What Is Urban Sprawl?

Urban sprawl is the expansion of human populations away from urban centers, usually into smaller communities. If left unchanged, this expansion can lead to these small communities becoming urbanized in their own right.

Urban sprawl is now seen as an important issue in terms of its effects on public health. Furthermore, it is also considered to be a major contributing factor to a range of environmental issues, such as climate change, waste production, habitat destruction and air pollution.

We have written a more in-depth article on the causes of air pollution and their effects here, as well as research on the Top 17 Environmental Issues, which has climate change as number 12 on our list – see what came number one.

Urban Sprawl an issue that many recognize, even if they haven’t encountered the specific term that describes it. It is also one that is difficult to explain, especially in regards to pinpointing causes and potential solutions.

Despite this, urban sprawl is still an issue that needs to be confronted. To do that, more must be done to foster understanding of what it is and the dangers it can cause.

The aim of this piece is to do that, while also offering a number of potential solutions that may be able to impact the continued spread of urbanization.

What Causes Urban Sprawl?

There is no single cause for urban sprawl. It is generally accepted that there are a number of contributing factors, all of which play important parts in the continued urbanization of small communities and green areas.

Population growth is a major factor, especially given the fact that populations in major cities have been on the rise for a number of decades. A chart produced by the U.S. Census Bureau shows how much of an issue this was in the mid-1990s, and the problem has not lessened since.

As more people are born, more land is needed to house them. Couple this with the fact that death rates are currently below birth rates and you have a clear cause for urban sprawl.

However, there are other reasons why this growth in population outside of urban areas can happen. Lower land rates make it easier for developers to purchase and build on land, which is a minor contributing factor.

These rates, coupled with fluctuations in property prices, can also make it easier for those in urban areas to buy housing outside of them.

Furthermore, improvements in infrastructure have made it easier to move away from urban areas, while also making it easier to commute into them. This makes the prospect of living outside of central areas more attractive, which contributes to the spread of population.

The increase in standards of living have also played a part, as attractive housing outside of urban areas is under increased demand and also attainable by many who live in urban centers. Poor planning of urban centers can also play a part in some cases as heavily-populated and poorly-planned urban areas lead to people looking for quieter places to live.

This results in an influx of people into smaller towns and countryside areas, which serves to bring urbanization to them. The irony is that attempts to escape busy urban environments can also contribute to more being created.

Finally, consumer demands also play a major role. Those with access to higher wages tend to want to move away from densely-populated urban areas.

This results in them moving further afield to quieter places. Again, as more people do this, the amount of sprawl is increased.

What Issues Does It Create?

While none of this may seem like a major problem on the surface, urban sprawl actually causes a number of issues that affect everything from the environment through to public health.

The major problem created by urban sprawl is the loss of natural habitats for various species of wildlife. As more land is consumed by urbanization, animal species are forced out and may even be driven to the brink of extinction.

Urban sprawl also contributes to rising public expenditures due to the increased amount of infrastructure and housing that must be created to accommodate for it. In many cases this money will be taken from taxes.

The previously-mentioned larger commutes will also lead to more people making use of cars and other vehicles to get from place to place. This can have a negative effect on the environment, as more cars leads to higher levels of emissions.

In particularly populated areas, these emissions are so concentrated that they lead to issues with the ozone layer. Furthermore, more traffic also means that more air pollution is created, leading to smog that affects the quality of air.

This poor quality air can be linked to a number of major health problems. The chances of having respiratory issues, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease and even unexpected pregnancy outcomes are all issues related to the air pollution that is, in part, caused by urban sprawl.

Finally, people moving away from populated areas can see negative effects on their social lives. This is often an unseen consequence of urban sprawl and one that is underestimated by many in terms of its dangers, particularly in regards to the psychological effects this loss of social life can have.

Are There Any Potential Solutions?

One of the major issues with urban sprawl is that it is difficult to find possible solutions to the problem. A growing population needs housing, and making existing urban areas more densely-populated to accommodate this presents problems of its own.

However, there are organizations that are dedicated to trying to solve the issue that have come up with a number of potential solutions.

One is to actually make use of disused land and buildings in urban centers. Most urban areas have old buildings that have entered a state of disrepair or are just not used for their original purposes.

With the right investment, these could be reinvigorated, which would cut down on the need to build elsewhere.

Others point to a lack of small-town community spirit as a reason why urban sprawl is allowed to happen. In fact, many towns have created organizations that are dedicated to building community spirit, which in turn allows for boundaries to be created that can combat urban sprawl.

In regards to the effects that urban sprawl has on the environment, action can be taken to protect natural habitats. In extreme cases, peaceful protesting has been shown to be successful in preventing urbanization in green areas.

The continued preservation and cultivation of such areas can also be seen as a way to dissuade sprawl, particularly if those who look after such areas are extremely passionate and have communities behind them.

Unfortunately, while all of these are nice ideas, they may struggle to confront the practical issues that lead to urban sprawl in the first place.

The Final Word

As with many environmental issues, urban sprawl is a complex problem that doesn’t have an easy solution.

The demands of a growing population, coupled with advances in technology, make it easier for urban areas to spread out into countryside and natural habitats. The opposition to these efforts is often not strong enough to prevent them.

The problem is exacerbated by the many other issues that cause urban sprawl in the first place. The solution, if there is one, will need to take into account the need for catering to large populations and changing societal attitudes.

Perhaps you have your own opinion on what could be done to combat urban sprawl. If so, please do continue the discussion in the comments section or share this article on social media to inspire a debate.


Featured Image Credit: Soham BanerJee @ Flickr