If everyone hates urban sprawl, why does it keep happening?

Ahhh, urban sprawl. Real estate developers build it, academics study it, and the rest of us mostly hate on it. You don’t have to spend much time googling to find blogs that lambast sprawling suburban architecture, like McMansion Hell, or songs that denounce the way we approach and develop our land, like Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and Arcade Fire’s Sprawl II (no, 90s kids, Counting Crows did not sing the original Big Yellow Taxi). All told, urban sprawl in pop culture has a pretty bad rap.

But if that’s the case, why does sprawl keep happening? How does it continue to push us further and further away from our urban cores, where things are walkable and exciting and arguably more sustainable (from a land use perspective)?

Urban sprawl is a complex phenomenon. Sprawl is less of a single, concerted thing and more of a collection of individual decisions made by different people acting with different interests. Those decisions have big ramifications, too: every 2.5 minutes, the American West loses a football field’s worth of natural area to human development.


‘Sprawl’ in the family

We can define sprawl as low-density development on previously undeveloped land surrounding a city. Think brand-new subdivisions and retail strip centers. To understand the collection of decisions that create sprawl, let’s jump into a hypothetical example set in Denver, Colorado, where I grew up.

Let’s say you’re a young parent (congrats!) and your job is relocating you and your family to Denver (nice!). You’re looking for an economical, moderately priced home. While your office is located downtown and you love the idea of walking or biking a short distance to work, the housing options are limited; condos and historic homes in/near downtown are unfortunately out of your price range, and truthfully, you like the idea of owning a bit more space for your family.

So, you set aside the prospect of a walkable or bikeable commute and opt for a new single-family home in a subdivision called Amber Creek, located 20 miles north of downtown Denver. It may not be your first choice, but you start to realize it’s a reasonable investment for you and your family. You’re getting a better housing bang for your buck with more square feet per dollar than you can buy downtown. You’ve also heard chatter (however valid) that the best schools are mostly found in the ‘burbs. And, if you’re being honest with yourself, the idea of a yard for Fluffy sounds pretty appealing (though you might not want to let you kids name your next dog). Sure, Amber Creek feels a little sprawly - you’ll need a car to get to it and from it - but when you think about it, the subdivision makes some sense.


Coming to life

Well, before you buy that 3 bed/2.5 bath home, someone’s gotta build it. Typically, that someone is a residential home developer that specializes in single-family detached homes, like Lennar. This developer, looking to generate a financial return for itself and its investors, studies development patterns around Denver and eventually makes an informed bet as to where it thinks families like yours will want to live.

Lennar then identifies a piece of land - in our case an undeveloped, natural piece of land called a greenfield - and secures permits to legally build homes upon it. Thornton, the local municipality, sensing potential increases in tax revenues from more residents living in its jurisdiction, agrees to let Lennar build the subdivision, dubbed “Amber Creek.”

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Google Earth imagery, dated June 9th, 2017.

Then, as the real estate saying goes, “retail follows rooftops,” which means that new, auto-oriented retail centers get built to service Lennar’s new, auto-oriented subdivision.


Breaking it down

Let’s walk through it:

  1. The developer (Lennar) builds the subdivision (Amber Creek);
  2. You and your future neighbors buy into the subdivision;
  3. Retail services (Walmart and McDonalds) pop up around your subdivision; and
  4. The exact same thing happens all over again… hundreds of times upon thousands of acres of land, successively munching up more greenfields while moving further away from downtown Denver.

Got it? Zoom out and voila, we have urban sprawl: a combination of growing populations, market demand for single-family homes and associated retail services, and investors and governments looking to capitalize financially.

With all of these different factors swirling together to create sprawl, there really is no single “bad guy” to blame for it, which is what makes it so frustratingly difficult to address. Some cities, like nearby Boulder, have implemented urban growth boundaries in the name of preventing sprawl. Such policies are not without their own criticisms, however; a similar strategy in Portland increased home prices, devalued properties of certain landowners, and may have ironically contributed to even more sprawl in neighboring towns.

Other observers remain hopeful that we’ve reached “the end of the suburbs,” highlighting that millennials prefer cities and subways to suburbs and driveways. While many cities are indeed rebuilding their downtowns to cater to trends in denser living, an implicit assumption in these headlines is that such preferences will hold steady, even as millennials start having kids.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that sprawl is relatively institutionalized in the way American cities develop, as demonstrated by your recent move to Amber Creek. We can actually see the same thing in other countries with bountiful amounts of land like Canada and Australia, too. Without any far-ranging policies that 1) encourage people to live in dense, urban areas and 2) developers to build them, we’ve got quite a ways to go.


Taking action

So, what to do? You can start by staying abreast of local zoning issues in your hometown and voting in favor of increased density, often called Smart Growth. Doing so will legally allow developers to create more mixed-use, walkable environments in historically low-density areas (forewarning: land use zoning is a notoriously boring subject). The National Conference of State Legislators allows you to filter ballot measures by land use, though keep in mind that many zoning issues are hyper-local and require you to pay attention to happenings not covered on national websites. Also, remember that NIMBYism is a real thing. It can stymie efforts to develop land more sustainably, regardless of the associated benefits, as was recently the case in San Francisco.

You can also get involved with or support initiatives that bolster the performance of urban schools, combating the narrative that parents must seek refuge in suburbia to find decent schools for their kids. Check out The University of Chicago’s comprehensive approach to the topic within their Urban Education Institute.

And, of course, if you’re an aspiring homeowner considering a move out of the city, be sure to investigate all housing options, including existing homes, before opting for a new house on the outskirts of town.

Remember, the more informed decisions we make about sprawl, the less we encourage developers to actually pave paradise and put up parking lots.


For more on American land use patterns, check out Sustainability Defined Episode 8.