Is urban sprawl really all bad?

San Jose, California Wikipedia

San Jose, California (Wikipedia 10/20/13)

Urban sprawl, characterized by auto oriented, low-density development is the often demonized result of post war proliferation of both the automobile and suburban large lot housing.  But, is it really all bad?

The term “sprawl” itself can be hard to define.  It can be classified as the growth of population away from a defined city core, some define it as leapfrog development, and others by the segmented land use that is typical of the suburban landscape.  Proponents of urban sprawl site the lower cost of housing, larger housing units, better schools and safer neighborhoods often found in the suburbs.  Opponents of urban sprawl site the increase in automobile emissions and other types of pollution, the loss of farm land and open space, and the loss of community that can result from less time spent walking down the street instead of driving.

The practice of zoning which planners use to separate and regulate land use is argued by some to be at the root of urban sprawl.  The idea of land use zoning began in New York city in 1916 with laws requiring the set back of tall buildings in order to avoid streets being cast into perpetual shadow.  The constitutionality and rights of municipalities to zone for land use was upheld in 1926 with the case of Euclid v. Ambler in which it was determined that cities did have the right to determine how land could be used within city limits.

Currently most cities and towns within the United States have zoning regulations that control what land can be used for.  The result of these regulations in some cases has led to a patchwork development pattern in which housing, shopping, work and recreational areas are all on separate tracts of land that are not easily accessible except by car.  This land use pattern is typical of most American suburbs with the result being urban sprawl.

Whether zoning laws, the automobile or the desire to own a large tract of land is to blame urban sprawl is a reality of life today, not just in the United States but in countries around the world.

Melbourne, Australia (Wikipedia)

Melbourne, Australia (Wikipedia 10/20/13)

Given the commonality and proliferation of sprawl coupled with the fact that we living in developed nations that seem to be enjoying a very good quality of life is urban sprawl really a planning failure or simply a new way of living?  This answer to this question it seems comes down to what you want from life and your overall values system.

For those who are raising a family and need the increased space that a house in the suburbs can offer it may be preferable to live away from the city center because the drawbacks of a long commute can be offset by increased personal space and other quality of life issues such as safer neighborhoods, better schools.  If you are a single or couple focused heavily on career and urban recreation options a compact city would make much more sense.  In these respects feelings regarding urban sprawl are personal and simply a lifestyle choice.

Personal choice however is only one side of the coin.  One of the primary issues that seems to be facing us here at the dawn of the 21st century is pollution and how to curb it so that the Earth will be livable for generations to come.  This issue is one that we can all agree on and one that urban sprawl directly effects.  An increase in automobiles on the road leads to an increase in greenhouse gasses and the resulting greenhouse effect.  This is an issue that does need consideration, whether you are for or against urban sprawl and should be at the forefront of planning decisions.  Regardless of how a city is laid out this problem can be curbed by the use of alternative fuels and public transit.

So, is urban sprawl a monumental planning failure or simply the next shift in the ever evolving manner in which humans choose to live.  This, it seems would depend upon who you ask.

5 thoughts on “Is urban sprawl really all bad?

  1. So which communities currently represent the epitome of a “sprawl” type physical layout — but have already shifted to the use of mass transit and alternative fuels to offset their GHG emissions?

    What system of mass transit are you talking about? The suburbs, because of their physical layout, are so far-flung that having transit stops that everyone can walk to is actually impossible. Such a system would have to operate like a personal taxi service — cruising the suburban cul-de-sacs in search of riders. There’s a reason that the suburbs in Ada County don’t have good (or any) transit service — except for the federally-mandated paratransit service for the disabled (which does operate like a personal taxi service, with massive public subsidies).

    And to what alternative fuels are you referring? All petroleum (crude oil and natural gas) is a fixed non-renewable resource. So which alternative’s are left — biofuels, nuclear breeder reactors, hydroelectric, solar, geothermal? Unfortunately, none of these sources can produce enough energy to support our current pattern of sprawl development. So what’s our option — for today’s typical household?

    Fortunately, there are examples of fuel-efficient, low-carbon-footprint living available for everyone to see, our urban centers. The detractors for living in cities often cite the better schools and safer neighborhoods offered in the suburbs (and cheaper housing, BTW) — but they refuse to admit that the suburbs themselves (the larger private lots, the dendritic street system, etc.) didn’t actually create safer neighborhoods or create better schools. The schools are better because they are newer and have greater resources, and the suburban neighborhoods are safer only in comparison to older city neighborhoods that were abandoned. There’s actually no correlation between density and criminal activity — in fact, some of the least safe places to be in today’s America are low density rural areas (often referred to as Meth Country, see: ).

    Even if left unchallenged, your demographic prerogatives for city living (single-income-no-kids and double-income-no-kids — SINKs and DINKs in real estate parlance) also leave out two other growing categories: Empty-nesters, and those who desire to age-in-place with easy access to social services. By this assessment, the “rurban” areas you offer (even as you admit that they are currently un-sustainable) are really only ideally suitable for couples with children. Wouldn’t it be far easier to improve our existing cities with an eye toward family-living, rather than pin our hopes on a dubious energy future of alternative fuels (whatever they may be) and a (personal) mass transit system that would be far too expensive to operate.

    But what about the housing affordability issue?

    Certainly, housing in the suburbs is often cheaper than near-in-to-city, or in-city housing. How do we tell a working-class family that they shouldn’t live some place like Nampa — if the primary wage earner in the family works an assembly line job at Micron? One way is to look at the ENTIRE cost of that housing — which must include the family’s cost of transportation. The Center for Neighborhood Technology offers a great interactive website that allows anyone to pull up a map of their community and identify housing affordability in a side-by-side comparison between housing-only cost and housing-plus-transportation cost. The results are startling ( ). Turns out, not surprisingly, that when you add a family’s transportation costs into the mix, the truly affordable housing is closer-in to employment centers (like city centers).

    There’s a wonderful publication by George Galster called, “Wrestling Sprawl to the Ground: Defining and Measuring an Elusive Concept” (Fannie Mae Foundation, 2001). In it, Galster boils the physical qualities of urbanism down to eight dimensions (considerably more than just density) in order to measure sprawl: Density, Continuity, Concentration, Clustering, Centrality, Nuclearity, Mixed Uses, and Proximity. Each of these dimensions is given a working definition (along with a pictorial representation), a unit of analysis, and an operational definition (what’s being measured and across what metric). Using this approach it’s likely that many of our suburban areas can be retrofitted to make them more sustainable. If we think that bringing Mohammad to the Mountain is too hard — well then, let’s bring the Mountain to Mohammad by urbanizing our suburbs.

    One of the better publications I’ve seen out there regarding appropriate retrofitting of suburban sprawl is a book by Galina Tachieva titled the, “Sprawl Repair Manual”. Ellen Dunham-Jones has also published a decent book about the subject titled, “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Re-Designing Suburbs”. Tachieva’s book emphasizes a market-based approach to such “retrofitting” — or what I would call Suburban Renewal — and provides wonderful graphics on site-based solutions to typical suburban building patterns.

    Sorry for the long comment (or anything that sounds too negatively harsh), but your post brought up a lot of issues that I think could stand a bit more scrutiny. Thanks for writing this!

    • Thanks for your ideas here Dean. I have been thinking on this and some of the excellent points you bring up. I agree that there are a lot of issues that I brought up that could use more scrutiny which can be a difficult to do in 800 words;).

      When I think of mass transit as an option I am thinking of cities like Portland and it’s MAX system that is an effective way to get from the outlying areas of the metro area into downtown. You are right in that most suburbs are not set up for easily walkable transit stations but, even if one has to drive or even better bike to a transit station a few miles from home that generates far fewer emissions than would occur if a car were to be used for the full journey into the urban city center.

      As far as alternative fuels go my hope is that if we really prioritize solving the environmental issues raised through the use of fossil fuels better and more realistic options such as solar power or electricity will be researched and developed instead of just talked about. At this point the best option would be to require more vehicles to be hybrids that utilize less fossil fuel.

      My point with this is that planners, at least in my admittedly limited exposure so far, seem to rather unrealistic and inflexible. Living in or near the city core is a great option and one that I have chosen for the last 8 years as my children have grown older and we need less space in our house and less yard for them to roam in. However, when they were little and I wanted to be near other families of the same demographic and send them outside to explore for large periods of the day my house in Meridian was just what I needed. When life changed I moved to the Northend and then Southeast Boise. I love it here and hope to stay in this area for the foreseeable future.

      As a planner however, I hope to never lose sight of the reality that life is not perfect and we don’t all need the same things. Suburban living has its place and for many is preferable. I think it would be wise to invest resources in improving the suburbs and transit as opposed to attempting to convince everyone they need to live in the city core.

  2. Good stuff here Juli. I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last year. Everyone seems to have an upturned nose at sprawl, cul-de-sacs, and large lot developments.. but I personally am drawn to them. I understand some of the problems that stem from them, but I balance that out with my own definitions of livability and value. It also changed once I was married, got another dog, etc. I think there could be desirable sprawl if we made some changes like development walk/bike-ability and mixed use proximities.

    • Thanks Sean. I have thought of the same things. Having had a family I know when my kids were small the large house/lot we lived on was just what we needed. I hope to see family friendly development in the future that does include bike paths, even long ones that reach to the city core with easy on and off along the way for merchant stops. If we could all easily bike from the suburbs without fear of being hit by cars I believe more people would.
      Also, more environmentally friendly development in general, we don’t have to throw aside environmental impact to build a subdivision. And mixed land use would be awesome, also accessible from bike/walking paths.
      Our life styles and expectations have changed over the past half century and it would be good to think outside the current boxes as to how to combine the best of both worlds.

  3. Great article. The thought of suburban vs. urban living as a values choice is one of those so called obvious points that doesn’t get made. If people move to the suburbs because they value better schools and safety, as well as more space. What can be done to keep these values while lowering the suburbs carbon footprint? You mention public transit and alternative fuels, which I think are a great start. I think things such as encouraging suburbanites to grow gardens and make less trips to the store, bank etc, could also go a long way. Its refreshing to have someone recognize suburbanites aren’t the devil and aren’t going anywhere, so as planners we need to learn to work with them and not against them.

Comments are closed.