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Urban Sprawl

Thomas J. Nechyba and Randall Walsh

Julio 2004, inglés


Modern usage of the term “sprawl” was coined in 1937 by Earle Draper—one of the first city planners in the southeastern United States (Black, 1996). By the end of World War II, the major themes that characterize the current debate over sprawl and its connections to transportation and income had already emerged. These issues were summarized in the 1940’s by the British advocate of city planning F.J. Osborn (1946 [1965], p. 15):

These new forms of transportation…were used …to facilitate the sprawling of suburbs, a type of urban growth wasteful from the economic standpoint and disadvantageous socially. Coupled with the rise of real incomes, rapid transport has enabled the people moving out from the centers to find the open residential surroundings they desired. But they and the numerous immigrants from rural areas have obtained these surroundings at the expense of long and costly daily journeys to and from work. Local community life has been weakened or destroyed, and access to the country made more difficult for the large numbers of residents still left in the city centers.

In the years since Draper introduced the concept of urban sprawl, popular concern over the issue has continued and grown. In the 1998 elections alone, more than 150 ballot measures were introduced to combat urban sprawl in one way or another, and over 85 percent of them passed (Samuel, 1998).

We begin with an overview of the causes and consequences of urban sprawl in the twentieth century, focusing in particular on lower transportation costs and self-sorting of the population. By sprawl, we will mean the tendency toward lower city densities as city footprints expand. Overall, it seems clear to us that Americans are better off than they were prior to the rise of sprawling cities, largely because the sprawling cities have created opportunities for significantly higher levels of housing and land consumption for most households. These gains, however, have not come without associated costs. Following the overview, we focus on four issues that raise clear efficiency and equity concerns: unproductive congestion on roads, high levels of metropolitan car pollution, the loss of open space amenities, and unequal provision of public goods and services across sprawling metropolitan suburbs that give rise to residential segregation and pockets of poverty. Finally, we consider the tradeoffs inherent in some policies commonly proposed to address urban sprawl. Throughout, a main theme of our discussion is that a full analysis of sprawl is made difficult by the lack of a usefully integrated economic model of urban economies. Along these lines, we conclude with some thoughts on possible future research agendas.


Keywords

inequidad, uso de suelo, planificación de uso de suelo, planificación, transporte, expansión urbana descontrolada