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.
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.