The Three Keys to Containing Sprawl

by Hanno T. Beck

The successful solution to sprawl is not some formula. Rather, succeeding against sprawl means having a variety of tools at your disposal, so that you can shape the best solution for your particular situation.

I baked a birthday cake for my wife a few weeks ago. White cake, with pink icing. To serve it, I used a knife to cut the cake, then a sort of spatula to lift the slice of cake, then a fork to eat the cake. It was just a simple piece of cake, for crying out loud, but we used three tools to serve it. Three tools, just to control a piece of cake!

Do you think that sprawl is less complex than a piece of cake? Do you think that all sprawl is caused by one simple factor, has one set of characteristics, and always has the same solution? Of course not. There are lots of causes of sprawl, and lots of types of sprawl. Sprawl is more complicated than a piece of cake.

So how many anti-sprawl tools do we need? We need as many as possible. Right now I am going to put three tools in your anti-sprawl toolkit. They are three general tools, you can use them in many ways and in many combinations.

Traffic lights have three colors. Red, yellow, green. If you can remember that then you can remember the three tools I will present here, because they are a red light, a yellow light, and a green light.

Here is what I mean.

The first tool against sprawl is the red light. Red light means STOP! Stop sprawl directly. You are using the red light when you resist a new WalMart store that wants to locate on the outskirts of town. You are using the red light when you propose a law to protect wilderness areas from development.

Sometimes the red light wins! But it's just one tool, and not always the best. Suppose you're trying to stop an inefficient, unneeded shopping center from locating near your community then the red light is all there is. You simply try not to allow the new development.

But in many other cases when we work against sprawl, the red light does not make so much sense. Most of you are aware that in Portland Oregon they have a development boundary, a ring around the city. Beyond that boundary you are not allowed to develop land.

That's a classic red-light approach to sprawl -- just ban it. But what are the results? For one thing, all the land speculators who hold lands outside the boundary will lobby, every year, for that boundary to be extended to include their sites. You will have to fight with them over and over again, every year.

And inside the city, where development is allowed, urban land speculators see their sites skyrocket in value. But let's use common sense -- when people want to build housing or start businesses in a city, they need the land to be cheap, not expensive. If the land costs a lot, they will simply have to go to some other city, and build new housing and new businesses there. The local economy might be choked.

My point is, the red light is a great tool against sprawl in some cases, like when you have a local fight against a WalMart, but it is not a great tool in other cases.

And yet, many anti-sprawl activists have been trying to win their war using just this one tool.

That's a recipe for failure! To be successful, you must have more tools in your toolkit.

So let's talk about the yellow light now. Yellow light means proceed with caution, proceed at your own risk.

If you want to stop sprawl, how about forcing the sprawlers to proceed at their own risk?

Right now you and I spend a lot of tax money subsidizing sprawl. We pay taxes to government, which turns around and builds roads, sewers, offers tax breaks and all sorts of free goodies to sprawl development. We cover developers' risks for them.

The yellow light says, just stop subsidizing sprawl. Stop paying people to make sprawl, and by that alone you will have taken a huge step to stop it. After all, you and I know that development only takes place because the developer expects to make money. If the developer could not count on taxpayer subsidies for roads, sewers, new schools and so on, would the developer be as likely to make a profit?

Those of us who live in areas where the infrastructure is already built in, like in a city, are paying taxes that help cover the cost of new developments. To phrase it harshly, the inner-city taxpayers are making welfare payments to the wealthy suburban developers.

What if we stopped giving government assistance to suburban developers? Let's take them off welfare and see if they can survive in a free market economy!

Here's a perfect example -- If developers want to build in a flood plain area, make them buy their own flood insurance. That's just common sense. But today the government insures them at our expense!

We have mentioned the red light, and the yellow light. What is the green light tool against sprawl?

Red means stop, yellow means caution, green must mean ... Go!

We fight against sprawl, but does that mean we don't want people to live in decent housing? Does that mean we don't want people to be able to find jobs? Of course we want jobs and housing.

Well then, the green light says, if you want to cut down the pressure for sprawl, help point the way to areas that really need jobs and housing; let's give urban redevelopment a chance; let's recycle our cities.

Cities are already paved over; recycle our cities before we pave over the clean and green countryside. The cities have the infrastructure already; and it is not being used to anywhere near its full capacity. Cities already have electricity, roads, water and sewer service, police, fire and emergency medical protection; mass transit, school buildings. And get this -- Cities want housing and they want jobs. They want development

So team up with the urban activists, the church groups, the housing task forces. They are not enemies, they are your best friends. Join with them and instead of just working to block the pressure for development, you can work to channel it in a direction where it will help the community.

One great specific tactic -- work to cut the city's property tax on housing and other buildings, while raising the property tax on land value. Same revenue as before. You'll make taxes higher for land holders who do not develop in the city, and make lower taxes for those who do develop "infill". That simple change in the property tax law can turn a city into a magnet for development, and every quarter acre of the city that gets recycled, is several acres of countryside preserved.

To summarize:

Sprawl is complex, so you can't expect to fight it with the same tool or the same strategy over and over. I can't even serve a piece of cake without three tools, so you deserve at least three tools in your anti-sprawl toolkit.

Those three tools are the red light, the yellow light, and the green light.

Red light means stop the sprawl. Fight it directly, try to ban it.
Yellow light means stop subsidizing sprawl, stop giving sprawl special privileges.
Green light means encourage recycling of cities, channel sprawl pressures into places where they help the community.

Red light, yellow light, green light. Those are your three tools against sprawl. I hope that each of you will go forward and try them out, and invent additional tools of your own as you go along.


This article, based on a 1999 speech, appears courtesy of


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