Urban Sprawl Changes Landscape

Expanding Cities
Think about the town you live in. Are there new neighborhoods, highways, and shopping centers where parks or farms used to be? Is there new construction in areas once considered "on the outskirts"?

If so, then perhaps your area has succumbed to urban sprawl. What are some of the problems associated with urban sprawl?

Urban sprawl refers to the development of residential and commercial centers on undeveloped land located outside the boundaries of a city. Many American cities are feeling the effects—and suffering the consequences—of urban sprawl.

American cities have been transformed into expansive metropolitan areas covering several counties and incorporating suburbs and small—sometimes rural—outlying communities. Growth and development are associated with a healthy economy or an improved standard of living. However, tension exists between land developers and planners who must meet the demands of urban expansion and environmentalists who want to protect natural resources.

  • Take a look at Earthshots from the United States Geological Survey. These Landsat images from 1972 to the present show environmental change in areas around the world.

Resulting Problems
Consider some of the major problems associated with this type of growth:

HighwayIncreased traffic congestion/air pollution: Each year, Americans spend 55 8-hour workdays behind the wheels of their cars. As urban areas spread out, more time is spent in cars, and traffic congestion occurs over a larger area. Adding new lanes to highways doesn't solve the problem.

Air pollution in urban areas remains a problem. More than 60 urban areas are not within the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) guidelines for carbon dioxide or ground-level ozone. What's more disturbing is that pollution now affects smaller communities outside major metropolitan areas.

Open spaceReduced farmland/wetland acreage: A staggering 70% of prime farmland is in the path of rapid development. In December 1999, Vice President Al Gore described figures indicating the loss of farmland to development. In the '90s alone, more than 3 million acres of open space (including farmland and forests) were developed.This problem is not just concentrated near large urban centers but also in mid-size cities.

Urban sprawl destroys more than 100,000 acres of wetlands annually. Because wetlands act as natural sponges for precipitation run-off, flood-prone areas are more at risk for fatalities and property damage from flooding. Over the last eight years, floods have caused $89 billion of property damage.

GeeseThreatened wildlife: As neighborhoods and highways engulf open space, the natural habitat of wildlife is destroyed. Some of America's most important ecosystems, such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades, are now threatened by urban sprawl. Urban development is the biggest threat to endangered plants as well.

  • Read the Riverdeep article "Ups and Downs for Grizzly Bears" to learn more about how urban sprawl affects this species.

  • The Endangered Species Act signed into law in 1973 provides for the protection of certain fish, wildlife, and plants that "have been rendered extinct as a consequence of...development."

Can urban sprawl be managed? The news isn't all bad. Sprawl can be managed. Cooperation among state and local governments, planning commissions, developers, environmentalists, and concerned citizens can bring about changes in land use and development.

The Sierra Club
The environmental organization, Sierra Club, named sprawl as one of its "hot issues." Its report, "Solving Sprawl," defines four ways for managing urban sprawl and includes a state-by-state rating in each category.

City of Orange, California

According to Joan Wolff, principal planner for the city of Orange, California, "there is a lot of talk about 'smart growth." (Orange is located about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles and has a population of approximately 127,000.)

Wolff described the smart growth concept as "higher density residential development, higher rise office buildings, transit centers located close to residential and employment areas." She explained that "the higher density is complemented by larger, consolidated open space areas as opposed to...bits of open space on individual single-family residential properties."

The city's municipal code provides for the establishment of the Planned Unit Development (PUD) as an "alternative to standard residential development."

  • Open Space Protection: While open space seems to be disappearing rapidly, there were over 240 anti-sprawl initiatives on ballots around the country in 1998. Most were approved. Some states have land trusts, while others are actually purchasing parks. There are 19 states that have state growth-management laws to protect farmland.

  • Land Use Planning: Communities can grow in an efficient manner by using existing infrastructure, or by building away from natural wildlife resources. Planned and managed growth may actually make a city a nicer place to live.

  • Transportation Planning: Cities must recognize the connection between sprawl and highways. Good transportation planning relies less on new highway construction—which encourages sprawl—and more on mass transit solutions, such as light rail and commuter trains.

  • Community Revitalization: Successful revitalization involves keeping financial resources in a vibrant city center and investing in downtowns and inner suburbs.

Other Initiatives

  • In December 1999 President Clinton signed a $385 billion bill (H.R. 3194) providing substantial funding for the Lands Legacy Initiative.

  • Scenic America is a nonprofit organization whose "mission is to preserve natural beauty and distinctive community character." Its "Last Chance Landscapes" report details 10 scenic landscapes threatened by urban sprawl.

  • In a study by the National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals, some business executives are promoting anti-sprawl measures by building plants closer to downtown centers or investing in older urban areas.

  • Read how managed growth has worked in Portland, Oregon, and other cities. (This report was produced by a Raleigh, North Carolina, television station investigating solutions to growth problems in the Triangle area of east-central North Carolina.)

Related Resources

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