January 30, 1997 - From the January, 1997 issue

Suburban Development: The Endless Debate Over Sprawl Continues

Suburban development has taken the blame for various social and economic inequity in California. Tim Coyle, Senior Staff Vice President/Governmental Affairs of California Building Industry Association, defends the suburbs. According to Mr. Coyle, suburban development's impacts on the environment and economy aren't as bad as they might seem.

As California's economic recovery begins to take hold, suburban development is once again under assault. Predictably, its assailants have dusted off the old time-worn 1980s metaphors and unsubstantiated assertions and are blaming suburban development for causing various social and economic ills. 

But, the objectives of no­growthers and other emotionalists face obstacles in 1997 that weren't present ten years ago. First California’s annual production today is less than half of what it was in 1987 and it's been that way for more than six years.

Secondly, more people today than ever before want to own a home and, according to a national poll, they are eager to pursue home ownership even if it means great personal and financial sacrifice. Finally, the claims and assertions of those who oppose growth will be challenged by the facts about suburban development. These facts not only reveal the substantial contribution that home building—and home ownership—provide to local economics and to the state's, but also show: so­called urbanization rates have been greatly exaggerated; suburban development actually produces transportation efficiencies; and, policies such as urban growth boundaries create what growth critics call "leap-frog" development over sprawl. 

Many of these facts are presented in a new report, entitled Preserving the American Dream: The Facts About Suburban Communities and Housing Choice, written by Dr. Steven F. Hayward, Vice President for Research at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, and sponsored by Wells Fargo Bank, the California Building Industry Association and the Building Industry Institute. The report balances anti-growth distortions with a factual analysis of land use consumption, traffic congestion, environmental impacts and other factors.

Preserving the American Dream is intended to present the facts about suburban development and to encourage more enlightened discussions about how we grow in California. 

How Much Land Are We Really Using? 

California has just over 100 million acres of total land area… Urban and suburban uses of land amount to slightly more than 5 million acres of this total or about five percent. Forest land takes up more than 40 million acres—while agriculture uses about 29 million acres of land ... This snapshot shows vividly that urban and suburban areas use comparatively little land in California. 

Challenging The “Conventional Wisdom" About Suburban Development

Over the last 25 years, more than 80 percent of all new jobs have been generated in suburbs. Not surprisingly, over 80 percent of all new office, industrial, and retail construction has taken place in suburbs... Hence, the logic of "compact development" and "infill" is exactly backward. 

Today most commuting is taking place in the suburbs, with suburb-to-suburb commuting the rule rather than the exception. 


Infill Has Its Limits & Limitations 

Land use policies that intend to encourage infill development suffer on a larger scale the defects of traditional zoning: a piece of land that may be suitable for a particular use one day ... may not be desirable or suitable for the same purpose a year later. If a sprawl-limitation plan lacks the flexibility to allow the land market to adapt easily to changes in demand, it will not achieve the desired result of better-managed growth.

Compact Development Promises More Than It Delivers 

The most telling argument against policies that attempt to force compact development is that it would compel builders to provide housing and community designs that most home buyers don't prefer. To build housing in styles and in places that are not suited to consumer demand is like requiring the car industry to build Edsel sedans while car buyers clamor for minivans.

Counting the Benefits of Home Building

Home building has long been one of the larger direct stimulants to the economy. Each $ 1 million spent on construction generates a total of 30 jobs directly and indirectly and about $2 million in overall economic activity. 

The social importance of housing also needs to be kept in sharp focus. Often the argument against suburban development is framed in terms of "the quality of life." But "quality of life" should not mean the exclusive enjoyment of home ownership for some, with the power of the law used to prevent others from enjoying their own opportunity of home ownership. 


Land use conflicts are a perennial feature of modem life, and require intelligent policies and decisions by government. But these policies and decisions should be informed by facts rather than cliches, and a balanced understanding of the place of housing in our economy and in our social life. We should eschew complicated and ambitious growth control schemes that would impose major constraints on the land use market. Government policies for "targeted" growth cannot hope to match the efficiency of a function market that pays heed, not to bureaucratic mandate, but to consumer choice.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.