Lentis/Urban Sprawl

Urban Sprawl in San Jose, California

Urban sprawl, sometimes called suburban sprawl, is a term coined in the late 1950's for the expansion of suburban development outside of a city's urban core. [1] It relies on the construction of residential and commercial buildings on rural, undeveloped land at the outskirts of a city. The following analysis will address some of the many historical factors contributing to urban sprawl in the United States, particularly the perception of home and car ownership as the American Dream. Advocates perceive urban sprawl as a sign of economic growth and freedom, while critics have concerns about the negative environmental, economic, and social impacts of urban sprawl. This analysis will address the various social groups impacted by urban sprawl and their opinions.

History in the United StatesEdit

The sprawling of American cities into metropolitan regions began in the mid-nineteenth century. The American Dream promoted suburban living, as home ownership began to define high status and success in the United States. In fact, home and car ownership were driving forces in the shift to low density development outside the central city.

The federal government subsidized the home mortgage industry as a means to revive the American economy in the period following the Great Depression. President Hoover crafted the National Housing Act of 1934 as a critical part of the New Deal in order to make home mortgages for newly constructed houses more affordable. “The act made possible the vision of the free-standing, owner-occupied, single-family home in the suburbs” [2].

One of the greatest housing booms in the United States followed World War II. Soldiers returned to their families in a crippled economic environment resulting from wartime shortages. As the economy boomed, the housing industry sought land for development outside the city. After this boom, the majority of homeowners lived in characteristically suburban areas with decreasing density as both average property size increased and average family size fell. [3].

In parallel, land developers emerged as advocates for suburban development. One such developer was William Levitt, a prominent home-builder in the 1950’s. Levitt revolutionized the home construction industry through new technologies that built high quality homes quickly and cheaply. He built up to 180 houses a week while many builders were constructing five homes a year.[4] One of his most notable projects was the creation of Levittown, NY, a suburban community located in Long Island. It served as an escape from the overpopulated New York City and laid the groundwork for modern-day suburbia, spawning thousands of copycat communities nationwide.

Technological changes in transportation drastically reduced the advantages of inner-city living, characterized by concentrated and accessible development.[5] During the early trend towards suburban development, the trolley, or electric streetcar, served as the hub for transportation to employment, goods and services that were beyond walking distance. Streetcars provided easy access from the newly developing streetcar suburbs to employment opportunities concentrated in the central city. This access appealed to Americans looking to leave the dense, fast-paced inner cities. [6] In 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted the Federal Highway Act creating the Interstate Highway System which provided easy access to undeveloped land surrounding United States cities. Land developers embraced the opportunity to increase utility and economic value of this land. As a result, by the mid-1900’s large-scale land developers began to shape their planned communities and commercial centers around the automobile. Combined with increased personal automobile affordability and use, urban sprawl proliferated in the United States and the term was coined.


Typical Suburban Home

Single-use zoning separates residential, commercial, industrial, and retail uses.

Residential zones are characterized by two-story homes with driveways leading to large garages, all placed on luscious lawns: the American dream. Home sizes are growing while density is decreasing. The size of the average new house increased from 800 to 2,000 square feet between 1950 and 2000 [7] and 1.2 million acres of farmland were lost to sprawl per year between 1992 and 1996 [8]. Large low-density blocks and disconnected streets ending in cul-de-sacs reduce walk-ability and connectivity, often leading to car-dependency. In New York, 95% of suburban homes own at least one vehicle compared to 46% of New York City residents [9]. Homes in suburban sub-divisions are typically similar in size and value, creating homogeneous neighborhoods of uniform economic status.

Urban Sprawl retail zones are characterized by expansive parking lots, big-box stores, and strip malls. Chain restaurants are prevalent, particularly fast food chains. The spread-out nature of development dictates wide arterial roads with infrequent intersections. Many transportation issues, such as traffic congestion and complex interchanges, are intensified by urban sprawl.

For further reading, visit Urban Sprawl.

Perceptions of Social GroupsEdit


Suburban communities are often credited for stronger public schools than their urban counterparts. Only 20% of last years' Department of Education Blue Ribbon Schools were urban. [10] This is often concerning to parents who wish to provide their children with the best education at the lowest cost. Parents may also find larger homes on spacious plots at lower cost, as the cost of land typically decreases and distance from the central city increases. However, they must sacrifice short commutes to work and other destinations.

Children & TeensEdit

Children and teens may feel isolated in suburban communities where they cannot travel to school, stores, work, or friend's homes without a vehicle. In the United States, the driving age is a minimum of 16, thus most children and teens cannot travel without a parent or other driver. Movies such as Disney Channel's Stuck in the Suburbs exacerbate the confines of growing up in the suburban communities created by urban sprawl. Contrastingly, suburban communities provide children with green space to play, low-traffic streets, and excellent public school systems. Books like Beverly Lewis' The Cul-de-sac Kids for children ages 4-8 tell stories of fun, friends and adventure in the suburbs.

The Elderly & DisabledEdit

Urban Sprawl poses many similar problems for the elderly and disabled as it does for children and teens. Elderly and disabled who cannot drive must rely on poor public transit in car-oriented communities, often putting them out of reach of their physical and social needs.[11] These issues are increasingly significant since, while the overall U.S. population is expected to increase by 20% in the next 20 years, the population of Americans over 65 will increase by 80%. [12] Cornelia McDonald, a 77-year-old widow, voices the concerns of the elderly: "I can't drive anymore and I can't walk far, so I can't get anywhere on my own. Everything is so far away. I used to like that. I used to like not being crowded by neighbors and everything. But now I'm having a hard time managing." [13]

The PoorEdit

Generally, suburban home-ownership is not economically accessible for low income people. Even though renting may be a viable option, some zoning laws and homeowner associations do not allow renters. A similar lack of car ownership makes suburban living even more unattractive. Reliance on public transit is inconvenient, or not accessible, for low income families and individuals. Additionally, those who cannot afford car or home ownership are effectively restricted from accessing the amenities in sprawling communities.

Transportation GroupsEdit


Long commuting and heavy traffic characteristic of Urban Sprawl greatly affects drivers. Car-oriented neighborhoods provide freedom for drivers to use publicly subsidized roads and access free parking. Thus, drivers are favored over other transportation users in sprawling communities. “You’ve got some areas out there that are just disconnected, and to get around you either have to get in your car, or you don’t go,” says a suburban commuter. While many prefer the comfort and convenience of cars, some value greater connectivity and multi-modal planning that welcomes pedestrians, cyclists, buses and cars [14].


Low density, single-use neighborhoods reduce pedestrians’ abilities to access their needs. Suburban developments are scaled for cars, not people. Pedestrians who venture beyond their driveways eventually reach daunting intersections and find themselves lost among parking lots and traffic congested streets[15].


Bicyclists in both cities and suburbs face many difficulties in the car-oriented environment. Cars dominate the roads and pedestrians dominate the sidewalks, leaving bicyclists stuck in the middle. Sprawling suburbs with great distances between destinations pose particular challenges for bicyclists.

Transit RidersEdit

Low density reduces transit efficiency. Great distances between stops, long waits, and low accessibility plague suburban transit users, often either eliminating the option of transit use or greatly reducing the convenience of travellers by requiring them to walk long distances and wait for transit to arrive.

Big-Box StoresEdit

Highway Congestion

Walmart and other big-box stores facilitate urban sprawl by contributing to traffic congestion and absorbing customers from small-town businesses.[16] With plenty of space at low development cost, sprawl enables Walmart to provide customers with lower retail prices. City-dwellers who prefer such stores can also contribute to traffic congestion when driving out of the city to access these exclusively suburban amenities.[17]

Auto ManufacturersEdit

After World War II auto manufacturers helped lead the initiative to move families out of cities and into the suburbs where cars would be the main form of transportation.[18] Auto manufacturers benefit from urban sprawl because annually residents in suburban areas spend 25% percent of household income on transport, compared to 9% in walk-able urban areas. [19]

Land DevelopersEdit

As evidenced by the historical contributions to suburbia, land developers value urban sprawl as an economic opportunity. With no national land use policy in the United States, land developers completed about 1.5 million new units of housing every year between 1994 and 2002[20], most of them suburban single-family houses. Furthermore, home mortgages were subsidized by the federal government, creating a greater demand for the development


Between 1992 and 1997, 1.2 million acres of farmland was lost each year to land development.[21] Farmers do not support urban sprawl l because it takes away their land and renders it economically useless to them. [22]


Federal and state governments enact policies that indirectly or directly promote urban sprawl. For instance, poor maintenance of urban public facilities, weak inner-city schools, and high property and business taxes in cities all encourage migration to the suburbs. Highways built by the government enable sprawl and single-use zoning laws promote big-box stores and disconnected neighborhoods.[23]

Environmental ActivistsEdit

Environmentalists argue that urban sprawl is detrimental to the environment because it takes away otherwise unoccupied land for development and brings new traffic which contributes to poor air quality.[24] Environmental activists cite that suburbia’s dependence on travel by car increases the annual vehicle miles per capita and, subsequently, increases carbon emissions. Prominent environmentalist Edward Abbey said, “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Urban sprawl also decreases the natural habitat for wildlife, thus decreasing wildlife population. Deer, for instance, lose their homes and become roadkill because of increased and high-speed traffic.[25]


Urban sprawl is a socio-technical phenomenon affecting all people in some way. The future of sprawl and land development is dependent on many of these social groups. Some U.S. cities have imposed restrictions to prevent urban sprawl, such as, urban growth boundaries and congestion pricing, which in some cases effectively increases the cost of suburban living. New urbanism is a form of suburban development aimed at combatting some negative effects of sprawl including disconnected streets, low density, and lack of transit. Thus, the nature of urban sprawl is dynamic.

Further researchers may consider the effects of these changes on the evolution urban sprawl. They may also wish to address other contributing factors to sprawl and compare the United States to other countries.


  1. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/urban+sprawl
  2. Hornstein, 2005. A Nation of Realtors®: A Cultural History of the Twentieth-Century American Middle Class
  3. http://www.randomhistory.com/1-50/027sprawl.html
  4. http://www.novelguide.com/a/discover/ewb_19/ewb_19_07392.html
  5. Cullingworth & Caves, 2003. Planning in the USA: Policies, Issues and Processes.
  6. Gonzalez, Urban Sprawl, Global Warming, and the Empire of Capital.
  7. http://www.embarq.org/en/problem/urban-sprawl
  8. http://www.npg.org/factsheets/sprawl.pdf
  9. http://www.embarq.org/en/problem/urban-sprawl
  10. http://www2.ed.gov/programs/nclbbrs/index.html
  11. Duany, Plater-Zyberk & Speck, 2000. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream
  12. US Census Bureau, 2008. Projections of the population by selected age groups and sex for the United States: 2010 to 2050.
  13. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9402E4DE163EF93AA25754C0A962958260&pagewanted=all
  14. http://news.nationalpost.com/2010/07/24/vaughan-gridlocked-in-suburbia/#ixzz171Y4ulQH
  15. DeRubertis, 2006. Pedestrians Lost in the New Suburbia.
  16. http://nomountorabwalmart.wordpress.com/2008/04/07/wal-mart-urban-sprawl/
  17. http://www.ehow.com/list_6137689_urban-sprawl-advantages.html
  18. http://www.loc.gov/rr/business/BERA/issue2/history.html
  19. http://www.embarq.org/en/problem/urban-sprawl
  20. http://www.powells.com/biblio?show=ELECTRONIC:EREADER%20EBOOKS:9780307515261:15.04&page=excerpt
  21. http://www.npg.org/factsheets/sprawl.pdf
  22. http://www.sprawl-busters.com/caseagainstsprawl.html
  23. http://www.ncpa.org/pub/ba459
  24. Norman, 1999. Slam-dunking Walmart!
  25. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/195211/the_environmental_impact_of_urban_sprawl.html?cat=7
Last modified on 13 January 2011, at 05:21