Urban Sprawl Research Paper

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Urban sprawl is an imprecise but highly evocative, usually derogatory, term used primarily in the economically advanced countries of the English-speaking world to describe certain kinds of low-density urban landscapes with little comprehensive public planning. The chief arguments against this kind of settlement pattern are that it is inefficient, inequitable, environmentally damaging, socially irresponsible and aesthetically ugly. To halt sprawl, reformers have called for more highly planned, compact, transit-oriented cities. Among the remedies proposed to stop sprawl are political changes including the move of planning functions upward in the governmental hierarchy, the removal of subsidies supposedly supporting sprawl, the implementation of a system of incentives intended to create higher densities, growth restrictions, growth boundaries, greenbelts, open space conservation and historic preservation. Although the term was used by planners and other experts for at least a half century, it became a major public concern only in the economic boom period of the last years of the twentieth century. At the same time, however, it became clear that even the most basic assumptions about the definition of urban sprawl, its causes, and the effect of various proposed remedies were in dispute.

1. History Of The Term

Described by various words over the years, the kinds of condition the term ‘sprawl’ would later refer to have almost certainly been matters of concern as long as towns have existed. By the nineteenth century, certainly, complaints about buildings straggling out from towns and villas marring picturesque landscapes were quite common in Britain. These complaints seem to have entered the political arena in a major way following the great prosperity of the 1920s. One of the most important critics was planner Thomas Sharp, who issued vitriolic attacks on the new ‘semisuburbia,’ on ‘ribbon developments’ along roads leading out of town, and on suburban villas marring the countryside (Sharp 1932). His cause was taken up by groups such as the Council for the Preservation of Rural England with its heavy constituency of large landowners, and several bills passed in the 1930s aimed at restricting ribbon development and creating greenbelts around cities.

It appears to have been during the 1930s that the use of the word sprawl as a noun with something like its current sense came into general usage. One prominent use of the term occurred in the famous Greater London Plan of 1944 (Abercrombie 1945). It was also used on the other side of the Atlantic by Lewis Mumford in The Culture of Cities (1938). The original criticisms of sprawl were almost always based on aesthetic and symbolic considerations. It was ugly, and blurred the traditional distinctions between the city and the countryside (Bruegmann 2000).

Complaints about sprawl have continued to accompany every era of major prosperity since World War II, but they have changed considerably in content and have been modified depending on the time and place. Immediately after World War II, sprawl became less of an issue in Britain because it, like many continental European countries, had been exhausted economically by the war and at the same time had adapted the kinds of stringent controls on peripheral development around large cities that planners had advocated in wartime reconstruction plans. In the United States, on the other hand, the prosperity of the postwar years without any strong growth control planning led to a tremendous suburban boom. Consequently the most conspicuous negative reactions to sprawl came from the United States. At the same time, the focus started to expand to include objections based on notions of equity and quality of community. These paralleled closely the criticisms that were being made at that time by a number of prominent sociologists of suburbia in general. According to this analysis, the suburbs were conformist, alienating, homogenous, and boring (Riesman 1950, Whyte 1956).

The most conspicuous use of the term sprawl in the postwar decades came from William H. Whyte, who organized a conference for Fortune Magazine on the subject and then published a jeremiad against sprawl in The Exploding Metropolis, a book that he edited (Whyte 1958). For Whyte, as for the British, sprawl was primarily an aesthetic problem, but he made scattered comments that suggested that sprawl might also be inefficient economically and have negative social repercussions. These were arguments that would be expanded, starting in the 1960s, and combined with new elements from the environmental movement. Whyte’s essay also started what would become a common practice of using the Los Angeles metropolitan area as a prime example of low-density sprawl.

As the various strands of the sprawl argument were worked out and debated in the following decades, the term became more common but it never acquired a clear definition. By the late twentieth century, the term could mean many different things to different people using it. Almost everyone agreed that it referred to low-density development, but low density in a European city could still be denser than relatively high density in a city in the United States. Sprawl commonly referred to settlement that was scattered, discontinuous, leap-frog, or ribbon, but as many observers pointed out, with additional development the low-density discontinuous settlement of one era often becomes the highly admired, compact, and high-density settlement of the next (Lessinger 1962). Sprawl could also refer to automobile-dependent development or to development with poor access from home to work or to public open spaces, but many other observers have pointed out that, as cities have become wealthier, they have almost inevitably seen more automobile usage and, in many cases, commuting times have remained the same or fallen. The state of the term at the turn of the century can perhaps best be seen in a pair of articles published in the Journal of the American Planning Association in 1997, one by Harry Gordon and Peter Richardson, who challenged the idea that sprawl was a major problem; and the other by Reid Ewing who maintained, along with most mainstream planning thought, that it was indeed a problem. In some ways, the most remarkable part of the debate was not the conclusions about the problems and the proposed remedies but the lack of agreement about what sprawl was. The two essays, with the ensuing letters, made it clear, for example, that even as basic an issue as whether Los Angeles was a high-density, relatively compact city or a low-density sprawling city was in dispute (Ewing 1997, Gordon and Richardson 1997).

By the late 1990s, important coalitions to counter scattered, low-density, automobile-oriented growth at the periphery of urban areas were in evidence in virtually every affluent nation in the world, although the term sprawl was mostly used in the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia. In the United States, the term ‘smart growth’ became important in the 1990s to designate efforts to combat sprawl. In England, Canada, and Australia, ‘the compact city’ tended to be the term used to refer to the opposite of sprawl. In all of these places, sprawl also tended to be contrasted with ‘sustainable’ development, another term with a large literature and extremely divergent definitions (Jenks et al. 1996). In continental Europe, in the face of a vast increase in automobile ownership, suburban development, and peripheral shopping centers, the European Economic Community declared itself in favor of compact, transit-friendly cities with single vibrant centers (Commission for the European Community [CEC] 1990, Nivola 1999). In Japan, the term supuroru was coined to designate what English commentators called sprawl, although the target was more haphazard growth and assurance of adequate infrastructure than any specific desire to make development more compact (Hebbert 1994). The concept of sprawl has also been used in Israel and elsewhere (Razin 1998).

2. Objections To Sprawl

Objections raised by reformers to sprawl have changed dramatically over the years and according to the viewpoint of the observer. They can, however, be classified under five major headings that range from the apparently quite objective to the obviously very subjective. These categories might be designated efficiency, equity, environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and aesthetic and symbolic suitability.

2.1 Efficiency Concerns

Although the earliest and most constant objections to sprawl have been aesthetic, the debate about public policy to curb sprawl has primarily been conducted in more objective terms. The earliest and most extensive segment of this literature has targeted the alleged inefficiencies of sprawl. The most important early summary of these issues in the United States in the postwar decades appeared in the costs of sprawl issued by the Real Estate Research Corporation (1974). Using hypothetical models of various kinds of development, this report concluded that master-planned communities at fairly high densities were much more efficient in terms of private development costs and public infrastructure costs than what they called ‘unplanned’ communities at low densities. This report was attacked immediately on several fronts. Before the report had appeared, several researchers had noted that what appeared to be scattered low-density development was often a high-density compact neighborhood in the making. In fact, scattered development often produced even higher densities in the end, than development built all at one time (Lessinger 1962). Another attack on the conclusions in the report came from reviewers who stated that the apparent savings actually were primarily due to the failure of the report to hold conditions constant in the various models (Altshuler 1977, Windsor 1979). Other researchers suggested that master-planning, as opposed to the hypothetical models used by the Real Estate Research Corporation, did not in practice yield the savings that should have been expected and was often more expensive (Peiser 1984). The supposed efficiencies of high density, likewise, were disputed (Ladd 1992). More recently, a new report on the costs of sprawl has tried to respond to these challenges (Burchell et al. 1998). According to this report, the dire predictions of previous researchers had not materialized but, it opined, the higher costs of low density settlement, particularly road and other infrastructure costs, would soon become intolerable.

2.2 Equity Concerns

The second charge against sprawl, that it is blamed by some for exacerbating economic and social inequities, was, until recently, much more common in the United States than elsewhere, because it was primarily in the United States that affluent individuals moved in great numbers from the central city to the far suburbs. Concerns about inequality became common in the wake of the civil unrest in American cities in the 1960s and concerns about the survival of the inner city. According to the view of many reformers, sprawl was not inevitable or even a freely made choice by most of the population.

Instead, it was a condition that was, at least in part, induced artificially by massive federal subsides in favor of homeownership, notably homeowner insurance guarantees, mortgage interest deductions that supposedly favored new suburban home building, and federal funding for the massive postwar highway building program. As affluent citizens moved out of the central city, this tended to maroon poor and minority families who were unable to move at the same pace. At the same time, it tended to deplete the tax base of the older municipalities as, according to this line of thought, they lost sales taxes and property taxes to outlying municipalities. Other observers have noted that none of these programs was designed to produce massive decentralization, and that any of them might have had quite different effects absent a high level of affluence and a strong underlying desire to decentralize.

2.3 Environmental Concerns

Environmental concerns started to play an increasing role in anti-sprawl polemics following the ecological activism of the late 1960s. According to this line of thought, low-density settlement led to excessive energy usage, particularly automobile usage (Newman and Kenworthy 1989). This in turn led to the depletion of resources and to increased pollution. Low-density settlement also led to the loss of farmland, most seriously prime farmland near urban areas, and to forests, wetlands, and other open lands. Attempts to stop sprawl for environmental reasons have often been grouped under the heading of sustainability (Jenks et al. 1996, Brotchie et al. 1995).

Clearly, energy usage has been shown to be much higher in the affluent countries of the world than in the developing world. Cities in the United States, moreover, use much more energy than their counterparts in Europe. For many environmentalists, this constitutes a fundamental human challenge that can only be solved by stringent conservation measures and replanning cities to be more energy-efficient. Other scholars have noted a history of decades of dire warnings about looming energy shortages and ecological disaster, none of which has come to pass, and have suggested that technology itself will be much more effective in finding answers to problems than efforts to turn the clock back.

Perhaps the most contentious area involving both energy consumption and environment remains the use of the private automobile. Sprawl reformers are almost all united in the belief that private automobile usage must be lessened and public transportation strengthened to reduce both congestion and pollution. On the other hand, other scholars have pointed out that both congestion and pollution levels are often higher in denser metropolitan areas than they are in areas of lower density. The idea that it will be possible to counter the rise in automobile ownership and per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which is a feature of virtually every city in the world as it has become more affluent, or to counter the drop in the proportion of citizens riding public transportation, which has also been true in virtually all of these places, is, according to some observers, both unlikely and undesirable (Gordon and Richardson 1997).

One of the most emotional parts of the debate about sprawl has concerned the loss of farmland. According to many anti-sprawl reformers, cropland, particularly prime cropland, is an irreplaceable asset which is being fast eroded by urban expansion. Those who take an opposing view counter that very little of the farmland lost since World War II has been lost to development, at least in the United States, and that the pace of farmland loss is moderating in any case. The major reason for loss of farmland, according to this point of view, is that productivity has soared and there is less need for land planted in crops. The increase in land for urban uses, moreover, has been less than the amount of additional land added to the supply of permanently protected open spaces (Staley 1999).

2.4 Social Concerns

Another charge against sprawl coming out of the activism of the late 1960s, and most common in the United States, was a belief that sprawl leads to impoverished social relationships and communities. Antagonism to sprawl on social grounds has often been bound up with attacks on suburbs generally. These were seen as alienating, soulless places in the famous sociological studies of David Riesman and William H. Whyte. This literature reached a crescendo in the postwar decades before it was rebutted by other sociologists, for example, Herbert Gans (Riesman 1950, Whyte 1958, Gans 1967). The equation of suburbia and sprawl with social alienation was revived in the 1990s. One of the most potent areas of concern has been the so-called privatization of public spaces, for example, the decline of Main Street shopping centers in the wake of suburban shopping malls (Sorkin 1992). Other observers have suggested that what is important in social relationships and community has not changed: they argue that only the outward forms of it have changed, and this should not be unduly troubling. A particularly thorny problem related to sprawl in the United States concerns the factor of race. Some writers have believed that sprawl has been caused in great part by racial tension, and that the low-density suburbs are an attempt by middle class citizens to distance themselves from social problems in the city. Other observers have noted that sprawl has occurred in much the same way in metropolitan areas with few minorities as it has in areas with large minority populations, suggesting that race, while important, may not be an underlying cause. They also note that suburban areas have always been and are increasingly diverse.

2.5 Aesthetic Concerns

The final complaint about sprawl, that it is ugly and symbolically inappropriate, has inspired the most constant and abundant literature throughout the years. The sprawling city has been said to be unplanned, chaotic, monotonous, neither urban nor rural but a combination of the worst aspects of each. One of the chief problems with this kind of judgment, however, has always been that various groups differ widely in their aesthetic sensibilities, and that, even within a single group, responses can change dramatically over the years. It has also been conspicuous, from the interwar complaints of British landowners down to the beginning of the twenty-first century, that there are class-bound aesthetic interests at work in this kind of critique.

3. Proposed Remedies For Sprawl

The most obvious and dramatic remedy to sprawl would be to stop new development outside existing urban areas altogether. This could be done by outright governmental prohibitions or by limiting the development of necessary infrastructure, notably roads, water delivery systems, and wastewater treatment facilities. By whichever means, stopping peripheral growth altogether has been tried but has rarely worked if population was growing. Immediately after World War II, zero growth appeared to be a possibility in European cities but it has since proved illusory. In the

United States, on the other hand, growth was always considered a given. In the wake of the postwar boom period, the ‘slow growth’ and ‘no growth’ movements became prominent in a number of US cities. These were, in many ways, the precursors of turn-of-the-century anti-sprawl movements. In most cases, growth was stopped or slowed in a given municipality, but subsequent research has suggested that the growth merely migrated to adjacent communities (Porter 1997, Garvin 1996).

3.1 Channeling Or Managing Growth

Attempting to manage or channel growth, rather than stop it altogether, on the other hand, has often been implemented over the years with at least limited success. One of the earliest and most important attempts to do this was the greenbelt system instituted around British cities, notably around London. In this system, a growth boundary was established marking the edge of a greenbelt in which development was forbidden. Any additional growth that could not be accommodated in the existing developed area was to be confined as much as possible to existing towns and villages beyond the greenbelt, and to newly established ‘new towns.’ This system, which borrowed many features from Ebenezer Howard and his garden city concepts, did in fact stop much, although not all, of the growth that otherwise might have invaded the greenbelt around London. It was not nearly as successful in containing growth beyond the belt. In fact, growth beyond the greenbelt eventually scattered across much of southeast England. Moreover, by restricting the land available for new development adjacent to the already built-up area, it very likely raised land prices considerably, making it more difficult for people of modest means to afford housing, and perhaps driving them further out than would have been the case without the restrictions (Hall et al. 1973). Still, the London model has been very influential. A similar kind of greenbelt, together with a set of policies encouraging compaction and public transportation, has been put in place by the regional government of Portland, Oregon. The experience of Portland, which has been America’s most conspicuous exemplar of anti-sprawl planning, has been watched closely and debated hotly (Abbott et al. 1994, Mildner et al. 1996).

In other cities, other kinds of devices were used to channel growth. In Paris, for example, new development was to be channeled into specific growth corridors organized around transportation lines and large new towns. The same kind of system was proposed for the Washington DC metropolitan area. One virtue of these proposals was that they mirrored the way development had occurred historically along transportation routes. In practice, however, it proved difficult to enforce these corridors in the face of major demand for new land to develop, and, because they tended to be based on rail transportation, they are thought by some to be inadequate for areas at the periphery where most people drive.

3.2 Open Space Conservation

Another measure sometimes counted as an anti-sprawl technique involves the creation of permanent open space. This can be done by legislative fiat, by the purchase of land or of development rights by private or public bodies, or some combination of these mechanisms. Although these measures are often counted as anti-sprawl measures, they do not, in themselves, stop sprawl but merely channel whatever growth would otherwise occur in specific directions. They also tend to reduce gross densities, arguably fostering sprawl.

3.3 Governmental Structures And Incentives

Other techniques for curbing low-density settlement and promoting high-density growth involve governmental policies and structure. In the United States many sprawl reformers blame competition rather than cooperation among units of local government. The American tradition of deciding land use policies at the local level, combined, in many cities, with a very fragmented system of municipal government, has been seen by reformers as a major reason for lack of coherence in planning, and as a major incentive for development to sprawl (Gottdiener 1977). The remedy, for reformers, is to form metropolitan-wide governments with strong planning responsibilities, or to push responsibility for planning up to the state or federal level, so that local competition for tax dollars will be less an influence in planning decisions. Moreover, tax revenues would be shared more evenly, making it difficult to move to avoid taxes, and allowing the possibility of a more equitable distribution of income for schools and other public services (Orfield 1997). Among the most important metropolitan governments in North America are those of Portland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Toronto. States that have initiated strong growth management laws include Oregon, Florida, and New Jersey. Whether or not these policies will have any substantial effect in stopping the outward decentralization of people and jobs in the long run is still unknown.

Another area targeted by reformers involves tax policies and other governmental fiscal policies. Sprawl was subsidized by federal mortgage insurance policies and by the mortgage interest deduction on the federal income tax, according to reformers. Low-density settlement was also subsidized by heavy federal subsidies provided for roads, and the lack of subsidies at the same scale for public transportation. Many reformers would like to see the end of the federal mortgage interest deductions, heavy taxes on gasoline and vehicles, and much greater funding for transit. One influential group has justified these moves as correctives to make the market reflect more adequately the externalities caused by things like automobile use (Downs 1994). Other observers suggest that any major program to introduce sharp increases in fees on private transportation would be highly regressive; and they question whether, given the apparently inexorable trend toward low density, the higher fees on private transportation and more funding for projects such as rail transit would actually lead to a corresponding rise in transit use, or just to yet higher levels of highway congestion, pollution, and economic hardship (Gordon and Richardson 1997).

3.4 Design Solutions

A final set of recommendations to deal with sprawl has been made at the level of urban design. Proposals for transit-oriented design (TOD), in which high density uses are planned near transit stations, or ‘New Urbanist’ designs, which attempt to create a mix of uses to promote community and transit use, have all been advocated, and some building has actually occurred (Katz 1994). It is again too early to judge the success of these efforts, which to date have been very modest, but, in the last years of the twentieth century, there was little evidence that these developments, mostly suburban and at quite low densities, had had any effect on overall urban patterns.

3.5 The Sprawl Debate

Beyond the question of problems supposedly created by sprawl, or the efficacy of any particular remedy, is a larger set of questions about whether sprawl is recent, whether it is accelerating or is actually declining, and whether it is peculiarly American or whether American cities merely represent an advanced stage in a process that is visible everywhere in the world. There has actually been very little research on many of these questions but there does seem to be some evidence that in the United States, where the debate at the end of the twentieth century was hottest, decentralization and sprawl might have had their greatest per capita development in the period between the 1920s and the end of the postwar decades, and might actually be declining. There is also a fundamental question about whether the denser cities of Europe and elsewhere are actually different from American cities, or exhibiting all of the same characteristics but merely evolving at a slower rate and less obviously because of the large mass of existing urban fabric (Bruegmann 1996).

In the United States and Britain, the chief opposition to sprawl since World War II has come from the left side of the political spectrum and tends to unite academic planners, land conservationists, and historic preservationists. The anti-sprawl efforts have been opposed primarily by individuals from the right side of the political spectrum, particularly land economists and those who favor an increased role for the private market. Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, particularly in Australia, the situation appears to be somewhat different, with reformers to the left of center objecting that efforts to enforce more compact development for efficiency reasons will inevitably have a negative impact on the less affluent part of the population, and exacerbate existing inequalities in levels of service and amenity (Troy 1996).


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