What’s wrong with urban sprawl?

Urban is hip. Bikes, messenger bags, and apartment-sized dogs are in. Increasingly, young, educated professionals are disavowing the suburban dreams of their parents’ generation and moving to city centers.1 This trend embodies a long-held academic suspicion that urban sprawl is both economically wasteful and socially disadvantageous.2 However, despite emerging consensus about the existence and causes of sprawl, its consequences are much less clear and economists have so far failed to fully articulate the reasons why what so many people think they know is true- that sprawl is bad.

Despite this uncertainty, hundreds of ballot measures have been introduced to combat urban sprawl, and a large percentage of them have passed.3 Accurate information about sprawl is all the more important given the huge ethical implications anti-sprawl policy measures; i.e., is it fair to create open space rings around a city because they look and feel good if they drive up real estate prices in the city for everyone, even the poor? This student paper explores the limitations of traditional urban growth models for analyzing sprawl, considers the direction taken by new models, and identifies important areas of future study to help inform these critical policy choices.

What’s Wrong with Sprawl?

1 See The Brookings Institute, The State of Metropolitan America, http://www.brookings.edu/metro/StateOf Metro America.aspx.

2 Thomas Nechyba and Randall Walsh, Urban Economics, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 18, 177–200, at 177 (2004) (hereinafter Nechyba).

3 Nechyba, at 177; Sierra Club, Sprawl: The Dark Side of the American Dream, 1998, http://www.si-erraclub.org/sprawl/report98/report.asp.


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