World Watch and the Irrelevance of Sprawl

Commentary, Municipal Government, Wendell Cox

The new World Watch Living Planet Report provides strong evidence that the space required by urban areas is only a small part of what is required to support human habitation – that the land required for agriculture, energy production and other factors is far greater – 90 times greater. The World Watch data thus provides evidence that the urban form – whether dense or sparse (“compact” or “sprawl”) – is irrelevant with respect to sustainability. If the World Watch prescription is reliable, then strategies to combat “urban sprawl” would yield virtually no progress toward improving sustainability (even at the theoretical level).

The World Watch Report

(24 October 2006) One of the great pleasures of traveling in and through London is the number and variety of daily newspapers. I bought all four of the “qualities” today at Heathrow and found an article in The Times particularly interesting. World Watch is out with another “sky is falling” report, bringing hope to the “half empty” elites who depend upon apocalyptic tales. The Times gave the report a two page spread. Doubtless the panicked hand-wringing is to be found in a number of today’s newspapers around the world. Granted, I have not had been able to read the report yet, given that wireless internet is not yet available on Trans-Atlantic flights. But World Watch, in my view, has sometimes portrayed the future in a light that makes Malthus look like an optimist.

World Watch puts forward a figure for the amount of land required to support the residents of the world and particular countries. This includes land for living, commercial development, agriculture, energy production and other land required to support human habitation. World Watch claims that the average American is supported by approximately 23.5 acres.

Comprehending the World Watch Numbers

All of this will doubtless lead innumerates analysts to use the World Watch report as another tool in their battle against how people want to live – with adequate space, a house and a car, giving further impetus to “anti-sprawl” efforts. However, the World Watch report would be wrongly interpreted as swipe at the demon “urban sprawl.” Indeed, its evidence provides a compelling case that, if there is a sustainability problem as World Watch suggests, limiting suburbanization would accomplish virtually nothing to solve the problem. Most of the land area World Watch considers necessary to support the average person is not the land that they live on.

Making Canada Hong Kong: the 1 Percent Solution

Accepting, for the moment, the World Watch data (admittedly, an act of great faith), it is useful to compare how much land would be required to support the average Canadian with a Canada urban form, compared to the most compact form in the world, that of Hong Kong. At average Canadian urban densities, development occupies 0.26 acres per person, including all land for residences, commercial, industrial and government buildings, roads, railroads and airports and urban parks.

If Canadians lived at the density of Hong Kong, the space required for their support under the World Watch formula would drop slightly to 0.25 acres. This would reduce the amount of land required to support each Canadian by only 1.4 percent, or 1/70th. Thus, making cities more compact — the anti-sprawl strategy — is demonstrated by the World Watch report to be a marginal strategy, again assuming World Watch is right.

How Anti-Sprawl Policy Makes Economics Unsustainable

Of course, the bigger issue is that the affluent lifestyle Americans, Australians, Western Europeans, Canadians and Japanese have become accustomed to cannot be sustained where compact city policies are implemented. This is for the simple reason that anti-sprawl policies ration land inordinately increase the price of housing, destroying wealth creation, while intensifying traffic congestion and air pollution.