Causes & effects of urban sprawl

Updated November 21, 2016

Urban sprawl can be a mixed blessing for the communities where it takes place. As with all patterns of urban growth, sprawl brings with it more people, job opportunities and an expanding tax base. But it also comes with environmental, social and economic consequences. When planning for new growth, it's usually critical that communities and their leaders consider some of the causes and effects of urban sprawl.

Causes of Urban Sprawl

There is no widely accepted single cause behind the phenomenon of urban sprawl. Instead, planners tend to believe that sprawl is the result of several interacting factors including land use regulation, market factors, the availability of roads and the persistence of inner city blight. Land use laws at the local government level in most American cities prohibit high densities, thus mandating a degree of sprawl. Cheap land and the desire for cheap, spacious housing encourage housing producers to prefer sprawling development projects. Additionally, nearby access to roads and the presence or perception of crime in denser inner cities help create a positive economic environment for urban sprawl.

Economic Impacts

The most immediate effects of urban sprawl are economic. The conversion of previously rural land into urban sprawl creates a demand for local services and public infrastructure like roads and schools. People and businesses generally bring with them new property tax revenues, though the long-term economic sustainability of local public services is not always guaranteed. The cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to support sprawling developments may exceed the tax base that they create, portending financial difficulties for local governments.

Environmental Impacts

Urban sprawl is often subject to criticism for its environmental impacts. Urban sprawl necessarily consumes more land than more compact development, resulting sometimes in the destruction of wildlife habitat and local agricultural resources. The distances inherent in urban sprawl can create car dependency, and with it, greater emissions and resource demands. Many of the groups seeking to slow or reverse urban sprawl claim to be motivated by either a local or global environmental concern.

Social Impacts

Urban sprawl has a number of significant social effects. Settings in sprawling developments tend to be quieter than those in more dense central cities. Some proponents of the developments perceive them to be safer for families and children. Critics note that urban sprawl has a tendency to create social isolation and potential loneliness through the lack of shared public spaces. The heavy car dependency common in sprawling urban areas is also thought to be linked to social impacts like traffic congestion and health impacts like obesity.

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About the Author

Matt Petryni has been writing since 2007. He was the environmental issues columnist at the "Oregon Daily Emerald" and has experience in environmental and land-use planning. Petryni holds a Bachelor of Science of planning, public policy and management from the University of Oregon.