Local politicians can’t control sprawl. So why is it their job alone?

Few things are more important than the way we use our land, and yet, in North America, few things are more neglected. Among my urbanist colleagues, there are precious few who think that urban sprawl is a good thing, and even fewer who believe anything can be done about it. Why?

Among those who know city politics, it’s well understood that the process of urban development is largely driven, not by the public interest in using our land efficiently and sustainably, but by the very different calculations development companies use to decide where their best business opportunities lie. In previous posts I have given examples of how that process plays out, both in large urban areas and in the smaller political arena of semi-rural, urbanizing municipalities.

Although there has been much agonizing over the apparent inability of most local governments to take meaningful control of urban development, there has been little or no discussion, in the academic literature, of alternatives to local control. And yet there are very good reasons for questioning the assumption that land use is primarily a concern for municipal councils and local planning authorities, indeed for seeing urban growth as an issue that is both national and global in its significance. Let’s take a look at three of them.

The environment

It is now widely agreed that the health of the environment is a global issue. We usually think of such problems as climate change, and soil, air and water pollution as being related to economic growth, population growth and energy consumption, and rightly so, but we rarely consider the environmental significance of urban growth.

We all know that petroleum-driven transportation is a major emitter of greenhouse gases and a variety of other pollutants, but we’re very likely to forget that urban land use is an important determinant of petroleum consumption. Standard-issue North American development, featuring generally low densities and strict separation of residential, commercial and industrial areas from each other, privileges the automobile as the primary mode of transportation, often eliminates other means of transportation as viable alternatives, and even forces automobile use when one might prefer a different way of getting around. (The next time you’re in a suburban home, try figuring out a way to fetch a litre of milk without using petroleum.)

And that’s not even mentioning how vast expanses of pavement produce run-off that pollutes our waterways, or the impact of residential septic tanks on underground water resources. In short, a very significant proportion of the global environmental problems we struggle with are driven by urban land use patterns. Urban land use, therefore, is a global issue.


…is an issue that’s national in scope, for a number of reasons. Low-density urban development that straggles out across agricultural areas undermines the viability of adjacent agriculture, to a degree that’s more serious than most people realize. In order to impair the viability of agriculture, you don’t have to pave over farmland. All you have to do is locate a few urbanites in the area, and before you know it, you get conflicts between the farmers and the space-seeking urbanites. Urban-style development may drive up the price of land, forcing farmers to pay more property taxes. Urbanites complain about livestock smells and heavy machinery on the roads, their septic tanks pollute the water table, and their pets harass farm animals. Such conflicts are well known, by both land use planners and agronomists, to undermine the viability of commercial agriculture. This concern is even more important in Canada than the United States because a very substantial proportion of Canada’s limited supply of prime agricultural land is located in urbanizing areas.


In short, agriculture is a national resource that is threatened by urban sprawl. Another national problem that originates in large part from urban land use decisions is the seemingly never-ending “infrastructure crisis”. Since the 1990s, both Canadian and American governments have been allocating funds to address this problem, while the rhetoric surrounding it has escalated from “crumbling roads” to “collapsing bridges”. The problem is becoming more serious even as money continues to be poured into addressing it.

An important source of that problem is difficult to identify from national statistics, but clearly visible at the local level. A case I have investigated is that of Winnipeg, where, for decades, money has been readily available to extend roads, bridges, and sewer and water lines – often across the bald prairie – but spending on infrastructure maintenance has consistently fallen short of needs. In other words, the city’s expansion of infrastructure is out-pacing its ability to maintain existing infrastructure.

The degree to which maintenance is falling short varies from city to city, with some cities in more serious straits than others. We need much more research to gain an overview of the local sources of the infrastructure deficit. What is clear already, however, is that federal and provincial funds are being spent to address infrastructure deficits that originate, to a significant extent, in local land use decisions. The problems that stem from this local decision-making are sufficiently regional and national in scope to make out a serious case that there is a legitimate regional and national interest in the setting of urban growth policies.

In Europe, there are national and European Union rules governing land use. In North America, Oregon is notable for having enforced state regulations governing urban land use for some time, and Ontario has recently promulgated rules governing the growth of the Greater Toronto Area. It’s time for other jurisdictions to assess these examples, and see what can be done better, and what can be done elsewhere.


There is a vast literature on urban sprawl, smart growth and related questions, but there has been very little done in North America to treat it as a problem that is national in scope. Two recent exceptions are:

Bruce Babbitt, Cities in the wilderness: A new vision of land use in America. Washington: Island Press, 2007.

Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, Suburban nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American dream. New York: North Point Press, 2000.

Earlier publications of my own that form part of the basis for this entry are:

LEO, C. (1998). REGIONAL GROWTH MANAGEMENT REGIME: The Case of Portland, Oregon Journal of Urban Affairs, 20 (4), 363-394 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9906.1998.tb00428.x

Christopher Leo with Mary Ann Beavis, Andrew Carver and Robyne Turner, “Is urban sprawl back on the political agenda? Local growth control, regional growth management and politics.” Urban Affairs Review, 34 (2) 1998, 179-212.

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