The Detrimental Impact Of Suburban Sprawl On The Environment

Suburban sprawl is a major contributor to climate change. Often overlooked in discussions of environmental deterioration, suburban sprawl is a North American land development pattern characterized by low-density, unrestricted suburban growth stretching out from metropolitan centers into previously untouched rural land. A single new development or neighborhood does not make for suburban sprawl.  Instead, sprawl is a regional pattern that exists over a sizeable mass of land. Sprawling areas extend outward from urban areas and into rural land, making indistinct the boundary between urban and rural domains. Sprawling areas spiral haphazardly into previously undisturbed natural land, and convert these areas into suburban communities.

The cul-de-sac dominated design of sprawling areas produces street patterns that foster social isolation and a lack of community. It also increases the distance between housing lots and essential services, such as grocery stores and schools. This creates a reliance on automobiles, with people driving short distances for everyday services. The reliance on automobiles for transportation contributes to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the accelerated depletion of fossil fuels. It also makes it difficult for people who would normally bike or walk to exit their neighborhood and reach their desired destination. Sprawl creates lower-density areas with relatively higher carbon footprints. Suburban areas on average emit more greenhouse gases per person than rural and urban areas. Large housing lots require a substantial amount of energy to be heated and powered. Suburban sprawl produces a large mass of developed land, that requires a large amount of energy to be powered, but provides housing for a relatively small population of people.

Suburban sprawl also causes water pollution due to impervious structures that block natural water flow. Lawns and gardens contribute to water pollution on a surprisingly large scale.  Sprinklers and other irrigation systems can lead to harmful run-off. Run-off from lawns and gardens carries with it fertilizers, pesticides and other potentially harmful substances. These substances get rinsed into adjacent bodies of water. The products used to treat lawns and gardens eventually contribute the pollution of lakes, rivers, streams, and even the ocean. Pesticides in particular were present after an extended period of time in water samples collected after rainfall.

The capacity for economic profit continues to drive development into rural areas. Property values are lower on the outskirts of urban areas, attracting developers. From the mid-twentieth century onward this problem has escalated as populations moved from urban centers to suburban fringes. The suburban diaspora in the 1940s and 1950s created the suburban style living we still know today. Between 1950 and 1995, the population of the Chicago grew by 48%, while land expanse increased by 165%. In similar fashion, in the sprawling region southeast of Boston more land has been developed in the last 40 years than in the preceding 330 years.

The process of suburban expansion sometimes destroys viable agricultural land. Once destroyed in favour of housing development the land cannot be restored to its original state. This is a striking problem because, as the size of suburbs are increasing, the viable agricultural land available for food production is decreasing. This land could have been relied upon by generations to come for food production. This issue is particularly troubling as population explosion continues. The sprawling development pattern exemplifies the capitalist impulse to disregard long-term sustainability in favour of short-term profit.

The perception that the sprawling suburbs provide a higher quality of life counteracts the reality that the development model is unsustainable. It is still a desirable life-goal for a considerable number of people to live in a single-family home with a large lot in a low-density suburban location. Young families in particular flock to the affordable housing offered in sprawling suburban areas. The economic demand for these affordable and desirable properties is what keeps developers spiraling out into previously untouched rural land with no concern for the sustainability of their business model or the land they are converting.

The usage of renewable energy resources would lessen the environmental impact of the sprawling suburbs. Due to the large land mass consumed by the sprawling suburbs, they are an ideal place for solar photovoltaic systems. Solar panels need to be laid flat over a large area to produce any considerable amount of power. The sprawling suburbs have room to spare in this regard. Solar photovoltaic panels could be placed on rooftops or in backyards, and could compensate for some of the power needed to heat homes.

Efficient public transport systems would aid in decreasing the dependency on cars for transportation. Expanding commuter rails and bus routes will help make the sprawling suburbs more accessible to those who prefer walking or who do not drive. Additionally, the widespread use of electric vehicles would help stifle the accelerated depletion of fossil fuels.

In regard to the issue of water pollution, the answer might be as simple as banning harmful pesticides. One study at the at the University of Michigan, found that the city of Ann Arbor’s ban on phosphorous fertilizers led to a 28% drop in the levels of the harmful pollutant in the close by Huron River.

The solution to the issue of suburban expansion itself might be stricter government regulations on land development. Certain areas have already implemented land-preservation strategies. Davis, a city in California, requires that landowners who wish to develop agricultural land preserve two hectares of agricultural land for every one hectare developed. In Nova Scotia land used for forestry or agricultural use is exempt from annual property taxes. In the Albertan town of Banff, smaller lots, narrower streets, and reduced parking requirements were created to allow for denser and more affordable housing. These regulations are necessary to reduce our carbon footprint in North America. These regulations will also help preserve the land for future cultivation, as much of the land outside urban areas is viable agricultural land that could be relied upon in generations to come for food production.

The footprint of urban centers, suburbs, and small towns forms the social and environmental living conditions within our communities. It is time we think about the future we are leaving behind and take measures to preserve the viability of the land and the planet.

Jaclyn Pahl


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