AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Originally published in the summer 2002 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter


Once upon a time, city and urban were not dirty words in America. But in the second half of the 20th century, American cities were transformed by (and sometimes ruined by) suburban sprawl—the movement of people and jobs away from older urban cores to newer, more thinly-populated, auto-dependent areas known as suburbs, whether they were within city limits or not.

In the last decade, the continued acceleration of sprawl has met with public resistance. Environmentalists complain that sprawl means more driving and the destruction of woodlands, wetlands and wildlife. Residents of cities and older suburbs complain that sprawl turns their communities into wastelands.

When I first got involved in sprawl related issues in the Rust Belt, sprawl was a nonpartisan issue, so it was easy for me to be both a Republican city committeeman and chair of the Sierra Club’s sprawl committee. But here in Atlanta, conservatives and libertarians tend to respond to public concerns about sprawl in one way: deny, deny, deny. Deny that sprawl is a problem, deny that concerns about sprawl are anything more than part of the vast left-wing conspiracy to regulate us to death.

Virginia Postrel wrote in Reason, “The anti-sprawl campaign is about telling Americans how they should live and work, about sacrificing individuals’ values to the values of their politically powerful betters.”

The conventional conservative wisdom seems to be: “Sprawl is the result of the free market at work. Conservatives have no good reason to worry about sprawl. Even if sprawl is somehow problematic and somehow related to statism, it cannot possibly be limited without making government bigger and more intrusive.”

My purpose here is to show that all three assumptions are wrong: that sprawl was in large part created by governmental intervention in the economy, that sprawl is in fact a conservative issue, and that sprawl has conservative solutions. Government has encouraged migration from cities to suburbs and newer areas through housing policy, transportation policy, and education policy.


Housing Policy

As early as the 1930s, the federal government was taking its first small steps towards ruining our cities. Before the New Deal, the home mortgage system was based on down payments as high as 50% and terms as short as five years. To encourage home ownership, the New Dealers created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which has insured mortgages against default since 1934. Specifically, the FHA guaranteed enough of the value of collateral that down payments of 10% became the norm.

Unfortunately, the FHA systematically favored suburbs over cities, by guaranteeing home loans only in areas that it defined as “low-risk.” “Low-risk” areas turned out to be those that were thinly populated, dominated by newer homes and all-white. In a word: suburbs.

For example, one FHA underwriting manual taught that the FHA should concentrate its efforts on newer, lower density areas because “crowded neighborhoods lessen desirability” and “older properties in a neighborhood have a tendency to accelerate the transition to lower-class occupancy.” As a result of the FHA’s biases, the FHA generally insured suburban mortgages while refusing to insure urban mortgages—in other words, bribing homeowners to move to the suburbs. Although the FHA changed its policies in the 1960s, by then it was too late for a lot of city neighborhoods.

While the federal government was bribing middle-class homebuyers to leave cities, it was bribing the poor to stay in cities. Another New Deal program, the Housing Act of 1937, funded public housing for the poor. The Housing Act provided that any city creating public housing had to create a municipal housing authority or contract to work with one, so suburbs that did not want public housing could easily avoid it.

In addition to ensuring that public housing would be concentrated in cities, the federal government also ensured that public housing would be packed with poverty. Federal housing laws have consistently limited public housing to the poorest of the poor. For example, today’s housing laws require that 60% of public housing occupants earn less than 30% of their metro area’s median income.

So the federal government packed poor people into the cities through public housing, thus ensuring that cities had more poverty and smaller tax bases than suburbs. And by dumping public housing in the cities, the federal government also made cities less desirable to the middle class—because where you have concentrated poverty you have crime, and most people try to flee crime-ridden neighborhoods if they can afford it.


Transportation Policy

Federal transportation policy also encouraged suburban migration. For nearly all of the 20th century, a major priority of government at all levels has been to build roads.

As early as 1921, the federal government began to support highway building, by enacting a Federal Road Act that designated 200,000 miles of road as eligible for federal matching funds. At that time, government at all levels was pouring $1.4 billion into highways—a sum that grew over time and exploded after the Interstate Highway Act was passed in the 1950s.

By contrast, until the 1960s, public transit systems were typically private and unsubsidized. In fact, local governments often taxed streetcar users to pay for highways, by using general revenues for road spending.

Today, the federal government spends over $30 billion a year on highways; state and local governments spend more than twice that much.

So the government likes to throw money at roads. So what? Road spending has degraded cities in two ways: by physically destroying city neighborhoods and by making it easier for people to move to suburbs. During the first decade of interstate highway construction, federal bureaucrats destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes to make room for highways. Nearly 20% of Baltimore’s African Americans had their homes destroyed to make room for I-95 and I-93. Nearly every city has lost a few neighborhoods to highways.

Sometimes even the threat of a new highway destroyed a neighborhood. For example, in the 1960s Buffalo city planners debated a highway known as the West Side Arterial, that would have destroyed the Lower West Side of Buffalo. Banks, insurance companies and other businesses were unwilling to invest subject to a death sentence, so homeowners took the hint and left the neighborhood.

More importantly, highways create sprawl by enabling people to live farther from downtown jobs, thus giving commuters easier access to cities from once-distant suburbs. And where highway-driven residential development goes, commercial development follows, as retail businesses move to catch up with their customers and employers move to catch up with their more upscale employees. As one federal court wrote four years ago, “Highways create demand for travel… by their very existence.”

For example, Washington’s Beltway was designed to allow East Coast motorists to bypass the city. Instead, it became a magnet for office and retail centers that sprouted near exits, such as Tyson’s Corner.

Some deny that highways cause sprawl. It is occasionally argued that people will move to suburbs anyhow, and that the movement of people to suburbs near those highways is just a coincidence. To believe this argument, you have to believe that every single person who moves to some suburb near a major highway would still live there if his or her commute was going to be on two-lane gravel roads all the way to downtown —obviously an absurd premise.

In fact, this wall of denial is beginning to crumble, as even organizations supporting roads and sprawl begin to admit that highways shift development. For example, in 1999 the National Association of Home Builders—hardly an anti-sprawl group—conducted a survey that purported to show the popularity of suburban living. The survey asked respondents what amenities would encourage them to shift neighborhoods. The top response, cited by 55% of respondents, was “highway access.” If highway access makes a suburb more popular, obviously building highways to the countryside makes the countryside more popular and more developed.

Now, it has been argued that highways don’t create sprawl because after all, Europe is much more transit oriented than we are and they still have some sprawl. Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation, in making this argument, writes: “In Europe and Japan…comprehensive and heavily-subsidized public transit systems helped facilitate the exodus of central- city residents to outlying communities.” But you can’t have it both ways. If a commuter train facilitates movement to suburbs, so does a highway.

Another counter-argument is that suburbanization was well underway by the time the interstates were built. To which I respond: So were highways. The feds had been financing highways for decades, as had state and local governments.

Moreover, the suburban migration of the second half of the 20th century was radically different in degree than the suburban migration of the first. Of the 18 American cities that had over 500,000 people in 1950, every one of them gained population in the first half of the century. By contrast, in the following three decades most of those cities lost people, sometimes to a calamitous degree: 13 in the ‘50s, 15 in the ‘60s, 16 in the ‘70s. St. Louis has lost over 60% of its 1950 population. Buffalo and Cleveland have lost almost half.


Education Policy

Government policy has created sprawl in a third major area: education policy.

Most people know, of course, that families often flee cities because of bad urban schools. But what makes city schools “worse” than suburban schools? The intersection of two factors. First, the policies I’ve mentioned above make cities into dumping grounds for the poor. And second, government makes one’s school depend on one’s address.

Typically, students from underprivileged backgrounds achieve less than students from rich backgrounds. Numerous studies have shown that a student’s social background has a more significant effect on his school achievement than anything that happens at school.

For example, Christopher Jencks of Harvard wrote in Inequality that “qualitative differences between high schools seem to explain about 2% of the variation in the students’ educational achievement.” Generally, the slower students tend to be from poorer households. It logically follows that no matter how efficiently they are run, schools filled with poverty-stricken children quickly get a reputation as “bad schools” and parents try to avoid them whenever possible.

The second factor causing school- related sprawl: under American state laws, bureaucrats assign students to schools based on their city of residence.

If you live in the District of Columbia, you go to school in the District with other children from the District. Because the District has more low-income children, this means that District schools have more underperformers. And because District students achieve less, District parents want to get the heck out of the District and go to schools in the suburbs, where students are more well off.

So state laws tying schooling to residence have rigged the dice against diverse cities with lots of poor people. And then the federal government made the problem worse, through its botched attempt at so-called desegregation. If school assignment depended on neighborhood, diverse neighborhoods would still have so-called “bad schools,” because students from underprivileged backgrounds would be driving down the test scores. But even so, homogeneously well-off city neighborhoods would still have good schools with good test scores. But in the 1970s, the federal courts decided that city schools had to be racially integrated, which—because blacks are so much poorer than whites (and were more so then than today)—meant that they had to be economically integrated as well.

By contrast, the federal courts didn’t bother to apply similar rules to suburbs; they reasoned that because suburbs had never had any blacks to discriminate against, they obviously didn’t need to stop discriminating. Parents in middle-class neighborhoods looked at the situation and said: Well, we can send our kids to city schools dominated by kids from the worst neighborhoods in town, or we can blow $10,000 per year on private school, or we can move to the suburbs (where thanks to the federal courts, the schools were still lily white). Not surprisingly, most moved to the suburbs.

Click here to continue reading Part 2.


Michael E. Lewyn, a long-time REP member, is a columnist, author, and associate professor at John Marshall Law School in Atlanta. He earned his B.A. at Wesleyan University and his J.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mike has published extensively on the related subjects of sprawl and transportation, including:

  • “Sprawl, Growth Boundaries and the Rehnquist Court,” accepted for publication by Utah Law Review.
  • “Oregon’s Growth Boundaries: Myth and Reality,” 32 Envtl. Law Reporter 10160 (2002).
  • “Campaign of Sabotage: Big Government’s War Against Public Transportation,” 26 Columbia Journal of Environmental Law 259 (2001).
  • “Suburban Sprawl: Not Just an Environmental Issue,” 84 Marquette Law Review 301 (2000) (reprinted in 2001 West Planning and Zoning Handbook).
  • “Are Spread Out Cities Really Safer?” 41 Cleveland State Law Review 279 (1993).
  • “The Urban Crisis: Made in Washington,” 4 Journal of Law and Policy 513 (1996) .

The speech from which this article was taken was given in August 2001, at the Smart Growth Speaker Series at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. We thank Mike for allowing us to publish this outstanding contribution to the national debate over sprawl.

Here’s another fine article on the subject, written by State Representative David Steil, a member of REP’s Pennsylvania Chapter and published in the chapter’s newsletter, The Green Elephant’s Gazette: Is sprawl a Republican issue?