The Menace that is Sprawl

The following table is important.


This table shows the largest continual migration pattern in American history, and if the data is to be believed, it shows no sign of stopping. Does this mean that there will eventually be no American citizens living in rural areas? Probably not, but the fact that by as early as 1920 more than half of the country was living in cities shows how pervasive the idea that cities are essential to human life truly is. There are many reasons why people migrated from rural areas to urban ones during the 20th century. Advances in technology, food production, transportation and health care have all facilitated the growth of cities, and while these are, on the whole a good thing, in chorus they have led to a geographic phenomenon that is shrinking the rural spaces in our country. As a city begins to reach carrying capacity for its residents, many people move outward into suburbs. These suburbs, in conjunction with major roadways and other transportation networks, are allowing for more space between the city itself, and the people who populate it on a daily basis. As a result of this, major metropolitan areas are establishing long tendrils that stretch far into what were once rural areas, and the empty areas between cities are now getting filled in with suburbs. One would only need to look to southern California or the Mid-Atlantic coast as an example of how open spaces between cities are gradually filling up, and that rural areas are being swallowed up by these expanding urban corridors. Many of the rural areas in the country are gradually getting taken over by sprawl. 

Southern California's highway system is a textbook example of urban sprawl.

Southern California’s highway system is a textbook example of urban sprawl.

While the concept of urban sprawl itself has a malleable definition, most geographers and urban planners define it as the expansion of human populations away from central urban areas into previously cloistered and rural areas. A byproduct of this is an increase in communities reliant upon heavy automobile usage in order to reach metropolitan areas. So far, urban sprawl has really only been a pattern in developed countries, due mainly to the fact that many people in developed nations have more available access to paved roads. Urban sprawl, at least in America, occurs mainly in areas with high density of metropolitan areas. States like California and Texas, as well as much of the BOWASH area (the area between Boston and Washington, DC which functions as an almost unbroken string of urban corridors) have fallen victim to large amounts of urban sprawl, which is often characterized by suburban housing, strip malls, large shopping centers, and fast food chains. Walmart has specifically become synonymous with sprawl, as most cities prefer to have the retail giant locate its stores just outside of city limits. 

The BOWASH region is one of the few American examples of a true Megalopolis.

The BOWASH region is one of the few American examples of a true Megalopolis.

Although the idea of suburbs and metropolitan expansion is by no means new (even Ancient Rome had suburbs), urban sprawl has its roots starting in mid-19th century London. Like many societal advancements in the 19th century, London’s metropolitan boom was caused by the industrial revolution, reflected in an influx of rural farmers moving into the city to work in its newly built factories and railway companies. This, combined with the growing middle class in London, created the need for more housing, and soon small groups of homes began to spring up along the outskirts of the city. By the early 1900s London had become one of the first cities in the world to have true suburbs. Famed author H. G. Wells even feared that the sprawl started in London would get so out of hand as to create a conurbation (a region comprising a number of urban areas that have merged to form one continuous urban and industrially developed area) that would encapsulate all of southern England. Many shared Wells’ fear, and petitioned London’s government to restrict growth as to leave rural areas surrounding London untouched. In the early 20th century activist groups like the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) began to spring up all over the country. Although a greenbelt system was set up to help preserve natural and rural areas just outside some of England’s larger cities, the success of these activist groups was marginal, and were met with resistance from those hoping to globalize many of the UK’s cities. Some groups in the US attempted to take similar action around this time, but were met with the same, middling results. 

Even in 1938, when this map was drawn, the sprawl around central London is evident.

The growth of urban sprawl in the US followed a similar pattern as that in the UK, and starting in the 1960s, greater and greater amounts of people were moving out of the densely populated cities and into suburban neighborhoods. Part of this migration can be attributed to White Flight, the large-scale migration of whites  from racially mixed urban regions to more racially homogeneous suburban regions. This prompted one of the greatest social issues brought up by sprawl, that of racial homogeneity and low amounts of ethnic diversity in suburbs. Some historians see White Flight as a response to the African-American diaspora that took place in the early 20th century, and many see it as clear evidence of still-present racial inequality in America, and functions as de facto segregation. 

Urban sprawl has its fair share of critics. Aside from the racial issues brought up by sprawl, it is also evident that sprawl, because it is very automobile-centric, creates a fair amount of pollution and ugliness in the way of built structures in rural areas. However, for every group that opposes sprawl, there are just as many that promote the idea. These groups mainly consist of families in the middle or upper economic class. The arguments given by these groups are that suburban areas have lower-density development, lower crime rates, and are less plagued by the problems of “city life”. The suburbs have become the brass ring for many families who see it as a sign of prosperity. A Detroit politician was once quoted as saying that urban sprawl and suburbs were “…the American Dream unfolding before your eyes.”

LA's famous sprawl at dawn.

LA’s famous sprawl at dusk.

Although urban sprawl has been the norm for decades now, some urban planners are now beginning to fight the idea. Urban planners in cities like Portland and San Francisco have recently begun to implement what is called Smart Growth into city infrastructure. Smart Growth is the idea that urban areas can be built to be more compact and public transit-oriented rather than automobile-focused, and that this idea can eliminate sprawl. The idea of Smart Growth has taken off, and now even federal institutions like the EPA have begun to implement Smart Growth in cities where they can. One of the major tenants of Smart Growth is developing a unique sense of place, something sprawl lacks. There are ten basic principles of Smart Growth:

  1. Mix land uses
  2. Take advantage of compact building design
  3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
  4. Create walkable neighborhoods
  5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
  6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
  7. Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
  8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
  9. Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
  10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions

Many urban planners believe that these principles are the best way to fight urban sprawl, but retrofitting major metropolitan areas to these guidelines would cost many billions of dollars and countless years. However, that does not mean that we shouldn’t try to implement at least a few of these principles when considering infrastructure changes in major cities. We can have a more beautiful country if we attempt to fight against sprawl now rather later. It’s clear that for now, sprawl is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take action to keep it from spreading even further and choking the life out of our treasured natural areas.


– Ben Kessler


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