Multinational Monitor

OCT 2003
VOL 24 No. 10


Subsidizing Sprawl: How Economic Development Programs Are Going Awry
by Greg LeRoy

Welcome to Wal-World: Wal-Mart’s Inexhaustible March to Conquer the Globe
by Andy Rowell

The Collapse at Cancun: A Frontline Report on the Failed WTO Negotiations
by Martin Khor


The Political Economy of Sprawl in the Developing World
an interview with Anna Tibaijuka

Out of Bounds: The Sprawling Metropolis and Its Discontents
an interview with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk


Behind the Lines

The Business of Sprawl

The Front
The Politics of Chemistry - Nike’s Come-From-Behind Win

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News



The Business of Sprawl

Everybody complains about suburban sprawl, or at least its most obvious manifestation, worsening traffic.

But to too many people, sprawl simply seems inevitable -- something beyond human control, like the weather.

If too much time is wasted in traffic, if air quality is degrading, if inner cities are crumbling, if the richness of neighborhood life is being displaced by subdivision atomization, if farmland is being paved over, if job opportunities for low-income people are located in places they can't reach with public transportation, if you have to drive to get to the closest store -- well, that's just how things are. Or so goes the common perception.

There's nothing pre-ordained about sprawl, however. It is a human creation. Although there are countless factors contributing to sprawl, the current phenomenon in the United States can largely be attributed to two overriding factors: racism and corporations.

Racism continues to fuel white flight out of cities and, increasingly, out of inner suburbs. More and more remote areas are being colonized with new subdivisions and gated communities, as whites seek to locate in havens where their contact with African-Americans and Latinos is limited.

There are confounding factors, of course. Many whites don't leave urban or inner suburban areas to avoid contact with minorities, but simply to escape from crime, the perceived risk of street crime (usually far worse than the reality) and poor quality schools. But high crime rates and poor quality schools are themselves rooted in historic and structural racism.

Racism is only one part of the story, however.

It's not just individual choices on where to reside that are driving sprawl. Corporate practices are shaping metropolitan landscapes in fundamental ways, so that people's individual choices are framed by the corporatized local geography that offers certain options and denies others.

Banks and lending institutions have helped create and enable sprawl. From the historic and ongoing refusal or reluctance to lend to minority and low-income neighborhoods in inner city and inner-ring suburbs (contrasted with the generous support for gentrification of the same locales) to their unwillingness to make loans for mixed use development (incorporating residential, retail, office and even some manufacturing in close proximity), banks and lenders have crucially influenced the metropolitan built environment.

The other key corporate actor in this regard is developers. They have found big payoffs in building cookie-cutter housing on remote lands. They have steered away from mixed use development. And apart from downtown and gentrifying areas, they have largely abandoned urban and close-in suburban residential areas.

In large measure, the banks and developers determine what gets built where, and for whom. They create desire as much as individuals' combined choices drive their investment decisions.

In creating sprawl, they are aided and abetted by the big box retail outlets, led above all by Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart and the other big box chain retailers (so-called because they build their stores in single-story boxes, usually not even connected to other stores) have devastated neighborhood and local retailers, diminishing the quality of neighborhood life, forcing shoppers to commute to outer areas, and pulling the metropolis out into once-rural areas.

And then there are the auto and road-building industries, which have created the culture in which it seems natural to drive for every need, and the physical reality where car transport is often the only way to get from one point to another.

These corporate practices are all reinforced by bad public policy -- policy which is typically influenced or crafted by powerful corporate interests.

Among the countless examples of corporate-influenced policies that spur sprawl are:

  • artificially low gasoline taxes, which enable drivers to externalize costs (such as air pollution);
  • national and global farm policies (including misdirected farm subsidy programs and a liberalized trade in agricultural products) that support factory farms and grain traders, but make small family farming increasingly difficult, and thus encourage farmers to sell their land to developers;
  • tax incentives, such as those described by Greg LeRoy in this issue, that subsidize outer-reach development;
  • a massive misallocation of state and federal funds, to overinvest in road building and starve public transit of anything like adequate funding; and
  • federal subsidy insurance programs for coastal development that create incentives to build too much and too close to coastal waters [see "Coasts At Risk," Multinational Monitor, September 2003].

What is important about identifying the actors and policies driving sprawl is that it implies the possibility of alternatives.

As Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk articulates in an interview in this issue, a new set of rules can allocate capital differently. Small changes -- like permitting narrower roads, lowering speed limits and requiring grid or other connected street arrangements rather than cul-de-sacs -- can dramatically change the character of developments. Bigger changes, like setting outer boundaries for metropolitan areas, can redirect investment inward and upward, as opposed to outward. Changes in national policy -- more money for public transit, for example -- and even international rules -- such as trade policy that support family farmers and local food production -- will have even bigger impacts.

Attaining these changes, or enacting rules to control sprawl-inducing corporate practices, are difficult challenges, all. And, as Anna Tibaijuka explains in an interview in this issue, a considerably different set of policy issues are implicated in addressing developing country sprawl. But with enough political will, these alternative rules and policies are achievable. There is nothing inevitable about sprawl.


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