An Enquiry Concerning Human Urban Planning

Headlines such as ‘The Curse of Urban Sprawl’ are too often presented as virtuous platitudes. It is almost commonplace to look down upon the notion of urban sprawl, but is this the most sound position on an idea which has very practical implications?

One of the reasons why the Viking community was able to expand over three continents with some of the most socially and economically advanced societies of their time, was due to not merely urbanisation but urban sprawl. From ancient cities in Mesopotamia, to London today; expansion of the urban lifestyles has allowed for increased productivity and wealth. It has meant the spread of employment, infrastructure and transport.

Hostility toward urban sprawl is popular amongst academic and political circles. Some colder souls than I might find some hypocrisy in MPs with luxurious country homes and 3 acre back gardens resisting any building around existing train stations in the green belt.

Opposition materialises not only in spurious comments about shanty towns and slums but contemporary policy too. Green belts and zoning are detrimental toward choices people make about where to live in both the negative and positive sense of liberty.  

Let us consider the green belt. Established by the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947, it was intended to hold back urban sprawl and restrict certain development on some land. This meant a restriction of the supply of housing, prices have rocketed and people are left unable to afford their own home.

There are two issues. First, the seemingly ideological resistance to accept urbanisation as an instrument of prosperity, perhaps bolstered by the trade off between politicians’ aforementioned 3 acre back gardens and the freedom and prosperity of those who are not living in urban areas. The second, is the lack of political will to be in favour of allowing high density urban populations to expand out into the fringes. It is this paternalistic attitude which results in others being effectively made to subsidise residential areas outside of the green belt through the construction and maintenance of unnecessarily long winded infrastructure and travel routes.

Urban sprawl may be both qualitative (through the diffusion of the urban lifestyle) and quantitative (through new residential zones) and may appear to be a wooly notion at first. However it is crucial to increasing the wealth of the members of society it affects as people have the choice to move to areas where they, for example, get a promotion. But it has also become fashionable among some on the right to blame sprawl on immigration - that is an entirely separate mammoth of a blog post for a future date.

Some in the anti-sprawl movement do however appear to be well intentioned. Urban sprawl is associated with increased traffic congestion, closely linked to air pollution and the increasing use of cars instead of public transport. However, higher levels of air pollution are associated with higher densities and urban sprawl by definition is the dispersal of the population, thereby reducing the concentration of air pollution and traffic congestion is worse, not better where population densities are higher. Furthermore, travel times have generally decreased overtime (largely due to the use of cars) and increase when urban spaces are restricted from expanding due to unnecessary congestion. The most efficient way of overcoming the issues of an expanding urban centre is not through top down planning but by permitting the market to let people choose where to live.

For some, sprawl is ugly and commutes are tiresome, but that is a trade-off individuals ought to be able to make and not the government. We may love the bucolic rolling hills of the countryside but unnecessarily high property prices have more adverse socioeconomic effects than the cookie cutter uniformity which pleases the eye and benefits the rent-seeking few.

It is a frustrating paradox whereby complaining about urban density is commonplace but calls to take action to increase this urbanisation is fraught with politically impossible propositions. Affordable, comfortable dwellings which people choose ought to be the goal.  Restrictions under the guise of saving us from urban sprawl are at most, mistaken and at worst, virtue signalling and ought to be abolished.