What is Sprawl?
Once upon a time, sprawl was a fairly neutral term to describe car dependent, low-density economic growth beyond the bounds of older suburbs. Now it is used almost exclusively to describe the dark side of that growth: unbearable traffic, vanishing open space, increasing levels of air and water pollution, and higher taxes to perpetuate the cycle of new schools, sewers, and roads. And that’s just what the residents of older suburbs are feeling. Sprawl is even less attractive to urban residents who are left behind and involuntarily subsidize the outward migration through their taxes.
The sprawl debate has opened social fault lines across the nation. Developers and environmentalists spar over sprawl in court. Suburban leaders guard their bounty of businesses and jobs while city leaders clamor for a share. Inner-ring suburbanites hunker down to preserve their American dream while outer-ring suburbanites demand their slice of the good life.
Sprawl: The Good News and the Bad News
The good news is that more Americans own their home than ever. The bad news, according to some, is that many of those homes are located in large new suburban developments, the result of sprawl. As people live farther and farther away from urban centers and older suburbs, environmentalists say more problems are created- previously undeveloped land is gobbled up by developers for housing tracts and shopping centers, and residents of these new suburbs must drive longer distances to both go to work and to complete their errands.
Sprawl is on politicians’ minds. Sprawl in on the minds of the electorate as well. In a recent survey on resident’s biggest concerns about their communities, respondents said that that sprawl and traffic tied with crime as their primary concern.
Some communities are adopting “smart growth” policies, which regulate the development of open spaces to ensure land isn’t completely consumed by housing tracts and strip malls and create land-use policies to preserve farmland. But critics of smart growth say it is unfair to restrict land use and that people have a right to build and develop land where they can afford to do it.
Some “smart growth” policies include:
strengthen and direct development toward existing communities
a range of housing choices
attractive communities with a sense of place
mixed land uses
preservation of farmland and natural areas
a variety of transportation choices
compact building design
On One Hand…
The thirst for more houses farther and farther away from established urban centers poses a grave threat to the environment and our quality of life. Greedy developers consume acres upon acres of open space and jam in as many cookie-cutter houses or “big box” stores like Wal-Mart as possible. The result is less open space, including farmland, the destruction of older communities, and more traffic congestion. Large discount stores force smaller businesses to close up shop–the corner hardware store cannot compete with, for example, Home Depot’s massive purchasing power and lower prices.
On the Other Hand…
Sprawl is about the right to choose where we want to live. And as home prices in major metropolitan areas such as Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, and San Francisco soar, living farther away from the city and older suburbs is the only choice for many families. People move to the suburbs to get more bang for their housing buck, send their kids to better schools, and to live in safer areas. It is unfair to characterize all developments as soulless tracts of house after house. Housing developments work hard to build a sense community and many succeed.
avoid “one-size-fits-all” solutions – respect the enormous legal, political, and even cultural differences among regions and states with respect to sprawl.
stop subsidizing sprawl through transportation and housing policies that favor new development over renovation of existing facilities
encourage state and local multi-jurisdictional land-use planning without dictating its outcome
empower local public-private partnerships with stewardship over environmental resources, using national and state environmental standards as the goal
strong public transportation systems
Sprawl has gotten a bum rap – sort of. It has become an all-purpose political catchword for the rape of the land by unscrupulous builders who would pave over the Everglades given half a chance. Sure, there’s some truth in that caricature. And yes, the preservation of open space should be a high priority. But sprawl is also an expression of the upward mobility and growth in home-ownership generated by our past half-century of economic success. There is no silver bullet solution to problems produced by sprawl. It is an unavoidable part of our future. The challenge for all is to learn how to curb sprawl’s worst effects without reducing the wealth and freedom that helped give us sprawl in the first place.