The Environmental Impacts of Urban Sprawl

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Today, urban sprawl from major cities has overwhelmed nearby communities and wilderness areas.

Many cities started life as agricultural centers, and in the course of their growth they have over-grown the farmland they were created to serve. Cities are still growing, though the rate is starting to fall off.

It is hard to define what urban sprawl actually is.

Many of the definitions use loaded language to carry through an agenda, and the term itself is often used interchangeably with several other terms.

It is closely identified with low-density land use, in locations distant from the city core, however, and that’s the definition we will use for the purposes of this article.

Low-density land use is typically seen as 4 or less units per net acre.

There are many negatives associated with urban sprawl, and the coverage of prime agricultural areas is just one of them. Loss of wildlife habitat is another, especially of wetlands that are easily filled in to provide more flat land, but also of forests, parklands and open plains.

Cities will devour them all with impunity, driven by a perceived need for more space.

Besides the effect on land, other environmental effects come from the pollution associated with increased car use, increased runoff due to the quantity of land under pavement, and the loss of habitat and a local decline in biodiversity.

Due the dispersed pattern of land development, urban sprawl also makes providing mass transit a great deal more difficult, especially rail systems.

Along with the adverse environmental effects, a number of social ills have been laid at the feet of urban sprawl, including loss of community spirit and values, higher costs of providing infrastructure, higher taxes, and a number of other concerns, but they are outside of the scope of this article.

However, urban sprawl, sometimes called suburban sprawl, is a complex subject. It exists for a reason, driven by market forces.

The American Dream includes a vision of home ownership, a backyard, nearby schools, and perhaps a white picket fence. The constant spread of cities facilitates this, making additional land available for a growing population.

Ownership of a detached home is really only affordable for the majority of people in a situation of sprawl. Without the added real estate, prices for single detached homes would likely be out of reach for all but the most wealthy.

Some claim that people like sprawl, or at least the opportunities provided by sprawl. Home ownership, better schools, quiet, privacy, are all cited as reasons to support sprawl, as is the slower pace of life as compared to the city core.

Sprawl has to be examined from both sides. It provides opportunities for affordable housing, but it also has impacts that have to be weighed against the need, and desire, for housing.

Any long-term solution to sprawl has to look at first re-educating people, and perhaps a change to meaning of the American Dream.


Related infographic: Urban sprawl to urban stay

Infographic via Rent to Own Labs
  • Colin Dunn

    Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

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