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Friday, March 31, 2006


Social Equity and Sprawl

Smart growth seems to be touted as a tool to help contain and even possibly stop sprawl, which is an evil because of the costs to transportation, natural resources, etc. This article doesn't look at sprawl from a standpoint of being a nuisance to the environment or even as a problem in terms of convenience. Rather, this article argues that sprawl creates a social injustice because the wealthy, impartially the white or non minorities, are able to move out of the inner cities or other undesirable areas and neighborhoods, leaving behind vacant and run down communities. The minorities are stuck in a community that doesn't offer decent jobs because they too have left with the 'whites'. Smart growth is seen as the tool that will fix these injustices. The article blames the sprawl primarily on public policy, rather than free market responses. I would have to disagree.

The article claims that it is public policies, such as the federal government authorizing funds for interstate, that cause, or at least at a minimum enable sprawl. As the argument goes, the highways make it easy for people to leave the densely populated cities and move outward. The article contends this is not due to free market principles. I disagree. The federal government allocates money to be spent on interstates when demand is such that the interstate is warranted. The way that a demand is established is through people choosing (through free market) to move to the suburbs or other outlying areas. The government doesn't simply choose to put interstates in random locations and then people emerge around them. Rather, an identifiable pattern emerges where people are beginning to locate in an area, without an interstate, and the government decides that the funds for an interstate are best spent in that particular location due to the concentration of residents. Without a doubt the emergence of the interstate makes it easier for people to move to outer areas, but the interstates are only placed there after people choose to be there.

The article also posits the claim that sprawl is unfair to those in the inner cities or neighborhoods that are left vacant because they can not afford to get out like the others. This argument, while possibly true, doesn't seem to be reason enough on its own to warrant drastic measures to implement smart growth to curb sprawl. This is simply a moral argument. The authors of the article obviously feel bad for the people who are left behind and 'trapped' in the ran down neighborhoods, but they fail to make a convincing argument as to how this is such a bad thing. It can't possibly be that because sprawl caused the migration to the outer limits, and abandoned buildings in its wake that this somehow makes those stuck behind significantly worse off. If they were significantly worse off, then that means that they would have had to have been fairly good off before everyone began leaving, and for this to have been true then they too should have been able to afford to flee to the suburbs with everyone else. Because they didn't we have to assume that they were in poverty to begin with or at least not 'well' off, in which case them being left behind doesn't seem to hinder their economic situation much more.

While smart growth may ultimately be a positive economic tool, this article doesn't seem to make a convincing argument that the use of smart growth to control 'white flight' in order to protect the poor left behind is practical or even necessary. Sprawl seems to be a result at least in part to free market activity and not specifically driven by government policy like the article claims.

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