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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
Jones 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 overabundance 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 wellbeing 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
Jones 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).
Jones 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 environmentallyconscious 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.
Jones 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.
Jones 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.
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