“The disadvantages of a decentralized, spread out urban area are tremendous, and the environmental damage of urban sprawl cannot be ignored.”
Urban Sprawl: Causes, Effects & Solutions
Urban sprawl can be defined as unrestricted growth in urban areas.
Although there are many different approaches on how to measure urban sprawl, the common opinion is that urban sprawl can have many adverse effects, including social and economic issues.
In the following, the causes, effects and solutions to the issue of urban sprawl are examined.
Causes for Urban Sprawl
- Cultural factors
- Access to appropriate housing
- Low price for public transportation systems
- Increasing numbers of jobs in suburbs
- Commuting networks
- Improvement in infrastructure
- Land rates
- Insufficient planning efforts
- Increase in living standards
- Population growth
- Tax rates
- Individual preferences
One cause for urban sprawl may be race.
There are some examples in the suburbs of urban areas where many people of the same race live in communities.
This is quite logical since they often share the same values. Thus, race can be a factor for urban sprawl.
Another cause for urban sprawl can be religion.
Since people are often discriminated against because of their belief systems, minorities may decide to leave the cities and settle in rural areas in communities where they are free to live their beliefs.
Age is an additional important factor in order to explain the phenomenon of urban sprawl.
Younger age groups that search for jobs are usually striving to live in cities.
However, older people who are already retired may leave the cities since they do not have to work anymore and want to live their lives in more quiet neighborhoods near nature.
Cultural differences are another cause of urban sprawl. Especially in big cities that resulted from urbanization, there are many people who have different kinds of cultural values.
This may lead minorities to leave the city if they are not accepted by the main cultural streams and thus, they are likely to relocate to urban areas where they can live their lives in line with their cultural values.
Access to appropriate housing
In big cities, housing prices are usually quite high.
Many families are not able to afford to buy a home in these areas.
Thus, if they want to own a house, they have to leave the city and settle down in some cheaper places.
Low price for public transportation systems
The public transportation prices are usually quite affordable in big cities.
Using the train from the suburbs to the city center often is not a big financial issue.
Thus, especially in areas where public transportation systems are reliable, people may decide to live in suburbs and commute by train in order to get to their work locations.
Therefore, low prices for public transportation may also contribute to the urban sprawl problem.
Increasing numbers of jobs in suburbs
Moreover, in some areas, the number of jobs in suburbs increased in the last years.
Since many firms are not able to find affordable office or production spaces in the cities, they locate their businesses in suburban areas.
Therefore, the number of jobs in suburbs increases, which makes it more attractive for people to live here.
Thus, the incentive for people to move to these areas increases, which also increases the probability of urban sprawl.
In the last decade, several commuting networks have been established which make commuting quite cheap.
Moreover, services like Uber are a good alternative compared to the use of taxis and are also significantly cheaper in many areas.
As a result, commuting became more attractive and an increase in urban sprawl is likely to result from these new possibilities.
Improvement in infrastructure
Especially in rural areas, the infrastructure has often been improved significantly over the last decades.
This improves the living conditions of people in these areas.
Therefore, even people currently living in cities may consider relocating to suburbs instead.
This is especially true for families. If there is a good infrastructure, families can combine a quiet life in rural areas with all the amenities they would also get in cities.
The cost of land for building houses is often much lower in suburbs than in the cities itself.
This gives people the incentive to relocate to urban areas in order to be able to afford a house for their families instead of a flat.
Thus, lower land rates in suburbs compared to cities are likely to contribute to urban sprawl.
Insufficient planning efforts
Many people in our society suffer from a high level of stress from their jobs.
Hence, when they come home from work, they want to live in an environment where they can relax and reload their batteries.
However, in many cities, this is not possible since there are not enough quiet areas.
Especially in the city center, there is much noise and other things that adversely impact peoples‘ psychic conditions.
Thus, in order to be able to have enough space to relax, people may move to suburban areas where they can find peace after work.
Increase in living standards
In our nowadays society, we got used to quite high living standards compared to past generations.
This implies that we also want to consume many material things.
In order to be able to do so, people may move from cities to suburbs since they can save on their housing expenses.
This saved money can now be used for additional consumption.
The number of people populating our planet steadily increases.
However, the living spaces in cities are quite confined.
This means that many people have to live in the suburbs instead of cities.
This phenomenon leads to a natural increase in urban sprawl.
In many areas, tax rates for housing as well as for businesses are lower in rural areas compared to cities.
Thus, people have an incentive to live in suburbs rather than in cities since they can save quite a lot of many which they can spend on other things.
Many people do not like to live in big cities.
Instead, they may prefer in more quiet areas near nature where they can avoid the stress that comes with living in big cities.
Hence, individual living preferences may lead people to leave the cities and relocate to suburbs.
Effects of Urban Sprawl
- Concentration of poverty
- Increase in traffic
- Increase in energy consumption
- Increase in pollution
- Shortage of financial resources
- Insufficient quality of education
- Changes in social life
- Increase in public costs
- Health effects
- Psychic problems
- Environmental effects
Concentration of poverty
Urban sprawl can lead to a concentration of poverty.
This can often be observed in big cities where some suburbs suffer from a quite severe concentration of poor people.
This concentration of poverty is also likely to increase crime rates since poor people are often desperate due to their living conditions and thus have a higher level of frustration.
Increase in traffic
Since the number of people who have to commute to work increases with an increase in urban sprawl, the traffic is likely to increase accordingly.
This leads to more congestion on the streets and also to a loss of time for many people.
Increase in energy consumption
Building appropriate infrastructure in rural areas is quite costly.
This also translates into an increase in energy consumption.
Thus, urban sprawl is likely to lead to higher overall energy demand.
Increase in pollution
The increase in traffic also leads to an increase in pollution, especially in air pollution.
Since most of our cars need fossil fuels, harmful gases are emitted through commuting on a daily basis.
These gases include CO2 which also contributes significantly to the global warming issue.
Moreover, the increase in energy consumption due to urban sprawl also causes additional types of pollution.
Thus, urban sprawl and the level of pollution are closely linked to each other.
Shortage of financial resources
Many people will no longer be able to afford to live in cities since their salaries are not high enough to cover their living expenses.
This problem is especially severe in cities that have high housing prices but wages are usually appropriate.
For this group of people, there is no choice since they will simply be forced to move to the suburbs due to financial pressure.
However, moving to suburbs may not solve the financial problem.
The financial pressure may instead get even more severe if people will not be able to find a new job.
Thus, moving from cities to suburbs can be a good financial choice, but it does not necessarily have to be.
Insufficient quality of education
The quality of education is usually quite good in big cities.
There are many good schools and also good universities.
The quality of education usually decreases significantly when we look at suburbs or rural areas.
This is due to the fact that cities often get much higher financial support from governments in order to supply good education.
Rural areas usually have less financial support and thus the quality of education is likely to suffer due to that.
This may lead to a lower education quality for children whose parents moved to suburbs.
Thus, urban sprawl can cause lower levels of education for some groups of people.
Changes in social life
Urban sprawl can also cause changes in our daily social lives.
Since outside of cities, the settlement density usually is much lower than in cities, the interaction between people may be reduced because of that.
In cities, you can easily meet many friends on a daily basis since the distances between you and your friends are quite short, but this may be different in rural areas where the distance can be many miles.
Moreover, rural areas often lack reliable public transport, which makes it especially hard for people who do not have a car to meet their friends.
Thus, urban sprawl can indeed have a significant impact on our social lives.
Increase in public costs
There are also high public costs related to urban sprawl.
This includes infrastructure costs, but also costs from pollution.
Infrastructure is quite expensive in areas with low settlement density since streets have to be built and will be used by fewer cars compared to cities.
In addition, the pollution from commuting results in further social costs since air pollution causes acid rain and also contributes to global warming.
Urban sprawl can also have several adverse health effects.
On the one hand, the supply with doctors and hospitals usually is far worse in rural areas or suburbs compared to the cities.
Also, the quality of medical education may be worse in many cases.
Moreover, since people have to commute for quite long times, they are likely to suffer from overweight and related
health conditions like high blood pressure which can result in cardiovascular diseases.
For humans, it can be quite challenging to adapt to the new living conditions in suburbs or even in rural areas when you have been used to the city lifestyle for a quite long time.
When you leave your home and move to a new place, you often leave many friends and your lifestyle behind.
This may be quite challenging for many people. If people are not able to adapt properly, this may lead to psychological problems which can turn into psychic costs.
If people move out to places that have previously not been touched by humans at all, the surrounding environmental system may be harmed.
Animals that live in this area may leave and therefore the environmental system is likely to change.
Moreover, the living space for many animals and plants is likely to be destroyed since the building of infrastructure often results in deforestation and other measures which are harmful to the local flora and fauna.
Solutions to the Urban Sprawl Problem
- Local planning policies
- Financial incentives
- Building permit limits
- Urban growth boundaries
- Tax discrimination
- Land acquisition of local governments
- Reduce the number of private car ownership
- Higher taxes on fuel
- Higher taxes on change in land use
- Increase residents‘ share of infrastructure costs
- Assure affordable housing
Local planning policies
In order to meet the problem of urban sprawl, local planning policies can be quite effective.
This means that municipalities take efforts that people stay in cities and do not settle down in suburbs or rural areas.
This can be accomplished by increasing the living quality in cities compared to suburbs.
This may include improving public transport or ensuring a higher quality of education so that people are happy to stay in the cities.
Financial incentives may be another effective measure for fighting sprawl.
These incentives can come in several ways.
For example, financial incentives can mean that people who live in the cities may be paid higher wages by companies than people in suburbs to cover the higher living costs.
It may also come in a way that public transport is subsidized in cities so that people also can save money on that and thus have more income to spend on other things.
Building permit limits
Another way to confine sprawl is to set building permit limits in suburbs.
This is an easy but yet quite effective way. If these limits are quite strict, they lead to a significant reduction in urban sprawl since people are simply not able to build their homes in restricted areas.
Therefore, more people are likely to stay in the cities instead of moving to suburbs.
Moreover, by setting strict building permit limits, it is likely that the prices for buildings in suburbs increase.
This makes it even more favorable for people to stay in the cities instead of moving.
Urban growth boundaries
Another related measure is urban growth boundaries.
This means that a specific area is an area inside the boundary is used for urban development while the area outside the boundary is used for agricultural or other purposes, but not for settlement.
By using these boundaries, urban sprawl can be effectively mitigated since it is clear in advance where buildings are permitted and where they are prohibited.
Local authorities can also use tax discrimination in order to fight urban sprawl.
This means that municipalities could charge fewer taxes on certain services if people live in cities compared to suburbs.
This may also include the tax on housing. If taxes are lower in cities, people have a stronger incentive to stay or move there.
Moreover, authorities may also charge higher taxes on fuel to make commuting less attractive.
This will also make the city life more attractive compared to suburban life.
Land acquisition of local governments
Another measure against sprawl is a land acquisition of local authorities or governments.
Through the acquisition of land, these authorities have control over how this land is used in the future.
By acquiring land in suburbs or rural areas, authorities may prohibit the building of houses in these areas and rather make them available for reforestation or farming purposes.
Reduce the number of private car ownership
A rather unpopular but quite effective way to reduce the problem of sprawl would be to reduce the number of private car ownership.
Setting limits for the overall number of cars that can be registered would give people the incentive to stay in the cities since they have not the necessary mobility to commute to work.
Higher taxes on fuel
Urban sprawl could also be mitigated by raising the price of fuel.
This could be accomplished by setting higher tax rates.
Through the increased price of fuel, people would have an incentive to reduce commuting.
This in turn would mean that it becomes more attractive for people to stay in or move to cities instead of living in suburbs.
Higher taxes on change in land use
If people own pieces of land that they now want to use for housing purposes, they have to get a permit for the change in land use.
These changes in land use could be taxed at a higher rate so that it would become more unattractive for people to turn their agricultural land into housing land.
This may in turn also mitigate the problem of urban sprawl to a certain extent.
Increase residents‘ share of infrastructure costs
Infrastructure costs in rural areas are likely quite high since all sorts of infrastructure has to be provided to a relatively small number of people.
Thus, the cost of infrastructure per person is usually much higher than in cities.
A measure that would mitigate this problem and would also lead to less urban sprawl is to increase the residents‘ share of these infrastructure costs.
On the one hand, the costs for municipalities would be reduced.
On the other hand, also the incentive for people to move to rural areas or suburbs would also be reduced.
Assure affordable housing
Housing prices are a big issue, especially in big cities.
It is quite common that people are not able to afford a house with an average income in these areas.
Thus, people have the incentive to leave and settle down in areas with lower housing expenses.
Local authorities may therefore subsidize living in these areas in order to prevent people to leave.
Tolls on streets which have a high level of commuting may be another way to make commuting more unattractive and thus the city life more favorable compared to living in suburbs.
Education is an important incentive for people to stay in the cities, especially for families with young children or also for students.
If the level of education is much better in cities, people will have an incentive to stay or move there.
Hence, local authorities have to make sure that the education level in cities is better than in suburbs in order to make people stay in the cities.
Urban sprawl can have significant severe consequences on our daily lives and also on the environment.
There are several measures that can be taken in order to mitigate this problem.
In general, governments and municipalities should give people the incentive to stay in the cities.
If people have a high living quality in cities and are also able to afford to live there, there will be no reason to move to suburbs and thus the problem of urban sprawl can be confined.
About the author
My name is Andreas and my mission is to educate people of all ages about our environmental problems and how everyone can make a contribution to mitigate these issues.
As I went to university and got my Master’s degree in Economics, I did plenty of research in the field of Development Economics.
After finishing university, I traveled around the world. From this time on, I wanted to make a contribution to ensure a livable future for the next generations in every part of our beautiful planet.
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