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Is Sprawl Making Us Fat?

By Paul Gessing

There is no doubt that more Americans than ever before are overweight. This situation – regardless of how big a problem it may be – is obviously not the result of genetics. Americans didn’t mysteriously wind up with all the “fat” genes in the world. Instead, fat-inducing behaviors like avoiding exercise and physical exertion whenever possible, combined with an environment in which plentiful, tasty, and fattening food are in abundant supply, are undoubtedly significant causes of Americans’ growing waistlines.

Among the factors that many believe is an important factor in causing obesity is suburban sprawl. Several recent studies have argued that there is a strong correlation between suburban life and obesity. A 2003 report from Smart Growth America and the Surface Transportation Policy Project, Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl, links growing obesity concerns with sprawl, as did a study of 11,000 people living in the suburbs around Atlanta which found a direct correlation between the amount of time spent in a car and an individual’s weight. Since sprawl is automobile-intensive – requiring denizens to drive anytime they leave the home – this is believed to be yet another piece of evidence of sprawl’s negative impact on health.

Clearly, our surroundings have an impact on the way we live, but does sprawl really cause people to get fat? The simple answer is “no.” No matter how much people drive during a given day or how few sidewalks they may have in their neighborhoods, suburbanites still have plenty of opportunities to get off the couch and to exercise their way to good health. Relative to those in the inner cities, wealthy suburbanites and those living in the sprawling exurbs have more than ample opportunities to invest in a gym membership or some other means to keep in shape. Since wealthy Americans are obese at far lower rates than those in the inner-cities, the argument that living in the suburbs “causes” obesity falls flat on its face.

The significance of the statistical evidence of the obesity-sprawl connection is also quite debatable. For example, according to Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl, the average Cook County (Chicago) resident weighs 0.9 pounds (15 ounces) less than suburbanites in Lake County, Illinois. In effect, sprawl in Chicago can be said to add less than a pound to a suburbanite’s weight. The researchers discover similarly trivial findings across the country. For the country as a whole and comparing citizen weight in the 25 counties at either extreme of sprawl and compactness, 19.2 percent of residents in the least sprawling communities were obese, while 21.2 percent in the most sprawling were obese. In other words, sprawl may have an effect on our waistlines, but it is not a controlling factor.

The ultimate causes of obesity are far more personal and complicated than just sprawl. Rather, they include the combination of jobs that allow/force us to be inactive for long stretches throughout the day, a plentiful supply of cheap food, and our tendency to choose the foods that are most flavorful and oftentimes the worst for us. Certainly, it is valid to point out the fact that behaviors associated with sprawl including sitting in a car for an inordinate amount of time, not including some form of exercise (like walking) in your daily routine, and eating at the myriad of fast food restaurants that tend to sprout like so many weeds in suburban areas may indeed be contributing factors to the current obesity epidemic, but they are probably not the main factors.

The real question that needs to be asked about sprawl is “why do Americans – especially those with families – feel the need to move ever further from major urban areas and into cookie-cutter “McMansions” far away from existing city life? Suburbanization has been a fact of American life for more than 50 years and some of it has occurred naturally as the population has grown wealthier and begun looking for greener pastures and larger homes, but sprawl is by no means a byproduct of “free markets” in housing and land use.

Some on both the left and the right of the political spectrum have made the claim that sprawl is simply “what the market chooses.” Conservative Charles Tomlinson argues this point in Urban Sprawl is Just another Name for Growth and Prosperity, an article posted on the Objectivist Center web site, as do Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson of the free market oriented Cascade Policy Institute in their article Sprawl is Good. The fact is that many believe that sprawl is simply the end result of the builders reacting to the demands of the marketplace.

It is certainly reasonable to argue that sprawl is not as bad as some may believe, but blaming it on “the free market” is downright silly. Although most Americans believe they live in a “free market” society, they fail to realize just how heavy government’s hand is in directing the marketplace. The ire of environmentalists especially should be focused on government incompetence and meddling rather than the supposed ravages of the free market.

Zoning and tax policy are just the two most significant tools governments use to create sprawl. Unsurprisingly, these policies are primarily used to benefit government. Examples of these policies can be observed in the outer suburbs of Washington, DC, where government officials have attempted to attract businesses while keeping home-builders out. The Washington Post, in an August 2004 article, “Space for Employers, Not for Homes: Residents Driven Farther Out as D.C. Suburbs Lure Business and Limit Housing,” illustrates how the hunger for more and more revenues on the parts of local governments has forced suburbanites to look even farther a field for affordable housing.

In Clarksburg, Maryland, for example, the master plan approved by Montgomery County leaders permits enough office space and shops to employ 40,000 workers. But it deliberately does not provide for enough housing for all of those workers – fewer than 15,000 new homes. By the time Clarksburg is completed, homes for thousands of workers will have to be built elsewhere. The simple fact is that local governments want to attract business and limit population growth because workplaces pay more taxes and use fewer government services than homeowners do. The biggest sprawl-inducing factor here is the government-run school systems which suck up tax revenues and make families a bad thing and businesses good things from a government official’s perspective. Governments enforce these policies, in part, through zoning and other development controls.

Unfortunately, by creating housing shortages, restrictive policies push developers, home buyers and renters farther and farther away to find available land and more reasonably priced houses. Zoning is only one of many ways in which government tax and regulatory policies induce sprawl. The Sierra Club, in its report Sprawl Costs Us All explains how other government policies subsidize sprawl including:

• The building of new and wider roads;
• Building of new schools on the fringe;
• Extending sewer and water lines to sprawling development;
• Extending emergency services to the fringe;
• Direct pay-outs to developers;
• Construction in flood plains.

As a replacement for current government policies, The Sierra Club, in its report Smart Growth and Affordable Housing calls for more transit spending by government, more bike paths, and several other government planning and subsidization measures that are designed to discourage driving:

• Increase funding for clean public transportation options such as fuel-efficient buses and light rail electric trains;

• Reduce funding for road and car-only projects;

• Increase funding for sidewalks and bike paths;

• Encourage Transit-Oriented Development to integrate public transit with housing and business;

• Increase public involvement in the transportation planning process so citizens have an equal voice in their community’s future;

• Encourage innovative incentive-based programs that encourage walking, biking, or car-pooling;

• Authorize zoning decisions that encourage mixed-use development.

Although the Sierra Club calls for ending subsidies, their recommendations, especially their calls for even greater transit subsidies (In 2000, transit subsidies averaged $2.51 a ride and 49 cents per passenger mile.), fail to account for the massive government intervention in all aspects of transportation and land use. Their stance against government subsidies would be far more credible if they consistently advocated market-based solutions for sprawl.

In a 2001 policy brief, Sam Staley of the Reason Public Policy Institute provides more market-based approaches to reducing sprawl. Among his solutions are:

• Place consumers at the heart of growth management by gearing policies toward ensuring the highest priority is given to housing individuals and families in the kinds and types of homes and neighborhoods they want (if adopted by local governments, this philosophy would allow for equal parts business and housing);

• Maximize housing choice and innovation through the real-estate market. Current planning approval processes are inherently conservative and protect the status quo, regardless of actual impacts on the community, neighborhoods, or neighbors. Policymakers should minimize the tendency of the current planning process–which is highly politicized–to prevent change and innovation.

Rather than adopt zoning codes or planning ordinances that impose citywide standards and criteria, planning should be dynamic and tailored to the needs of individual neighborhoods and places. Prescriptive zoning districts should be replaced with ones that allow a wider variety of uses and types while regulation focuses on impacts;

• Public services should use the same pricing structure as private utilities. Public services (e.g. water and sewer) should be tied directly to consumer demand and priced the same way that private utilities price their services (e.g. cable, telephone, electricity). This is also called “full-cost pricing,” wherein operating, maintenance, debt, and capital costs are all included in the fee consumers pay when they use the service. Impact fees should be avoided because of their highly politicized nature, and the way they tend to shift the burden of financing citywide services onto future residents. Impact fees can be avoided completely by incorporating capital costs directly into the user fee charged by local utilities. (this would solve the Sierra Club’s problems with “subsidies” for water and utilities);

• Nuisance-based approaches are the focus of development control. The tangible spillover impacts of development on neighbors and the community (e.g. noise, storm-water runoff, etc.) should be mitigated directly. This is already done when developers are required to accommodate projected traffic by adding turn lanes, or expanding existing highway capacity. Similarly, landscaping is used to buffer land uses to minimize noise or address aesthetic concerns. This differs from more traditional approaches which rely on zoning to segregate uses as a crude way to regulate nuisances.

• Public facilities and services should be adequately planned. Long-run planning for facilities creates certainty for private land markets about the capacity to support future growth. This can help guide private-sector investment decisions.

• Local government and urban planning should be as value neutral as possible. Cities and elected officials should avoid incorporating subjective and value-driven criteria into the planning process, which further politicizes the development-control process. Cities, townships, counties, and other jurisdictions should also avoid the tendency to adopt blanket solutions to urban growth and development, recognizing that different types of cities and neighborhoods will fit the diverse needs of residents in different ways. Finally, local planning ordinances should avoid picking one land-use pattern over another.

The fact is that sprawl and land-use planning affect each of our daily lives to a far greater extent than we may realize. Rather than delegating that tremendous power -- including the power to help us become thinner and healthier – to government bureaucrats, I would like to see the market, that is, the wants and desires of each one of us, have more power over these decisions.

Although the Sierra Club and many anti-sprawl activists seem worried that Americans enjoy sitting in traffic for hours on end and living far away from their neighbors and civilization in general, I am more optimistic. In fact, I honestly believe that if market forces were allowed to play a more prominent role in our transportation and land-use decisions, that we would have less sprawl, not more. It would be nice to have the chance to find out if I’m right.

Paul J. Gessing is a Senior Editor of The Free Liberal and is a member of its founding committee. His writings have been published in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, and U.S. News & World Report.