Home » Library » Case for Conservation » Economic Impacts of Sprawl and Smart Growth

Economic Impacts of Sprawl and Smart Growth


“Urban sprawl" is typically described as having some or all of these characteristics: It is low density, automobile dependent, has a leapfrog design, has a seemingly endless outward expansion and consumes significant amounts of natural and man-made resources.

Sprawl development is the dominant form of development in America. The American Farmland Trust reports that between 1982 and 2007, the U.S. population grew by 30% percent. During the same time period, developed land increased 57%. In Pennsylvania, between 1992 and 2005, the population grew by 4.5% and developed land increased by 131.4% (1.2 million acres to almost 2.5 million acres).

Sprawl has multiple economic costs, including increased travel costs; decreased economic vitality of urban centers; loss of productive farm and timberland; loss of natural lands that support tourism and wildlife related industries (worth $7 billion/year in Pennsylvania alone); increased tax burdens due to more expensive road, utility and school construction and maintenance costs; loss of the rural characteristics that make many communities attractive to homebuyers; and increased car use leading to higher air pollution and increased health care costs for diseases like asthma.

Smart Growth

Smart growth balances development and environmental protection. Instead of debating whether or not growth should be allowed, smart growth focuses on how and where new development should be accommodated. Smart growth allows for the same amount of development that would have taken place under uncontrolled growth, but it uses a more compact design and directs the development to locations where it is more efficient to provide public services and away from open space and agricultural land. Under smart growth, resources, either natural or economic, need not be as aggressively consumed.