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Becky Jones

Ryan Davis

Writing 123

15 Aug. 2006

Urbanization in America: Growth or Destruction?

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson described the United States as having “room enough

for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation” (First). Today, only two

centuries later, America faces the imminent problem of urban sprawl and limited space.

Unfortunately, with the incredible rate at which our precious open spaces are being swallowed by

subdivisions, Jefferson’s hopeful view of America’s land is becoming more a long-past dream

than a reality.

As defined in a study done by the Rand Corporation, urban sprawl consists of areas

“having cul-de-sacs and other streets that are not well-connected, lower population density and

widely separated schools, shopping malls, employment centers and other land uses” (Wilson).

These areas are found in almost every part of the country, and are seriously impacting pollution

levels, the economy, and the health of their inhabitants.

One of the biggest problems with these spread-out suburban areas is that it is almost

always necessary to drive a car to go from one place to another. The American Journal of Public

Health points out that in such areas, “jobs, housing, and retail services are far apart, residents are

entirely automobile-dependent, and walking to a destination is difficult" (Lubell 24). On top of

that, the population density is so low that it is impossible for public transportation to function

effectively. The dependency on automobiles for transportation causes many problems in our

environment. Since most vehicles require fossil fuels to run, we must scar the landscape by
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drilling for oil, a non-renewable resource that we are quickly using up. Moreover, the exhaust

from such vehicles puts vast amounts of pollutants into the air, creating toxic smog and

contributing to global warming.

Our water supply is also suffering tremendous amounts of pollution from the over-

abundance of sprawling suburbs. With thousands of people fertilizing their lawns and spraying

pesticides on their shrubs daily, excessive amounts of toxic chemicals are being washed into our

waterways every time it rains.

The effects of urbanization are felt in our economy as well as in our environment. Mary

H. Cooper, of The CQ Researcher, notes that “developers and property-rights advocates [. . .] see

sprawl as evidence that the American free-enterprise system works, creating wealth and well-

being and allowing people to live where they choose” (Cooper “Smart”). However, this is clearly

not the case. If we examine the issue of urban sprawl more closely, we will see that it actually

has many negative effects on the economy. It drastically decreases the agricultural output of our

land and spreads out economic centers.

Urbanization also poses a major threat to our quickly diminishing farmland. The fertile,

open land between cities that has been used for farming is now being sacrificed for countless

chain businesses and spread-out housing. Wealthy developers are buying and using up valuable

farmland at an uncanny rate. According to The CQ Researcher, the U.S. is “losing 365 acres of

open space every hour to developers’ bulldozers” (“Smart”). Some supporters of wide-spread

urbanization claim that urban sprawl is a sign of a thriving economy, but such an economy can

hardly be considered supportable with huge amounts of agricultural areas suddenly eliminated.

Furthermore, urban sprawl not only takes away from rural areas, but destroys tightly-knit

urban centers as well. Cooper points out that cities such as “St. Louis, Chicago, Baltimore and
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countless other metropolises in the industrial East and Midwest” are prime examples of what

happens when the majority of the population moves to the suburban areas surrounding the city

(“Urban”). As people move outwards from the center of the city, businesses move with them.

The original thriving downtown area becomes practically deserted. Only those that cannot afford

to move to the suburbs remain, leaving a poor, run-down area in the middle of the city. This

pattern is commonly known as the “donut effect” because of the economic hole that this process

creates in the city center. The donut effect is terrible for a city’s economy, since it deprives the

city of a gathering point at which business can take place.

Life in the suburbs is also considered to be generally unhealthy. "More sprawl is

associated with more chronic health problems," says economist Roland Sturm of the Rand

Corporation (Wilson B5). An article in the Los Angeles Times says that “Researchers found

increased reports of hypertension, arthritis, headaches and breathing difficulties, among other

chronic health conditions” in sprawl areas (Wilson B5). Such ailments are thought to be

consequences of heavy air pollution found in these areas.

Obesity is another health problem found more frequently in regions with urban sprawl.

Unlike those in compact urban areas, people who live in the suburbs cannot walk everywhere

they need to go. Their dependency on the automobile does not require them to exercise regularly;

therefore, many people who live in such areas do not exercise enough, which can lead to obesity.

When researching the effects of urbanization, the American Journal of Health Promotion used a

score system to rate the amount of sprawl in cities in different counties. It found that “for every

50-point increase in sprawl score, the average person weighed one additional pound, had a 10%

increase in the likelihood of being obese and a 6% higher risk of having hypertension” (Peterson

B6).
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Widespread urban sprawl, however, is not completely out of our control. A few attempts

have been made to stop urbanization on a governmental level. For example, in 1979, Portland

adopted a growth boundary to keep the downtown area strong while limiting growth along the

outskirts of the city. The law imposes a minimum lot size and restricts the number of houses that

can be built outside the boundary. It successfully kept Portland’s expansion rate down to 2

percent from 1973 to 1991. This has not harmed the local economy at all. On the contrary, the

CQ Researcher says that “Supporters and opponents alike agree that Portland's urban growth

boundary has not stymied economic growth and prosperity. Since it went into effect, the area's

population has grown by 700,000” (Urban).

However, supporters of urban growth point out that housing prices have become quite

high in cities that have growth boundaries. Property prices within the boundary will go up

considerably because there is suddenly limited space, but land outside of the boundary will

become less expensive. Steven J. Snow, a county supervisor, argues that such boundaries infringe

on Americans’ property rights, since the government is influencing property value. “Whatever

we can do to help people raise themselves in life through home ownership is a good thing,” he

says (Smart). But is home ownership really a valid means of measuring success or happiness?

Certainly not.

Growth boundaries are not the only solution to the ever-increasing problem of urban

sprawl however. Its side effects can be effectively reduced by acting in an environmentally-

conscious manner. Riding a bike instead of driving, exercising regularly, living in a compact

area, and taking care to use only as much space as necessary are several excellent ways that we

can help lessen the effects of urbanization.
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Also, many architects and builders have been working recently to design better houses

and public areas in order to avoid sprawl and its consequences. These New Urbanist

communities, as they are called stated:

“Aim to reduce the need for cars and increase social interaction by mixing

housing, retail and public construction in walkable communities, many with

public transit. Design guidelines bring buildings close to streets and sidewalks,

place some housing above stores and move parking lots behind buildings….

”(Smart)

Though this movement is not fully developed or organized, the efforts of these architects and

builders could end up being the most valuable solution, since they are voluntarily working to

solve the problem without interfering with the personal property of residents.

All in all, urban sprawl is an imminent problem in America today, and it affects us in a

very serious way. It is easy for many people to brush it aside as an unimportant issue that does

not require the attention that seemingly more-pressing issues might demand—but urbanization is

a problem that must be addressed here and now. Its consequences are not a matter of speculation

or probability—they are already being felt in major cities throughout America. We can and need

to take action to fight against these encroaching urban expanses before it is too late.
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Works Cited

Jefferson, Thomas. “First Inaugural Address in Washington, D.C.” Carrie: A Full-Text Electronic

Library. 21 Oct. 2004. Aug. 23, 2006.

<http://www.ukans.edu/carrie/docs/texts/04jeff1.htm>.

Lubell, Sam. “Researchers Explore Link Between Sprawl and Poor Health” Architectural

Record. 191.12 (2003): 24. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOHOST. Clackamas

Community College Library, Oregon City OR. Aug. 21, 2006.

Mary H. Cooper. "Smart Growth." The CQ Researcher. 14.20 (2004). Clackamas Community

College Library, Oregon City OR. Aug. 21, 2006.

Peterson, Andrea. “Study Links Urban Sprawl to Obesity” Wall Street Journal. 29 Aug. 2003:

B6. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOHOST. Clackamas Community College Library,

Oregon City OR. Aug. 20, 2006.

Wilson, Janet. “Feeling Sick? New Study Suggests Urban Sprawl Is Partly to Blame.” Los

Angeles Times. 28 Sept. 2004: B5. Academic Search Premier. Clackamas Community

College Library, Oregon City OR. Aug. 21, 2006.

"Urban Sprawl in the West." The CQ Researcher. Vol. 7 (1997). Issue 37. Clackamas

Community College Library, OR. Aug. 21, 2006.