Community Development

Extent of Federal Influence on 'Urban Sprawl' Is Unclear Gao ID: RCED-99-87 April 30, 1999

After World War II, people began moving in large numbers from the central cities to the suburbs; by 1970, for the first time in history, the United States counted more suburbanites than city dwellers or farmers. These demographic changes were accompanied, on the one hand, by a rise in homeownership and opportunities for new businesses, and, on the other hand, by the low-density, fragmented, automobile-dependent development that is commonly referred to as "urban sprawl." In response to congressional concerns about the contribution of federal programs and policies to urban sprawl (while recognizing that land-use planning has traditionally been a function of state and local governments), this report (1) reviews research on the origins and implications of urban sprawl, (2) describes the evidence that exists on the influence of current federal programs and policies on urban sprawl, and (3) identifies regulatory review and coordination mechanisms for evaluating and mitigating the effects of federal actions on urban sprawl.

GAO noted that: (1) suburban growth began in response to a number of social, economic, demographic, and technological factors, including the postwar population boom, the increased availability of suburban housing, and the greater use of passenger cars; (2) federal housing and highway programs contributed to suburban growth because the availability of housing loans facilitated suburban homeownership and federal highway spending financed the expansion of highways that gave consumers access to suburban locations; (3) despite many studies on the costs and implications of urban sprawl, so many factors contribute to it and the relationships among these factors are so complex that researchers have had great difficulty isolating the impact of individual factors; (4) as a result, researchers have generally been unable to assign a cost or level of influence to individual factors, including particular federal programs or policies; (5) some experts believe that the federal government influences urban sprawl through spending for specific programs, taxation, and regulation, but few studies document the extent of the federal influence; (6) according to some experts, the role of federal programs and policies occurs in combination with a number of factors, including market forces and local land-use decisions; (7) anecdotal evidence suggests that investment in water and sewer systems may lead to residential and commercial growth in outer areas because such investment facilitates development; (8) GAO found little quantitative research linking federal assistance for water and sewer systems with urban sprawl; (9) tax code provisions that subsidize homeowners through the mortgage interest and property tax deductions are believed by some researchers to provide an incentive for purchasing more expensive housing that is sometimes located outside urban areas; (10) the tax policy research GAO reviewed did not directly estimate the effects of existing tax policies on urban sprawl; (11) studies indicate that environmental regulations play a small role in decisions about the location of businesses; (12) executive orders governing the federal regulatory review process do not directly address urban sprawl, but coordination among federal agencies on growth-related issues is increasing; and (13) the executive orders establish basic principles for agencies to follow when reviewing and approving regulations, and specific laws offer federal agencies an opportunity to consider the potential influence of their actions on growth.

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