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What is Sprawl?

Sprawl is a common term used to refer to low-density development that is spread over large areas. It is characterized by sprawling suburban neighborhoods, often with single-family homes, strip malls, and commercial buildings. Surprisingly, sprawl is a relatively controversial term as there is currently no scientific consensus or measurement in place to define it. However, in the U.S., most planners recognize sprawl as the lack of density in an area that requires automobile dependency. While the definition of sprawl is in the eye of the beholder, urban and environmental planners use common elements to define the term.

Environmental planners like the Sierra Club defines urban sprawl as “the expansion of low-density, automobile-dependent development beyond the edge of service and employment areas.”

Urban planners like the Urban Land Institute states the most notable constraints attributed to sprawl include:

· Indiscriminate and incremental use of open land

· Low-density residential ‘tract’ subdivisions

· Land-consumptive strip commercial development

· Lack of connectivity among residential and commercial development projects

· Transportation systems that are exclusively auto dependent

· Social homogeneity

· Economic segregation

Samuel Brody, the Director of the Institute for Sustainable Coastal Communities at Texas A&M University, recognizes sprawl by 6 common characteristics:

  1. Low-density, single-family dwellings - housing developments which often occur on large swaths of previously vacant or productive land

  2. Automobile dependency even for short trips - resulting from large distances between developments and the urban center, in addition to street patterns and neighborhoods developments with many obstacles to walking and biking

  3. Spiraling growth outward from existing urban centers - caused by the rapid development away from the dense urban core

  4. Leapfrogging patterns of development - in which adjacent vacant lands are skipped over in favor of land further in the countryside

  5. Strip development - following roads and rural highways that extend outward from the city center

  6. An undefined edge between urban and rural areas - as residential developments encroach on open space and farmland

Historically, during the process of sprawl urban centers have undergone de-densification, as more land surrounding these centers becomes urbanized. Though we often think of sprawl as the result of a rapid increase in population, population growth isn’t the only factor that causes sprawl. Lack of sustainable growth policies also play a role allowing development beyond urban centers even as urban populations decrease.

Sprawl and the American Dream

In the U.S., sprawl had a big moment in the 1950s as the country saw new infrastructure and highway developments and more people gained access to their own cars. Access to cheap oil and the ability to own a car influenced the development design of America’s suburbs. As personal wealth increased, the desire for smaller communities, more privacy, and larger homes with more property became an icon of success and a staple of the American Dream.

While the suburban lifestyle was a popular way of living, in recent decades social, economic, and environmental concerns have helped shift the way we think about building sprawling communities away from the urban center. In his analysis, Brody notes that scientists have been critiquing the negative impacts of sprawl on the environment and society for years.

Costs of Urban Sprawl

There are many infrastructure costs associated with sprawling developments that are paid for by taxpayers and municipalities. Because of the low density of development, communities with sprawl require more roads, sewers, utilities, and other modern infrastructure such as fiber optics for high-speed internet. The installation and maintenance costs of extending infrastructure take away from economic resources that would otherwise be used to build and maintain services within an urban core.

One of the primary economic and environmental costs of sprawl is transportation. Due to low density of development, people must drive longer distances to get to work, school, or other destinations. Municipalities require more roads, infrastructure, and maintenance expenses. The extra drive time increases the consumption of fossil fuels. Even though there are more electric cars on the road today than ever before, these vehicles still emit greenhouse gas emissions. Moreso, when people are farther from the urban core, larger amounts of impervious surfaces are required to support transportation. This leads to increased runoff, flooding, water pollution, higher levels of deforestation, and the destruction of natural habitats.

Climate change and the increasing costs of fuel will continue to make sprawl increasingly untenable, forcing cities to proactively implement better urban development and planning policies to deal with the strain on resources.

Creating More Sustainable Communities

Urban development researchers and scholars offer several alternatives that have proven effective in cities that are actively working to counteract sprawl. Among these, Brody lists:

Land Development prescriptions - regulations that can be used to reduce development in undesirable locations

Incentive-based techniques - tax, zoning, or density-based incentives can be used to help contain growth to specific areas

Infrastructure-based policies - targeting infrastructure can be used to intentionally guide growth

Land acquisition techniques - government acquisition through purchases and easements can enable local governments to protect ecologically critical areas

Educational and outreach programs - education about the nature of sprawl can go a long way in helping residents make informed housing decisions and encourage political engagement in important policy decisions

In a 2015 study measuring sprawl, Thomas Laidley found “that the metros that saw the least sprawl—those that actually grew denser—are ones that have their outward growth limited by so-called “growth control” policies.” These urban growth boundaries are a planning tool used to help encourage smart growth. “The boundary is typically kept in place for a period of 20 years to encourage development within the city and discourage land speculation and subsequent building construction outside the boundary.”

The American relationship to sprawl is complicated, as sprawl looks a lot like the “American dream”— homeownership in a low-density cul-de-sac with a yard and a car to get around. The reality that policymakers have to deal with, as Brody points out, is that “even though sprawl may be an unsustainable form of growth, people strongly prefer to live on larger lots in suburban communities.” This, alongside the negative economic and environmental consequences of sprawl, must be taken into account when developing sprawl mitigation programs.

Planned Communities and Smart Growth

To prevent sprawl, it is important for urban planners and policymakers to proactively create planned communities to accommodate growth. Designing mixed-use village centers with shopping and employment, easy access to public transportation, integrated greenbelts that promote walking and biking, and plenty of designated green space are a few of the elements of planned communities that are in line with the Smart Growth movement.

The basics of the Smart Growth Movement listed by the Urban Land Institute involve three prerequisites to sprawl-free 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.

Political acceptance is one major obstacle to the smart growth movement. Therefore, planned communities need the cohesion of planners, public officials, developers, and citizens. When communities come together to proactively plan for sustainable future growth, they use land more efficiently while providing environmentally sound, economically diverse livable places that discourage sprawl.

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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