Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sprawl is good

So contends Marta Mossburg, op-ed writer for the Sun in this column blasting Gov. Martin O'Malley for his PlanMaryland scheme. She raises a few good points, and while I don't agree with her overall let me reiterate some of her points.

I don't doubt that people are moving away from Baltimore City, and I'll believe her that people are also leaving PG and Montgomery counties. Could this be because people prefer to live in rural areas? (She also says that more people have moved to rural areas, but this looks to be largely because of the growth of Aberdeen Proving Ground.)

She makes a valid point that O'Malley's shifting state money from rural to urban areas benefits him politically: Democrats tend to be concentrated in such areas, and this can be seen as an excuse to send money to his supporters. On the other hand, moving money from areas where there are few people to areas where there are more people could also be seen as simply efficient: investing in public goods that benefit the most people is generally a good idea, though some public goods such as wilderness area do not lend themselves to urban investment.

Her next contention is that high density is bad because it tends to produce highly concentrated pollution. I won't argue with that either, except to say that pollution abatement measures can alleviate some of that. For example, urban areas are more likely to impose more stringent air quality controls on vehicles. However, ultimately she's right: concentrated people produce concentrated pollution, and that is expensive to deal with. The question I'd ask is what her preferred alternative is. If everyone is commuting by car from a rural area to an urban job, the total amount of pollution is almost certainly more, though it's more distributed. And though she dismisses climate change as "subjective," I am not as sanguine about the issue.

Her dismissal of Maryland emissions and of mass transit in general don't impress me, but she is more convincing when she says that limiting growth will raise housing prices. That seems likely to me: any kind of an increase in restrictions is likely to raise prices. On the other hand, she ignores prices completely when she says that increased density means more pressure on existing systems. So, the implication is that it's cheaper to build new ones than to repair the old? That doesn't make much sense.

It's expensive to internalize externalities, no question. That doesn't mean that it isn't the right thing to do.


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  2. Habitat loss and fragmentation are considerable issues for wildlife populations... in fact, two of the most critical issues. Ecologically, when it comes to the smart-growth vs. sprawl debate, smart-growth is the way to go. Limiting development to concentrated areas leaves more surrounding habitat undisturbed. Not only will there be less outright habitat destruction, if there is less transportation to and from the rural areas the impact of the existing roads should be reduced, as well as the need for newer roads to accomodate the sprawl.