Ewing 1997 - “Is Los Angeles-Style Sprawl Desirable?”

Ewing, Reid
“Is Los Angeles-Style Sprawl Desirable?”
Journal of American Planning Association.
Winter 1997; v.63, n.1; pp.107-126.
On the Web
Relevance: medium

In a literature review Ewing discusses the characteristics, causes, and costs of sprawl, refuting pro-sprawl arguments by Gordon and Richardson.  Causes include land market failure and housing and transportation subsidies.  Costs include longer commutes, energy consumption, air pollution, and loss of open space, among other things.  This article is a good introduction to the subject.

Characteristics of sprawl:

  • Poor accessibility between residences and retail caused by leapfrog development.  This results in longer trips lengths and travel times for residents.
  • Lack of functional open space.  Rather than useful, open space like public parks or farmland, sprawl ties up open space in private backyards or vacant lots.
  • Density vs. distance functions.  Ewing's idea of compact development includes high density downtown and discrete peaks of dense activity centers regularly spaced away from downtown.  By contrast, sprawl is a gooey mess of low average density.

Causes of sprawl and refutations of myths:

  • Subsidies.  Sprawl is subsidized by the highway system, low gasoline prices, the tax code favoring home ownership, utility rate structures independent of distance from central facilities, etc.
  • The free rider problem of open space.  The owner of open space (farmland, forests) cannot charge for the benefit of living near their open space.  For example, as people move into rural areas to be near farmland each farmer has more financial incentive to develop his land at the going price
  • Consumer preference.  While Americans prefer detached single-family homes, they do not desire the other suburban trappings. Consumers split evenly between low and medium-to-high densities and between mixed- and single-use neighborhoods.  Consumers are also just as happy living with 6-7 houses per acre as with 3-4 houses per acre.
  • Technological innovation.  Although telecommuting has made geography irrelevant for some business activities, it cannot do so for all.

Costs of sprawl:

  • More vehicle miles traveled.  "Households living in the most accessible locations spend about 40 minutes less per day traveling by vehicle than do household living in the least accessible locations" 
  • Energy consumption and air pollution. More driving means more gasoline use and pollutant emissions.
  • Infrastructure and public service costs. Studies differ as to whether density reduces per capita costs.  Density increases the efficiency of public infrastructure (roads, water and sewer pipes) but may require more infrastructure (stop lights) and the infrastructure may need to be replaced more often.  Ewing argues that per capita costs fall within the normal range of densities and only increase at extreme densities.
  • Loss of resource lands. Sprawl consumes more land than compact development, leading to loss of (often prime) farmland and natural areas and to habitat fragmentation.


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