The Environmental Implications of Urban Sprawl

Thursday 1 April 2021
Last Updated 2022-04-16T21:24:50Z

Human activity has fundamentally altered the natural world in countless ways. Geologists and environmental scientists alike are consistently looking at the various aspects of our environment that are suffering under humanity’s watch. And although issues such as climate change and air pollution tend to get the bulk of media coverage in regards to environmentalism, we shouldn’t overlook similar topics such as urban sprawl.

                                 Image Source: Photo by Sergei Akulich on Wunderstock (license)

Today, more people live in cities than in rural areas for the first time in history. This has led to the practice of systemic urbanization, which is relatively new. While major cities certainly existed before the 1920s, it was during this decade that urbanization truly took hold. And once urban streets were literally cemented in place, it helped shape the future of urban sprawl.

 According to researchers, in fact, “once laid down, the pattern of streets determines urban form and the level of sprawl for decades to come.” This is especially interesting when you consider that sprawl predates the widespread ownership of personal vehicles. Automobile dependency is considered one of the primary characteristics of sprawl, alongside excessively large home and lot sizes.

 To some, urban sprawl might be considered somewhat of a necessary evil, or simply the inevitable product of technological advancements. Yet the expansion of cities is an inherently wasteful process, especially in regards to natural land and resources, and we can no longer afford to ignore that fact. The good news is that humans can fight back against urban sprawl, by supporting the smart growth of global cities.

Considering the Merits and Pitfalls of Urbanization

From a geological standpoint, the effects of urban sprawl are easy to spot. Urban geologists around the world have noted various environmental issues that are a direct result of urbanization. Land erosion is common in urban areas, for example. What’s more, soil erosion often causes a cascade effect wherein cities are more vulnerable to floods and potential groundwater contamination.

Urban sprawl has also left a variety of social problems in its wake, including unequal housing opportunities. As the subject of urbanization thus encompasses multiple disciplines, so do potential solutions to its negative effects. In recent years, so-called “smart growth” initiatives have gained traction as a viable means of addressing urban sprawl.

Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/QQtoNkv5GNE

Smart growth focuses on securing affordable housing opportunities, encouraging neighborhood beautification while avoiding gentrification. The preservation of historic architecture is also a vital part of smart growth, alongside improving community diversity and quality of life. Of course, the environment also benefits greatly: the ultimate goal of smart growth land development strategies is to preserve natural land and conserve resources.

Realistic Ways to Combat Urban Sprawl

Mixed land usage is a cornerstone of smart growth plans. Rather than investing in areas that are zoned for single-use, whether residential or commercial, proponents of smart growth focus on mixed-use. In mixed-use zoning, apartments and other residential spaces exist alongside businesses, strengthening communities while streamlining land usage.

Yet mixed land-use and smart growth can’t exist in a vacuum. To effectively combat the negative repercussions of urban sprawl, we must also acknowledge certain economic and social factors. For starters, you pay much more to live in a city than a rural community or small town.

Food is typically more costly in urban grocery and convenience stores, while commodities such as gas, entertainment, and parking also command a higher price tag. Lower-income residents may even find that they are denied a home loan for a pricey urban dwelling, only to qualify for a cheaper rural property. Therefore, to combat the spread of urbanization, affordable housing programs should be prioritized. 

The Connection Between the Environment and Your Daily Life

Investing in affordable housing and community wellbeing can help preserve natural spaces, but other factors must be taken into account. Across the U.S., public transportation in urban areas is frequently inadequate, with cars still the nation’s most-utilized form of transportation, by a wide margin. While the numbers may have altered slightly in the wake of the pandemic, before the COVID-19 outbreak, personal vehicles were used for a full 87% of daily trips.


                             Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/kG71BXh8KFw

Key Takeaways

The continued dominance of personal vehicles over public transportation has a detrimental effect on the air we breathe. And make no mistake: poor air quality is as much of a public health issue as it is an environmental one. By encouraging the use of carbon-neutral forms of transport such as bicycles, especially for short trips, or public transportation, fewer greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. Not only that, the public health of the community is cyclically increased by both exercise and improved environmental conditions.

In cities across the nation, urban sprawl and the use of personal vehicles go hand-in-hand. The resulting air pollution is just one of the myriad environmental implications of urbanization, alongside groundwater problems and land erosion. Urban sprawl also perpetuates housing inequality. As such, it’s our duty as scientists and global citizens to find viable solutions, such as smart city initiatives and improved roadways that prioritize efficient, affordable, and eco-friendly public transportation.

Contributed by Indiana Lee: Indiana Lee is a  journalist from the Pacific Northwest with a passion for covering workplace issues, environmental protection, social justice, and more. When she is not writing you can find her deep in the mountains with her two dogs. Follow her work on Contently, or reach her at indianaleewrites@gmail.com

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