Urban sprawl

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Editor: Deirdre S. Blanchfield
Date: May 18, 2018
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,304 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1360L

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Today most American cities are characterized by decaying central downtowns from which residents and businesses have fled to low-density suburbs spreading out around a network of increasingly congested freeways. This development pattern consumes open space, wastes resources, and leaves historic central cities with a reduced tax base and fewer civic leaders living or working in downtown neighborhoods. Streets, parks, schools, and civic buildings fall into disrepair at the same time that these facilities are being duplicated at great expense in new suburbs. The poor who are left behind when the upper and middle classes abandon the city center often can't find jobs where they live and have no way to commute to the suburbs where jobs are now located. The low-density development of suburbs is racially and economically exclusionary because it provides no affordable housing and makes it impractical to design a viable public transit system.

At the same time that inner cities are hollowing out, the amenities that people have moved to the outskirts in search of prove to be fleeting. Hoping to find an open space, opportunities for outdoor recreation, access to wild nature, scenic views, and a rural ambience, they find, instead, sprawling developments based on only a few housing styles. The checkerboard layout of nearly identical lots with little public space is permitted--or even required--by local zoning and ordinances, consumes agricultural land, and fragments wildlife habitat. To make house construction more efficient, land in large housing developments generally is bulldozed, removing vegetation or other landmarks that might make a neighborhood recognizable.

Traffic becomes increasingly congested as more and more cars clog streets and freeways, driving the much longer distances to jobs and shopping required by dispersed living patterns. Although new automobiles are much more efficient and cleaner operating than those just a few decades ago, the fact that people drive so much farther today and spend so much more time idling in stalled traffic means that suburbanites burns more fuel and produce more pollution than ever before. Thus, the poor, urban air-quality people fled to the country to escape follows them and is made worse by the greater distances they drive every day.

Altogether, traffic congestion is estimated to cost the United States around $100 billion per year in wasted time and fuel. Some people argue that the existence of traffic jams in cities shows that more freeways are needed. Often, however, building more traffic lanes simply encourages more people to drive farther than they did before. Rather than easing congestion and saving fuel, more freeways can exacerbate the problem.

As former Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening said: "In its path, sprawl consumes thousands of acres of forests and farmland, woodlands and wetlands. It requires government to spend millions extra to build new schools, streets and water and sewer lines." Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey Governor and former Head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) remarked that "Sprawl eats up our open space. It creates traffic jams that boggle the mind and pollute the air. Sprawl can make one feel downright claustrophobic about our future." Although there is no universally accepted definition of urban sprawl, it generally includes the following characteristics:

  • unlimited outward urban expansion
  • low-density residential and commercial development
  • leapfrog growth that consumes farmland and natural areas
  • fragmentation of power among many small units of government
  • dominance of freeways and private automobiles
  • no centralized planning or control of land-uses
  • widespread strip-malls and "big-box" shopping centers
  • great fiscal disparities among localities
  • reliance on deteriorating older neighborhoods for low-income housing
  • decaying city centers as new developments occurs in previously rural areas

Among the alternatives to unplanned sprawl and wasteful resource use proposed by urban planners are smart growth and conservation design. These new approaches make efficient and effective use of land resources and existing infrastructure by encouraging development that avoids costly duplication of services and inefficient land use. They aim to provide a mix of land uses to create a variety of affordable housing choices and opportunities. They also attempt to provide a variety of transportation choices including pedestrian friendly neighborhoods. This approach to planning also seeks to maintain a unique sense of place by respecting local cultural and natural features.

By making land-use planning open and democratic, smart growth and conservation design strive to make urban expansion fair, predictable, and cost-effective. All stakeholders are encouraged to participate in creating a vision for the city and to collaborate rather than confront each other. Goals are established for staged and managed growth in urban transition areas with compact development patterns. This approach is not opposed to growth. It recognizes that the goal is not to block growth but to channel it to areas where it can be sustained over the long term. It tries to enhance access to equitable public and private resources for everyone and to promote the safety, livability, and revitalization of existing urban and rural communities.

Rather than abandoning the cultural history and infrastructure investment in existing cities, a group of architects and urban planners is attempting to redesign metropolitan areas to make them more appealing, efficient, and livable. European cities such as Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; Leichester, England; and Neerlands, the Netherlands; have a long history of innovative urban planning. In the United States, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Peter Calthorpe, and Sym Van Der Ryn have been leaders in what is sometimes called the new urbanist movement or neo- traditionalist approach. These designers attempt to recapture some of the best features of small towns and the best cities of the past. They are designing urban neighborhoods that integrate houses, offices, shops, and civic buildings. Ideally, no house should be more than a five-minute walk from a neighborhood center with a convenience store, a coffee shop, a bus stop, and other amenities. A mix of apartments, townhouses, and detached houses in a variety of price ranges insures that neighborhoods will include a diversity of ages and income levels.

Where building new neighborhoods in rural areas is necessary, conservation design, cluster housing, or open-space zoning preserves at least half of a subdivision as natural areas, farmland, or other forms of open space. Among the leaders in this design movement are landscape architects Ian McHarg, Frederick Steiner, and Randall Arendt. They have shown that people who move to the country don't necessarily want to own a vast acreage or to live miles from the nearest neighbor; what they most desire is long views across an interesting landscape, an opportunity to see wildlife, and access to walking paths through woods or across wildflower meadows.

By carefully clustering houses on smaller lots, a conservation subdivision can provide the same number of buildable lots as a conventional subdivision and still preserve 50-70 percent of the land as open space. This not only reduces development costs (less distance to build roads, lay telephone lines, sewers, power cables, etc.) but also helps foster a greater sense of community among new residents. Walking paths and recreation areas get people out of their houses to meet their neighbors. Homeowners have smaller lots to care for and yet everyone has an attractive vista and a feeling of spaciousness.

Some good examples of this approach are Farmview near Yardley, Pennsylvania, and Hawknest in Delafield Township, Wisconsin. In Farmview, 332 homes are clustered in six small villages set in a 414 acre (160 ha) rural landscape, more than half of which is dedicated as permanent farmland. House lots and villages were strategically placed to maximize views, helping the development to lead its county in sales for upscale developments. Hawksnest is situated in dairy-farming country outside of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Seventy homes are situated amid 180 acres (70 ha) of meadows, ponds, and woodlands. Restored prairie, neighborhood recreational facilities, and connections to a national scenic trail have proved to be valuable marketing assets for this subdivision.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CV2644151438