The media makes “urban sprawl” sound like some kind of terrible virus that will infect the forests and other green areas of the world and cause them to disappear forever. Urban sprawl refers to replacing forests and farms (which are pretty, and desirable to those who do not have to pay the taxes on them) by other things that are not so pretty, like factories, homes, highways, shopping malls, and people
But factories provide jobs for people to improve their standard of living. Home ownership has defined the American dream. New and better highways make it easier for people to get around. Shopping malls are constructed to fill people's need to buy food, clothing, and other items. And just what is wrong with people moving to areas that were once farms and forests? People have been doing this in this country for over 300 years. Why should they stop now?
Planned growth means that the planners get to do what they want with the property that you own.
If fields and forests are changed into factories or homes and given other uses, it’s because the people who own the fields and forests decide to sell them to the people who want to make factories and homes. The factory and home folks either are successful in making the changes they desire in land use and succeed, or they guess wrong and fail. In either case, they are the ones who profit or lose. You and I, unless we choose to, do not have a dog in the race. The process is market-driven, reality-based, and non-coercive—which means that you and I are not forced to participate.
But if we embrace the Trojan horse of urban sprawl, what are the results?
Somebody out there—usually a bureaucrat with the word "planner" in his title—decides that the people in his jurisdiction would be better off if the forest was preserved in a green belt and the factory placed over here, the houses over there, and the highways replaced by some urban transit scheme. His wishes are imposed by regulations, laws, codes, and eminent domain on those who live within his zone of control.
This land use is not market-driven, but bureaucratically imposed. You, as a taxpayer, do have a dog in this race because you are paying for it. Your input into the process will be accepted with open arms if you suggest new ways to acquire additional funds, regulations, or power but will be ignored, vilified, and punished if you dare to question the process itself.
So it boils down to this: The issue with urban sprawl is not the change in land use but whether market forces or bureaucrats will control it. If the bureaucrats do, it is called planned growth; if the market does, it is labeled urban sprawl. The urban sprawl denounced by the media is simply the idea that you get to do what you want with the property that you own. Planned growth means that the planners get to do what they want with the property that you own.
The ultimate result of planned growth is available for all to see in the old Soviet Union. The grim, depressing sight of apartments holding 5,000 people each, spaced like huge concrete chicken houses marching off into the gray distance; the wide avenues built for parades but deserted because they do not go where people want to go; and the forest parks made to look like the government's idea of what a forest should be all give visual evidence of the final result of the planner's world.
Unless you really like the way Moscow looks and works, you should celebrate urban sprawl and the continuing changes that free men can make in the uses of land when they are stimulated by free markets and a desire to make things better.