What Will It Take to Halt SPRAWL?

By Sheehan, Molly O'Meara | World Watch, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

What Will It Take to Halt SPRAWL?


Sheehan, Molly O'Meara, World Watch


Urban sprawl may pose greater dangers to the sustainability of civilization than even many anti-sprawl activists realize. But in three of the world's most prominent cities, citizen actions have begun to raise awareness of the problem-and to show just how attractive the alternatives to sprawl can be.

On an interstate highway 20 miles outside Washington, D.C., four lanes of motor vehicles--many of them big sport utility vehicles or vans with solo drivers--are creeping toward the city at the speed of a man walking on crutches. One of the drivers, a government accountant who has been on the road since 6 a.m., knows from long experience that if he is lucky, there will be stretches where the speed mercifully picks up for a few minutes, and he'll gain a little ground before slowing again. He has to be at work by 8:30. It's an ordeal, but he'll make it. At 7:30 he reaches Springfield, Virginia, and drives slowly under the vaulting arches of the Springfield Interchange, a new complex of more than 20 massive bridges and ramps, estimated to cost $590 million. There are still 10 miles to go. "This is crazy," he thinks for the hundredth time. In the next election, he has decided, he's going to vote for that anti-sprawl candidate who says she supports "slow growth."

This driver's antipathy to sprawl is based mainly on frustration with the commute, and perhaps to some degree on an instinctive sense that suburban developments--such as the just-built one where he now lives--have been springing up too fast, and that there just aren't going to be enough schools, roads, and other public services to keep up with it all. But it s mainly frustration he's feeling, not a sense of any really acute threat to his comfortable lifestyle. What he may not realize, however, is that urban sprawl now amounts to a far larger danger to social and ecological stability than even many anti-sprawl activists acknowledge.

Car-oriented urban expansion has become a global phenomenon, and its effects aren't just disrupting pleasant neighborhoods and making it harder for people to get around. When new construction caters to cars, those who cannot drive lose out. For example, children who must rely on adults to drive them most places do not have the opportunity to develop the independence and fitness enjoyed by children who can get around on foot or by bicycle. The non-drivers include a third of the U.S. population and a far larger share of societies in developing nations where most of the world's urban growth is actually happening. In a dramatic transition, the share of people living in and around urban areas surged from 10 percent in 1900 to nearly 50 percent of the world's 6 billion today, and is projected to top 60 percent by 2030, with nearly all the growth in developing countries.

These numbers mean that more people than ever before are affected by the way cities are built-yet urban population growth alone does not account for sprawl. Satellite and census studies show many cities consuming land much faster than they are adding people. The acreage covered by metropolitan areas in the United States has increased even in cities where the population has declined.

As roads stretch cities to new limits, paving over farms and forests, degrading local water supplies, and wasting motor fuel, sprawl is beginning to seriously endanger the planet. Road transportation is by far the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions, hastening global warming (see figure, page 14) and increasing the precarious dependence of industrial nations on oil. Perhaps most insidiously of all, sprawl is cutting off more and more of humanity from the direct contact with the natural environment that reminds us how essential it is to keep that environment healthy.

Part of the danger of this phenomenon is the enormous momentum it has gained, as public policies and industrial investments have combined to thrust the growth of cities outward from their centers, and the resulting practices have become so much a part of the modern industrial culture that they are difficult to challenge. …

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