Does removal of federal subsidies discourage urban development? An evaluation of the US Coastal Barrier Resources Act

PLoS One. 2020 Jun 30;15(6):e0233888. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0233888. eCollection 2020.


Urban development relies on many factors to remain viable, including infrastructure, services, and government provisions and subsidies. However, in situations involving federal or state level policy, development responds not just to one regulatory signal, but also to multiple signals from overlapping and competing jurisdictions. The 1982 U.S. Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CoBRA) offers an opportunity to study when and how development restrictions and economic disincentives protect natural resources by stopping or slowing urban development in management regimes with distributed authority and responsibility. CoBRA prohibits federal financial assistance for infrastructure, post-storm disaster relief, and flood insurance in designated sections (CoBRA units) of coastal barriers. How has CoBRA's removal of these subsidies affected rates and types of urban development? Using building footprint and real estate data (n = 1,385,552 parcels), we compare density of built structures, land use types, residential house size, and land values within and outside of CoBRA units in eight Southeast and Gulf Coast states. We show that CoBRA is associated with reduced development rates in designated coastal barriers. We also demonstrate how local responses may counteract withdrawal of federal subsidies. As attention increases towards improving urban resilience in high hazard areas, this work contributes to understanding how limitations on infrastructure and insurance subsidies can affect outcomes where overlapping jurisdictions have competing goals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Conservation of Natural Resources / methods*
  • Disasters
  • Environmental Policy*
  • Financing, Government*
  • Floods
  • Humans
  • Insurance
  • Southeastern United States
  • Urban Renewal / economics*

Grant support

This paper is based upon work graciously supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation under Coastal SEES Grant No. 1427188 and Geography and Spatial Sciences Grant No. 1660450. The funders had no input on research design or analysis.