Quantifying the Cost of Sprawl

In infrastructure, service delivery and tax receipts.

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Sprawl is expensive. It costs more money to pave a road and connect a sewer line to five families each living a block apart on wooded lots than to build public infrastructure for those same five families living in a condo. It costs more money (and takes more time and gas) to serve those families with garbage trucks, fire engines, and ambulances. And in return – as we've previously written – those five sprawling single-family homes likely yield less in tax revenue per acre than the apartment building that could house our fictitious residents downtown.

This municipal math is a core tenet of smart growth. But the argument is even more convincing with actual numbers. A new report out today from Smart Growth America, which surveyed 17 studies of compact and sprawling development scenarios across the country, sizes up the scale of the impact this way: Compact development costs, on average, 38 percent less in up-front infrastructure than "conventional suburban development" for things like roads, sewers and water lines. It costs 10 percent less in ongoing service delivery by reducing the distances law enforcement or garbage trucks must travel to serve residents (well-connected street grids cut down on this travel time, too). And compact development produces on average about 10 times more tax revenue per acre.

Municipal property tax yield, per acre.

Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development

The report also pulled in data collected in Fresno, Calif.; Nashville, Tenn.; Sarasota, Fla.; Phoenix, Ariz.; and the states of California, Maryland and Rhode Island, among others. In total, the data illustrate that a sizable chunk of any city's budget is tied directly to decisions about how land is used and what's built on top of it. The pie chart at right, showing the portion of local budgets (nationwide) influenced by land use choices, illustrates that:

Clearly plenty of people prefer to live in suburban-style communities even as the costs of building and maintaining those places may make them seem less attractive to city accountants. If you want a back yard and a three-car garage, these charts probably won't change your mind. But they should change how we think about municipal budget woes in the era of suburban sprawl.

Top image: spirit of america/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.