What Is Urban Sprawl? Definition, Causes, and Effects

Cities are a natural outgrowth of civilization. They are places to gather and do business; to share the common culture; and to socially interact beyond the normal circles. In earlier times, people formed concentrated populations for their own protection. The ancient Greeks viewed the polis as an urban hub serving as a political, religious, commercial and cultural capital of a larger region. Today, however, many cities encroach upon the regions they serve, pushing practical boundaries into the country.

Urban Sprawl Defined

sprawl in downtown Los Angeles

Aerial view of Los Angeles sprawl (Image Source: SkyscraperCity)

What is urban sprawl? First ask what it is not. It is not – necessarily – a city redrawing its political boundaries to increase its own area. With sprawl, the jurisdiction does not expand but the metropolitan environment does. There is more pavement and less pasture. Trees give way to train tracks. Small retailers close and box stores open. And the pathologies that fester in the city – addiction, violence and property crimes – soon follow. Soon, the smaller towns and villages lose their distinctive characters and begin to look like the city itself.

Examples of this phenomenon abound. Where does Washington, DC end and Prince George’s County, MD begin? Or Queens, NY and Long Island? Oak Lawn, IL and Chicago? In fact, the suburbs of Chicago identify as “Chicagoland.” Cities hardly, if ever, stand alone. They sit astride gigantic metropolitan areas that often dwarf the urban center in land and population. Unlike the Greek polis, however, these principalities do not draw the suburbanites and rural dwellers in as much as project their traffic, commerce and waste management (or mismanagement?) outward.

Yes, the suburban politicians welcome new jobs and expansion of the commercial tax base. However, with investment come strings. To be sure, investors have one primary goal – a return on investment. Precious little capital flows in from farmland protection, wetlands conservation and historic site preservation. Quality of life is not determined by a formula. Longtime residents have one conception; commercial interests and political entities have another. Lower taxes and greater convenience are the banners representing what is urban sprawl.

Roots and Causes

Urban sprawl began with the Industrial Revolution. As poor farmers sought secure employment, they flocked to the cities. As a result, with each new population surge, the cities became crowded and less commodious. Confronted with with large-scale immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, these urban centers grew swollen and rife with crime, as well as racial and ethnic tensions. Fearing a threat to life and livelihood, many of the better off sought refuge in the outlying areas. The first sprawl was hardly noticeable given the vast amount of land to which they fled.

Yet transportation evolved and there was land aplenty. World War II trained the U.S. in the art and science of mass production. Where once bombers and battleships were emerging from assembly lines, now an array of products were subject to large-scale manufacturing-including houses.

The classic Cape Cod of the late 1940s and 1950s made a sort of debut in Levittown, NY, a suburban community named for its developer, Levitt & Sons. Returning soldiers, sailors and airmen – financially fortified by the GI Bill, flocked to this and similar locales all over the country. The conversion of farmland to bedroom communities represents what is urban sprawl in embryo. Now, the fastest growing populations remain in the suburbs.

This is a telling trend since demographers now more often study a statistical metropolitan area (SMA) rather than a city proper. Another pattern followed: as citizens opted to reside in suburbs the tax base shrank and urban governments shifted the burden to commercial enterprises. In response, corporations bolted: Ford Motors from Detroit to Dearborn; Marriott Corporation from Washington, DC to Bethesda, MD; and General Electric from New York City to Fairfield, CT. The full list is lengthy.

Effects and Consequences

urban crawl

Image Source: Slideshare.net

Those who ask, “What is urban sprawl?” need only see its imprint on the landscape. Since agricultural land is diminished by development, farming practices must by necessity intensify, thereby stressing the soil and adjacent waters. Loss of woodlands and other “sinks” that capture carbon dioxide lead to aggravated climate change. Naturally, the biodiversity of an area affected by what is urban sprawl will suffer has habitats disappear and species along with them.

Public health is also a victim of unrestrained development. More traffic and manufacturing yields more air pollution. Expanded infrastructure and public transportation mean fewer people will walk from place to place, raising the instances of obesity and diabetes. Those who choose to walk incur a higher risk of injury (drivers do, too, for that matter). Furthermore, occurrences of road rage correspond to enlarging what is urban sprawl.

There is also social cost because of urban sprawl. There is less human interaction outside of work and home. A corollary of this is a loss of mutual trust in the community. Beyond this, scholars point to an upturn in income inequality as sprawl spreads its tentacles. Such realities further separate people from each other.

Remedies and Solutions

Making cities more comfortable and sustainable goes a long way toward arresting urban sprawl. At the core of the cure is rehabilitating failed areas and abandoned blocks. Therefore, making these neighborhoods attractive and inhabitable is at the heart of sprawl retrofitting. Key to this concept is increasing the density of central cities by pulling people back from the suburbs and exurbs.

Examples of this redesign include the conversion of dilapidated industrial space into loft apartments; re-purposing abandoned strip malls as community centers; and rehabilitating condemned townhouses and turning them into branch libraries. But doing this is not the same as gentrifying a neighborhood. Instead, retrofitting seeks to maintain diversity while improving livability in close proximity.

The answer to sprawl, then, is contraction. Repopulating city centers while designing better living schemes makes urban dwelling a draw and not a repulsion. The ultimate outcomes should be a healthier social context, enhanced personal fitness and a more robust ecosystem beyond the city limits. Some of these needed reforms are happening now and much promise rests in their continuation.

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