Plan, published by Rutgers University, found a state plan that encourages settling in existing communities could save local governments $161 million by 2020, conserve 100,000 acres of farmland, save $870 million in road construction costs, and eliminate $1.4 billion in water and sewer development.  

2002Growth in the Heartland: Challenges and Opportunities for Missouri, a Brookings Institution report, found that Pettis County, located near Kansas City, will gain 3.6 percent in tax revenue thanks to population increases and development. But its costs will rise 6 percent, generating a $2.4 million deficit unless the county raises taxes.

2003The Fiscal Cost of Sprawl: How Sprawl Contributes to Local Governments’ Budget Woes, by Environment Colorado Research and Policy Center, concludes that “sprawling development does not generate enough tax revenue to cover the costs it incurs…If growth patterns do not change in the Denver area…sprawl will cost local governments $4.3 billion more in infrastructure costs than Smart Growth.”

2003The Jobs Are Back In Town: Urban Smart Growth and Construction Employment, by the Washington-based research group Good Jobs First, found that metro areas with concentrated growth had 30 percent more construction activity than areas that encouraged sprawl, and concluded that Smart Growth generates more residential, commercial, and transportation construction jobs than sprawl does.

2004Investing in a Better Future: A Review of the Fiscal and Competitive Advantages of Smarter Growth Development Patterns, by the Brookings Institution, found that in Kentucky’s Shelby County, which managed its growth, the cost of additional police, fire, highways, schools, and solid-waste services for every 1,000 new residents added $88.27 to an average family’s expenses. But in Pendelton County, which allows sprawling development patterns, those same services added $1,222 per family — 13 times as much.

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