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US EPA
Undated (added August 2003)

Urban Sprawl


What is Urban Sprawl?

Urban Sprawl is low density, automobile dependent development beyond the edge of service and employment areas. It is ubiquitous and its effects are impacting the quality of life in every region of America, in our large cities and small towns.

Urban sprawl can be measured using the U-Index (Human Use Index). The U-Index is a measure of the total watershed area that is covered by either urban or agricultural lands. Based upon the information provided by the U-Index, the greatest areas of urbanization in the Mid-Atlantic region occur in the Chesapeake Bay area.

Why should we be concerned?

Since the end of World War II, the American Dream has been defined as a house in the suburbs and two cars in the driveway. Sparked by a series of federal and state government policies, including home buying subsidies provided by the GI Bill, massive road building projects and community planning designed around the car, Americans abandoned the cities for greener pastures in suburbia. It is clear that public spending can, and does, affect private decisions about where to live, where to work, and where to build.

The trend has been to rapidly develop farms and forests into housing developments or strip malls. And the rate of development is accelerating. The American Farmland Trust reports that an astounding 70 percent of prime or unique farmland is now in the path of  rapid development.

Population growth is the most significant factor effecting urban sprawl in the Mid-Atlantic region. As population size increases, so does the amount of land required for residential and commercial needs. In the Chesapeake Basin alone, between the years of 1950-1980, the percent of land used for residential and commercial purposes increased nearly 180% while population increased about 50%.

Based upon current trends in Maryland, in a recent six-month period, approximately 5,000 people left Baltimore City; 3,000 septic permits were issued; and nearly 10,000 acres of forests and farmlands were lost. If these trends continue, Maryland could use as much land for development in the next 25 years as it has used in the entire history of the state.

Likewise, in Northern Virginia, development is expanding beyond the current service areas of public water supplies provided by the Potomac River. Specifically, Northern Virginia's Loudoun County's population has increased by nearly 150 percent from 57,000 in 1980 to nearly 140,000 today, with the landscape changing from rural to suburban. Ground water is being utilized to support the uncontrolled growth. Yet, no assessment has been conducted on groundwater availability and how aquifers are being impacted by suburban sprawl.

In its path, sprawl consumes thousands of acres of forests and farmland, woodlands and wetlands. It requires government to spend millions extra to build new schools, streets and water and sewer lines. In its wake, sprawl leaves boarded up houses, vacant storefronts, closed businesses, abandoned and often contaminated industrial sites, and traffic congestion stretching miles from urban centers. There are over 700,000 kilometers of roads connecting urban areas within the Mid-Atlantic region!  As a result, we suffer from increased traffic congestion, longer commutes, increased dependence on fossil fuels, crowded schools, worsening air and water pollution, threatened surface and ground water supplies, lost open space and wetlands, increased flooding, destroyed wildlife habitat, higher taxes, and dying city centers.

Moreover, sprawl is creating a hidden debt of unfunded infrastructure and services, social dysfunction, urban decay and environmental degradation. Despite the fact that Prince William County, Va., in metropolitan Washington, DC, has the highest property tax rate in the state of Virginia, the cost of providing services to new developments is so high, the county is experiencing a $1,688 shortfall for every new house built.

Perhaps more important is the loss of community: People visiting with one another on front porches; neighbors helping neighbors; everyone keeping an eye on each other's children. This simply cannot happen on 5 acre lots where people live for years without ever knowing their neighbors!

Now we are running out of greener pastures and many Americans consider urban sprawl to be the fastest growing threat to their local environment and quality of life. They are starting to question the wisdom of growing faster than infrastructures can support or service. They are starting to recognize that decades of road building have yet to  and may never  alleviate traffic congestion. Some communities that once welcomed development with open arms now consider the cost of lost farm land not worth the benefits of a new strip mall.

What are we doing in MAIA?

The U.S. Geological Survey and the EPA are partnering to develop a joint initiative to address urban sprawl. Increased cooperation is being sought with other federal, state, and local agencies. The Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area was selected as a pilot area to help focus activities to:

  • improve mechanisms for sharing data
  • learn from previous studies
  • develop predictive models and assessments
  • develop an initiative to address sprawl  

State and local governments are already beginning to reverse the inefficient and often costly pattern of development that has been the standard in this country for the past half century. They are implementing "Smart Growth" or "Sustainable Development" programs which have the following goals: to save our most valuable remaining natural resources before they are forever lost; to support existing communities and neighborhoods by targeting state resources to support development in areas where the infrastructure is already in place (or is planned) to support it; and to save taxpayers millions of dollars in the unnecessary cost of building the infrastructure required to support sprawl.

These programs are premised on a simple but profound principle: that taxpayers' dollars should not be spent on programs that either promote sprawl or damage the environment. They encourage development and economic expansion, but only in locations where it makes the most sense and where the infrastructure is in place (or planned) to support it.

If we do not begin to change our patterns of growth, the beautiful states that we all love will be nothing more than a beautiful memory  a memory that our children will never share.

What can I do?

  • Make sure that government agencies are conducting the critical assessments to determine whether or not adequate and safe water supplies of surface and ground water are available now and for the future to support suburban development.
  • Make sure that your state and county planning agencies conduct reviews of local land-use plans and zoning laws to determine if they are adequate to protect the landscape and natural resources from the impacts of urban sprawl.
  • Make sure that reference sites supporting fish and wildlife are protected from sprawl in order to maintain measurable environmental indicators of healthy conditions. Can we continue to pave over our landscapes? 

This document is not necessarily endorsed by the Almanac of Policy Issues. It is being preserved  in the Policy Archive for historic reasons.

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