Urban sprawl harms the environment, the economyc and American society

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An additional 100 million Americans
must not be housed in urban sprawls

A report by James McElfish, produced for the US Environmental Law Institute*

24 March 2007: In just the next thirty-four years, the US Census Bureau says 300 million Americans would be joined by nearly another 100 million. Where will all these people live, work and play? Where will 40 million additional households be located? What sort of built environment will America produce, and what will be the results for the nation’s and the environment’s well-being? Most planners believe there will be more, much more urban sprawl. However, a report argues that’s exactly what must not happen.

The United States’ future urban land development should not reproduce the pattern of sprawl. This is the main conclusion of a paper by James McElfish of the US Environmental Law Institute. In the paper, McElfish lists ten adverse effects of sprawl that have become apparent over the past years. Similarly to the 2006-report of the European Environmental Agency, the paper emphasises that urban sprawl should be a priority issue on the public policy agenda.

The ‘ten things wrong with sprawl’ identified by McElfish show that sprawl does not only have a negative impact on cities’ infrastructure and sustainability, but also on their public facilities, economic development and social cohesion.

In sprawling cities, the available infrastructure resources are drained to finance the construction of new roads, schools and sewage systems. This undermines the effective maintenance of existing infrastructure. In addition, exurban development increases the societal costs for transportation. This is because, in general, sprawling areas try to accommodate the growing traffic by expensive retrofits of roads and highways.

The environmental consequences of exurban development should not be underestimated either. Metropolitan areas, which are sprawled have a far higher consumption of energy, metal, concrete and asphalt because homes, offices and utilities are farther apart. The water and air quality are negatively affected, and habitats (such as farmland) are permanently altered or destroyed.

McElfish also points out that maintaining a community is difficult in sprawled areas. They require more driving because workplaces, housing, schools and leisure facilities are located in separate areas. This not only imposes a tax on time, but also makes it complicated to engage in social connections.

In economic terms, sprawl encourages ‘free-riding’. Exurban areas typically lack public facilities, such as community centres, parks and libraries. Residents of these areas therefore make use of the facilities in inner city areas, which are often subsidised by others. Moreover, sprawl separates poor people from jobs. Lack of affordable housing in the suburbs makes it difficult for people with a low income to move nearer to workplaces. For those living in the inner city who cannot afford to drive, sprawl reduces the availability of jobs.

Ten things wrong with urban sprawl
1) Sprawl development contributes to a loss of support for public facilities and public amenities.
2) Sprawl undermines effective maintenance of existing infrastructure.
3) Sprawl increases societal costs for transportation.
4) Sprawl consumes more resources than other development patterns.
5) Sprawl separates urban poor people from jobs.
6) Sprawl imposes a tax on time.
7) Sprawl degrades water and air quality.
8) Sprawl results in the permanent alteration or destruction of habitats.
9) Sprawl creates difficulty in maintaining community.
10) Sprawl offers the promise of choice while delivering more of the same.

For more than three decades, the Environmental Law Institute has played a pivotal role in shaping the fields of environmental law, management, and policy domestically and abroad. Today, ELI is an internationally recognized, independent research and education center.

The report ‘Ten things wrong with urban sprawl’ was reviewed by the European Urban Knowledge Network

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