Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Is Suburban Sprawl Bad?

First, we need to remove the biases from this question:

1. The phrase "suburban sprawl" is the opposite of "urban suffocation" -- yet we rarely hear people ask, "Is urban suffocation bad?"

2. This question assumes a negative starting point; why not ask: "Is suburban freedom good?"

So, a more neutral phrasing would be: "What is the optimal population density?"

And most people would reply to the effect of "The optimal population density is where I am living now." No surprise there, considering that people are free to live where they please, and population density is a factor they use to select a place to live.

In other words, an equivalent question would be: "Is strawberry a bad flavor?" Or: "Is blue a bad color?" It all depends on who you ask; to each his own.

However, there are people who claim that population densities have negative externalities; i.e., my choice to live in a low-density area makes your life more miserable. Or, for that matter, my decision to live in a high-density area makes your life more miserable. Specifically: If everyone else likes low densities, then there won't be a sufficiently large demand to produce your preferred high density. And if everyone like high densities, then there won't be sufficient demand to produce low-density areas.

If everyone else likes strawberry ice cream, then there won't be a sufficiently large demand to produce your mustard ice cream.

People often use rationalizations to support mandated densities. Generally speaking, everyone feels that any added density to their neighborhood is a bad thing. And so, cities cap urban development to "preserve the character of neighborhoods". And suburbs cap development to keep out the riffraff. But if the population grows, and the law prohibits increases in existing areas, then the only place to build will be on undeveloped land further from the core. Hence, "sprawl". And, it seems like a good thing for most residents, as sprawl limits the population growth in their areas.

And so, we come to the final objection, which is: People who come to live in new "sprawling" areas really ought to live in a manner prescribed by people who live in the existing areas. Or, at a minimum, the newcomers should not live in densities that are less than existing densities elsewhere. Why? Supposedly, low densities are less efficient that high densities, and the new space hogs will use more fuel. Of course, they might also live in new fuel-efficient homes. Or they might spend less time in highway congestion (assuming that enough highways are built). Or, maybe they will have fewer children -- and therefore be less of a drain on "our resources". Or maybe their fewer children will not be enough to produce things for the rest of us.

Or maybe this or maybe that.

None of which answers the original question: What is the optimal population density? The answer is mostly likely parallel to: What is the optimal ice cream flavor?

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