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Understanding the Differences Between Sprawl & Greenfield Development

When it comes to building much-needed housing in our communities, two things are basic certainties: First, growth is imminent and needs to be properly accounted for, and second, there needs to be space to accommodate growth. Where to build and how to build are topics that every city is concerned with. Sprawl, environmental policies, land use, and financial resources are all elements that factor into the way communities are developed.

When cities are fortunate enough to have undeveloped land to accommodate growth, many argue against building on greenfields in an effort to avoid sprawl and preserve open space. However, there are critical differences between sprawl and greenfield development. When done sensibly, efficiently, and resourcefully, greenfield development can be one of the best ways to accommodate and accelerate sustainable new housing in a rapidly growing area like Bellingham.

Here we delve into the differences between sprawl and greenfield development, as well as explore ways that cities and counties can intelligently provide housing for expanding communities.

Defining Sprawl and Greenfield Development

Sprawl and greenfield development tend to be linked terms, or even used interchangeably. However, there is a very important difference when it comes to urban planning and development. As its name suggests, sprawl most commonly refers to development that is low-density and “sprawls” out across large areas, usually spreading outward from an urban core. To understand the basics of sprawl, read our recent Sprawl 101 article.

Sprawl is problematic for a number of reasons. Low-density housing (think large lot single-family homes and strip malls) puts a strain on jurisdictional resources, requiring inefficient extension of infrastructure and the associated maintenance costs. What’s more, sprawl is a detriment to the environment. Those living in suburban areas are more automobile dependent, resulting in increased impacts to environmentally sensitive areas and agricultural lands, as well as increased potential for air and water pollution.

While there is no single definition for sprawl, it has been said, “You’ll know it when you see it.” Communities are not cohesive and in addition to the environmental impact of being far from the urban center, there are also social implications that contribute to class and racial segregation.

In these situations, the open land accommodating sprawling communities was not thoughtfully planned and developed. This factor of “open land” is one of the reasons that sprawl and greenfield development get confused. As one home builders’ association puts it:

“Urban sprawl and greenfield development share only one common trait – they both occur on the outskirts of urban areas. Unlike urban sprawl, where there is little or no suburban planning, greenfield development is about efficient urban planning that aims to provide practical, affordable and sustainable living spaces for growing urban populations. The planning takes future growth and development into account as well as seeks to avoid the various infrastructure issues that plague existing urban areas.”

In Bellingham and Whatcom County, we cherish our wild, natural spaces and our farmland, but we’re also in the midst of a housing crisis. The City of Bellingham has limited land for new home construction, and even with the housing market cooldown from rising interest rates, it is far more expensive to own in Bellingham than it is in neighboring cities like Ferndale and Lynden. Because of this, Ferndale, Lynden, Everson, and other small cities & unincorporated areas in Whatcom County have seen enormous growth that has strained infrastructure and eaten away at viable farmland. In essence, sprawl is happening because previous land use decisions affecting the City of Bellingham have resulted in a lack of adequate lands to accommodate the population growth our area is experiencing.

Building Thoughtful Communities

While there may be a bit of a NIMBY in all of us (as change is hard to accept), population growth is ultimately positive. It means that more people want to live in and become contributing members of our community, which is a testament to all of its wonderful qualities. That’s why thoughtful, forward-thinking planning is critical to prevent the downsides of sprawl.

Planning experts and industry leaders look to greenfield development as a smart and realistic approach to building sustainable, thoughtful communities. According to a paper from the Urban Land Institute: “While it is often lumped with sprawl, greenfield development offers the most practical, affordable, and achievable chance to build without sprawl, given its potential to create large-scale, conserved open lands and sustainable modern infrastructure.” It goes on to define how greenfield development can avoid the pitfalls of sprawl by creating communities that take a comprehensive, sustainable, and holistic approach to growth.

The Urban Land Institute lays out prerequisites for “sprawl-free greenfield development:”

  1. “A pre-established region-wide system of sustainable open space that is connected and available throughout the region for active and passive recreational use;

  2. Ways to reduce car trips: more and higher concentrations of mixed-use development—especially in areas accessible to public transit—that are walkable or “bikeable” from residential development; transportation and land use systems that offer a wide range of mobility options; and a regional approach to transportation planning.

  3. A diverse mix of housing types, sizes, and prices within regions and communities, and, where possible, within neighborhoods. Life and lifestyle options should also include local or regional access to employment, education, and personal growth resources, connections to commercial and recreation centers, and ways to meet neighbors and take part in the community.”

Greenfield Development Part of the Solution to Bellingham’s Housing Crisis

While a mix of housing types is important to thoughtful development as it provides homes for a range of incomes, another research paper from Harvard makes the important distinction that housing density cannot be a solution on its own. Greenfield development, it notes, will be an integral part of planning urban areas and housing for growing communities.

“Broadly, strategies that governments have used to improve greenfield development can be divided into two groups. First are strategies that ensure public infrastructure, services, and amenities are provided in an adequate and fiscally responsible manner. Second are strategies that ensure new developments, planned communities, and subdivisions built on greenfields are designed in a way to promote economic, environmental, and social sustainability.”

What sets greenfield development apart from sprawl is the forethought and joint effort that goes into building sustainable, efficient communities with the necessary resources and infrastructure. Considering the fact that there is an affordable housing crisis happening in Washington State, it is critical for Bellingham to act now to evaluate the viability of greenfield lands to accommodate the growing population in a timely and fiscally responsible way that is also sustainable. In Bellingham, these areas have been identified in the City’s Comprehensive Plan as “Urban Growth Area Reserves.” This evaluation should include developing partnerships with willing private land owners to plan responsible investments for infrastructure and services necessary to serve new housing opportunities. The payoff from these investments can result in additional tax revenue, the opportunity to attract more employers and create more jobs, a reduction in sprawl, the preservation of farmland and natural resources, and ultimately, a more vibrant Bellingham community.

These benefits can be achieved without placing unfair burdens on the existing taxpayers, while also creating new housing opportunities which meet the needs of the overburdened citizens in our growing community.

About— Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.



Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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