poisoned waters

Primer: Development Sprawl

Here's more on the many ways unchecked growth and development harms our waterways and environment...

What is sprawl, and how do you measure it?

Sprawl happens when a city or town's development spreads out at a rate much faster than the rate at which the population in that area is growing. In other words, it is development that uses a lot of land to accommodate a relatively small number of people. Sprawl tends to create areas where houses, shops and workplaces are far apart and not well connected, pedestrian access is extremely limited, and there are few shared public spaces.

"We did a comparison of the same amount of development in terms of space for [a] commercial retail complex in downtown Washington, [D.C.,] versus rural Loudon [County, Va.]," says Chris Miller of the Piedmont Environmental Council, "and the difference was whether you're going to use 25 acres or 1,500 acres. Not a difference in the square footage of the buildings or the amount of retail sales or any of the economic factors, but the difference in land consumption was that dramatic. And more than 50 percent of the land consumed in a suburban location is for roads and parking lots. So it's not that it's being used for the actual economic space."

Smart Growth America, a coalition of local, state and national organizations aiming to improve the way cities and towns are planned and developed, suggests analyzing four factors to measure sprawl: residential density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network.

How does my area rank?

According to Smart Growth America's 2002 report "Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact," the cities with the worst sprawl in the country are:

1. Riverside, Calif.
2. Greensboro, N.C.
3. Raleigh, N.C.
4. Atlanta, Ga.
5. Greenville, S.C.
6. West Palm Beach, Fla.
7. Bridgeport, Conn.
8. Knoxville, Tenn.
9. Oxnard-Ventura, Calif.
10. Fort Worth, Texas

To see the report's complete rankings of 83 metropolitan regions, click here (PDF).

Why is sprawl bad?

- It contributes to water and air pollution. Lots of paved surfaces means stormwater runoff does not filter through soil before flowing into local streams and rivers. High rates of vehicle ownership and miles driven per day lead to higher levels of carbon emissions and ozone pollution.

- It costs taxpayers money. Building the infrastructure that developments filled with single-family homes require -- sewers, schools, fire and rescue capabilities, parks and roads -- can cost the local government tens of thousands of dollars per home built.

- It is linked to a higher risk of traffic fatalities. More cars and more driving lead to more accidents and more deaths.

- It does not improve traffic congestion and may worsen it. "One figure I saw fairly recently is the average Northern Virginian spends the equivalent of their annual vacation stuck on the highways," says Bill Lecos of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce. "That translates into lost productivity. You have the practical matter that you just can't predict how people are going to be able to move around, so scheduling meetings and moving folks from point A to point B is difficult. ... The cost of that [is] estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars in lost time."

Can we fix it?

Yes. The solution for sprawl is to build up, not out. Without developing more land, communities can transform existing flat parking lots and single-story strip malls into high-rise office or apartment buildings. A more efficient use of space will also free up areas to create parks and other shared public spaces. Increasing public transit by introducing streetcars or light rail can also counteract the negative effects of sprawl.

A Fairfax County task force is currently working on a plan to transform Tysons Corner, Va., from "a textbook case of suburban sprawl" into a place "built for people, not cars." It envisions improved bus service, pedestrian and bike paths, and mixed-use buildings with stores on the street level and apartment homes above. Read more about the Tysons Corner plan here.

posted april 21, 2009

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