What is Urban Sprawl?

March 9, 2015

Urban Sprawl is characterized by the uncontrolled expansion and migration of a population from urban areas to less dense commercial and residential developments located in areas that are more rural.  Urban sprawl is not new; in the U.S., it began in the 1950’s with the flight to the suburbs.  Residents wanted to remove themselves from cities in an effort to avoid traffic, noise, crime, and other problems they associated with city living.  The expansion into sprawling, less densely populated metropolitan areas is caused by a number of factors including:

  • lower land and housing costs

  • better infrastructure

  • improved standard of living

  • lower housing tax rates

  • the rise in urban population growth

Though people who move to the suburbs often do so because they prefer larger homes with more bedrooms and bigger lawns, they often find it difficult to get around.  Even travelling short distances can be challenging.  Travel in these remote locations almost always requires the use of an automobile because mass transit is largely unavailable, and most neighborhoods are not equipped with bike paths or walkways.


It has been posited by many that while urban sprawl offers an affordable cost of entry and comfortable living environment to homebuyers, it has its shortcomings.  The most obvious is traffic.  Because of the unavailability of mass transit, most people drive their personal vehicles to get to and from work, thus putting stress and strain on roads and highways.  In addition, though the initial cost of entry is less, living in suburbia may cost more in the long run, including the high cost of fuel and vehicle maintenance; utilities cost more because they too must be transported over long distances.  The auto-oriented nature of urban sprawl is believed to also have negative effects on human health and the rise in air and water pollutants.  Urban sprawl can also lead to deforestation and the resulting disruption of wildlife habitats.


One counter to Urban Sprawl is Smart Growth.  Smart growth involves building a framework that supports high population density, easily navigable neighborhoods with walking trails and bike paths, preserved green spaces, mixed-use developments, and mass transit availability.  Smart growth theoretically reduces the number of automobile accidents, offers a higher quality of life, diminishes pollution, and increases physical activity.


There are detractors to smart growth too.  A frequent objection to smart growth is a projected decrease in property value which some believe would occur due to the increase in population.  Those against smart growth believe that this population increase would in turn exacerbate traffic congestion, and crime in the area. 


Another alternative is called New Urbanism and is characterized by houses that have porches, are closer together and front facing.  New urbanism is known as the anti-suburban ideal because it encourages community interaction; sidewalks and increased mass transit availability would reduce the dependence on automobile travel.  The urban growth boundaries alternative, in affect draws lines around the city in an effort to prevent urban sprawl.  Though the boundaries increase density in the city, they also lead to increased land costs.


Undoubtedly there are negatives associated with urban sprawl, however there are undeniable positives including lower housing costs, better schools, and lower crime rates.  These factors are the ones that usually motivate families to move to the suburbs.  Though smart growth and new urbanism may not be perfect either, perhaps the powers-that-be can find a middle ground…one that offers families the “white picket fence” lifestyle they crave while offering environmentally friendly transportation options and preserving forests and wildlife.




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