Sprawl and Smart Growth

If the first half of the twentieth century was defined by the vertical expansion of American cities with building of soaring skyscrapers, the second half was marked by the migration to the suburbs to escape the traffic, noise and crime of the cities in search of homes with more living and yard space.

With this aggressive outward expansion came rapid, uncontrolled and poorly planned construction of communities and the roads that connected them in what has come to be known as urban sprawl, suburban sprawl or just plain old sprawl.  In today’s large metropolitan areas, img_6866-2many live in low-density residential housing and are dependent upon driving to get to work, school, or other activities.

Sprawl is a growing blight on the U.S. with no clear end in sight, despite evidence of its negative effects on public health and the environment.  In these areas, walking and biking is often unsafe or not even a viable option, contributing to a sedentary lifestyle and, therefore, an assortment of health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.  More vehicles on the road mean more polluting emissions in the air, creating the potential for respiratory problems, such as asthma and lung cancer .

However, remedies to the problem such as smart growth can be difficult to implement due to the parties at stake.  The smart growth model is characterized by high population density, walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, greenways, mixed-use development, close proximity to mass transit and local amenities.  It provides an alternative to the car-dependent environment of sprawl and is favored by many public health advocates because it offers residents quality of life and potential health and safety benefits, such as less air pollution, more physical activity, fewer motor vehicle accidents, and  lower pedestrian mortality. It also addresses population density and transportation issues.

Nevertheless, as attractive as smart growth is on paper and to the eye, it does have its detractors as it can negatively impact certain stakeholders.   Introducing high-density housing units and commercial property into a residential area of low-density housing may not just increase the population but could also potentially drive up congestion and crime while driving property values down.

“One reason why smart growth has stalled is that key stakeholders involved in the debate—real estate developers, land owners, environmentalists, public health advocates, and people living in metropolitan areas affected by smart-growth projects—have divergent interests, and the political process has often been unable to resolve these conflicts,” said David B. Resnik in his article Urban Sprawl, Smart Growth, and Deliberative Democracy.

Low-income minority populations may be pushed out to make way for smart-growth housing complexes and commercial development, calling into question issues of social justice.  Smart growth policies may require sidewalks and bike paths be added into residential areas, thus encroaching on property owners’ rights to use of their land, such as loss of lawn space.  Laws that prevent development of portions of agricultural acreage may encroach on the rights of farmers to sell their land.



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