Monday, March 31, 2008

Sprawl Improves Public Health

Will UCLA win the NCAA b-ball tournament? Nobody on the team took my winter class. I'd like to be the guy who advises 353 independent studies with the athletes and they all get As. (

Now, I'm not teaching and I must find something to do with my ample time. Perhaps some research and some blogging. I have been recovering from a bad cold and that's what I want to talk about. At dense UCLA, everybody was sneezing on each other the final week of classes and during exams week. This got me thinking. How much less disease contagion, exposure to second hand smoke, exposure to dog poop and other urban ills are avoided by the "moat effect" of living at lower density? Another urban disamenity is noise. My son is noisy and he bugs the neighbors with his stomping and yelling and jumping. In a single detached house with its own private space, nobody could hear him. Sprawl is type of voluntary quarantine.

While urban economists talk about the fact that suburbia relative to the center city offers larger homes and larger lots and newer houses and a more homogenous set of neighbors, and a better public services/tax ratio, perhaps what suburbanites really want is physical separation from other people's snot, smoke, noise and poop. This strikes me to be a hard bundling problem if you really wanted to disentangle all of these effects.

So, now that I'm not teaching and really not doing anything until January 2009 --- I will have plenty of time to think about such important matters.


Michael Lewyn said...

To a much greater extent than other suburban amenities, this particular amenity is subject to a problem of diminishing returns. That is, if what you want to avoid is physical exposure to lots of strangers, you get a big payoff by moving from a tenement to a rowhouse or single-family house, because you aren't living in the same building with strangers any more. But moving from a rowhouse to a small single-family house, or from a 1/8 acre house to a 1/2 acre house, doesn't involve quite as much of a payoff, because as long as you are living in your own house, you are not going to be all that exposed to strangers and their smoke, etc. until you go to work.

Anonymous said...

Do you really get a better ratio of public services to taxes? Why is it that taxes in Urban areas are always higher?

David A said...

I think the moat effect was much more important before the public health revolution. The great manor in the country was useful not only for escaping squalor and congestion, but most importantly, the plague.