Urban Sprawl & Smart Growth

You’ve probably heard it before: “The entire world population could fit in a city the size of Texas at the density of NYC”. Luckily, we humans are spread all over the planet, but a large percentage of the population occupies a very small percentage of land. These densely populated areas are the large cities of the world, but recent years have seen urban populations bleeding into the surrounding area in a phenomenon known as urban sprawl.

‘Urban sprawl’ refers to the spread of the human population from the city center to surrounding areas, resulting in a densely populated city center and moderately populated suburbs surrounding it.

Urban sprawl can be characterized by several features of community planning. Single-use zoning is one such feature, where an area is designated to have only either residential, commercial, or industrial buildings. Low-density zoning is another, where residences are physically separate and typically only house one family. Shopping malls and strip malls are also signs of sprawl. People living in these communities are often very dependent on automobiles for transportation, as jobs, schools, and commercial areas are not within walking or even biking distance. High rates of automobile ownership and use are detrimental to communities in several ways. First, cars are expensive for an individual to purchase, fuel, maintain and insure. Second, most automobiles are fueled by gasoline; which is a non-renewable source of energy, whose exhaust contributes heavily to pollution, and which releases greenhouse gases into the air, depleting the ozone and inducing climate change. Third, automobiles are often involved in accidents that cause death or severe injury. In fact, for Americans age 5 to 34, automobile accident is the leading cause of death. Finally, automobiles simply  take up ludicrous amounts of space: consider how much land we devote to parking lots and driveways. Additionally, a study demonstrated that those who have a longer commute (say, from the suburbs into the city), are on average less happy and less satisfied with their lives than their fellow citizens with shorter commutes.

Sprawl often encroaches upon land used for agriculture and disturbs undeveloped areas, destroying the natural habitats of native flora and fauna. Opponents of sprawl argue that suburban areas “lack a sense of identity and history.” Sprawl is also a product of “white flight”, a phenomenon where white Americans began moving out of cities as black Americans moved in, due to the racist view that living near black people is undesirable. African-Americans were systematically shut out of these newly formed suburban white communities to keep property values up. The effects of white flight can still be felt today, as urban areas often have larger populations of ethnic minorities than suburban areas.

‘Smart Growth’ is an urban development theory that emphasizes compact building within a city to make it possible and easy to get around on foot or by bicycle, so as to minimize sprawl.  Smart Growth America is an organization dedicated to implementing the theory into US cities. “Smart growth,” states their website, “means building urban, suburban, and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops, and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.” Smart Growth emphasizes sustainable practices and takes into account impact on the environment as well as the needs of the human population. It confronts and questions the value and necessity of large single-family homes.

One project based on the tenets of Smart Growth is “Asian Cairns”, proposed and developed by French architectural firm Vincent Callebaut Architects. It consists of 6 buildings over 320 000 square meters designed to resemble stacks of pebbles, each of which can be sectioned off for residential, office, or commercial purposes. Vegetation is heavily incorporated into the structure, and its walls can act as a greenhouse to produce growing inside, making the development self-sustaining. There are currently no plans to build “Asian Cairns” but this sort of innovative thinking will be invaluable as our society navigates the unfamiliar territory of sustainable living and smart community development.

Works Cited:

Office for National Statistics. ons.gov.uk, 2014, Online. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/wellbeing/measuring-national-well-being/commuting-and-personal-well-being–2014/art-commuting-and-personal-well-being.html

Fincher, Johnathan. “Self-sustaning farmscrapers proposed for Shenzen”. Gizmag.com, 2013, Online. http://www.gizmag.com/vca-farmscrapers-asian-cairns/26570/

Smartgrowthamerica.org, 2014, Online. http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/

Falk, Tyler. “Could 7 billion people live in a Texas-sized city?” Smartplanet.com, 2011, Online. http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/solving-cities/could-7-billion-people-live-in-a-texas-sized-city/

cdc.gov, 2014, Online. http://www.cdc.gov/injury/overview/data.html


3 thoughts on “Urban Sprawl & Smart Growth

  1. Urban and regional planning is something that I’m very interested, so I really enjoyed your blog post! In fact, I’m planning on applying to urban planning grad school programs after Whitman. After living in cities with very efficient public transportation, I certainly agree with you that urban sprawl is a big problem.


  2. The unfortunate thing about this is that most cities don’t have strong incentives for staying in town. They rely on their natural incentives (proximity to work and recreation) to keep residents from moving to the suburbs. While these are appealing to young people, suburbs gain popularity with each generation as they enter their 30s, a trend that continues well into old age. Homeownership is much higher in the suburbs, and the cost of living is typically lower. Developers save money when building in suburban areas, resulting in suburban housing supply curves far to the right of urban ones. Because many suburban homes are also newer and larger than urban ones, the temptation of suburbanization is powerful among those who can afford it. In fact, in recent years the U.S. has seen a surge in suburban poverty as city living becomes more expensive and the urban poor are pushed out to the ‘burbs.

    Cities first emerged as economic centers– places to trade goods brought in from surrounding rural areas. Their value comes from their positions as centers of trade and commerce, where the poor lived because it was where they could make their living. As low-skill service-sector jobs become the hallmark of both the working class and the suburbs, cities may soon see themselves going backwards rather than forwards. Some powerful incentives– lower property tax rates, maybe, or lowered price ceilings on essential goods– must be put into place if we ever hope to see the urban renaissance you endorse here.




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