- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

Urban sprawl won’t hurt us. It may even do wonders for our friendships and family relations.

“Suburban living is better for one’s social life,” said Jan Brueckner, an economics professor with the University of California at Irvine.

His research, he says, debunks the idea that urban sprawl — the creep of residential and commercial developments across pristine countryside — has turned the nation into anonymous pockets of crabby commuters.

“The opposite is true,” Mr. Brueckner said. “Social interaction is actually higher in the suburbs.”

He based his conclusions on national economic trends along with data from the Social Capital Benchmark Survey, which tracked the lifestyles, personal happiness and community engagement of about 30,000 people nationwide.

“Residents of sprawling suburban spaces actually have more friends, more contact with neighbors and greater involvement in community organizations than city dwellers who live in very close proximity to one another,” Mr. Brueckner said.

His research revealed, for example, that for every 10 percent decrease in population density, the likelihood of suburban residents talking with their neighbors at least once a week jumped by 10 percent. Like-minded people also were in luck out in the burbs. Every time the density dropped 10 percent, the likelihood a person would join a hobby-oriented club went up by 15 percent.

Mr. Brueckner said folks got chummy in far-flung suburbs “when they don’t feel forced upon one another” or they had less fear of crime and other urban ills.

“Our findings suggest the old proverb may be true. Good fences make good neighbors. This contradicts much of the common social and economic arguments against urban sprawl,” Mr. Brueckner said.

Many such arguments have been made in the past decade. Typical anti-sprawl initiatives frame development as an energy-wasting environmental hazard that “can adversely affect a wide range of health indicators, including obesity and air pollution,” according to the American Planning Association, a nonprofit group based in Chicago.

The Clinton administration, for instance, spent $10 billion to curb urban sprawl by setting aside open spaces. San Diego, Portland, Ore., and Westchester County, N.Y., are among a multitude of “smart growth” communities that continue to fight development of agricultural districts or forested land.

The alarm is based on speculation, said University of Toronto researchers who compared high-altitude satellite photos of American urban areas taken in 1976 and 1992. They found that residential development did not become more “scattered” and that the amount of open space was virtually the same — about 43 percent during both years.

The researchers questioned popular claims that sprawl fosters obesity, countering that suburban weight gain is the result of human decisions and preferences rather than public design errors.

“Smart growth designs will not cause people to be thinner. Policy-makers who try to combat obesity by encouraging these designs are wasting tax dollars,” said Matthew Turner, an economist and lead author of the findings, which were released Oct. 31.


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