Suburban Sprawl and New Urbanism

Michael Ahn

Talking about the issues plaguing the natural world so far in this class, one of the biggest but underlying problems preventing sustainable living in America is suburban sprawl and its increasing spread.  Suburban sprawl, also urban sprawl, is defined as the total acreage of rural lands developed and converted into urban or suburban regions of residential, commercial, industrial or institutional use.  This method of population growth has, contrary to popular belief, been hindering the improvement of the environment, society and the economy due to its dependence on automobiles and constant need to spread and accommodate those automobiles.  Radical New Urbanist James Howard Kunstler has described the suburban phenomenon as the “greatest misallocation of space in the history of the world” in which humans are living beyond their scale and scope.  The answer to this sprawling situation is to reevaluate our perception of space and scale by adjusting our notions of good architectural design and planning as well as focusing on innovations for sustainability.

Over the years since the end of World War II, the methods of suburban sprawl have pretty much been honed down to several key characteristics of outward urban development.  These include single-use zoning, low-density zoning, and housing subdivisions and developments.  Single use zoning is when large tracts of land are designated for only commercial, residential, institutional, or industrial purposes and each homogenous zone is segregated from each other by large regions of land or infrastructure.  Low-density zoning is statistical characteristic in which zones have very high land-per-capita averages due to large single-family homes on cheap land.  The density decreases further with large homes devoting land to lawns, roads, and garages to accommodate their cards and when zones “leap-frog” across the geography.  Leap-frog occurs when pockets of residents develop towns miles away from the metropolitan hub and spread deeper into the countryside. Car-dependent communities is pretty much the ubiquitous and homogenous kind of community among most suburban developments because residents require their automobile to reach any destination (work, shop, food, school) and there is the constant need for more land to convert into parking space. 

Visually, the components that comprise a suburban community also reflect the inefficiency and waste allocated for housing and roads.  For each housing subdivision development i.e. gated communities, housing villages, developers buy immense tracts of land to convert to solely residential houses and among the rows of uniformly constructed and allotted houses, the meandering roads, cul-de-sacs, and dead ends create a labyrinth usually leading to only one entry and exit point before finally reaching a regular road to another housing subdivision.  To usually reach another zone, residents must navigate through large car dependent infrastructure, networks of highways and roads that are basically the only connecting artery between destinations.  Public transportation is rare since the population is dispersed so thinly within a district and these distances are usually too great for bicycles.  Shopping mall complexes and strip malls have grown symbiotically with the expansion of highways since they require easy access to large infrastructure with high capacity for their many customers and they require the cheap tracts of land along the highways to convert into massive parking structures.  These parking lots are usually placed in front of the malls, most of the time empty as well.  Fast food chains have been seem to accelerate suburban sprawl as they can set the location of another sprawling housing developments with increasing density of a popular rest stop along the highway.  They also set the tone with their expansive parking lots, flashy signs and plastic architecture i.e. most strip malls. 

Residents may not have a problem with these developments, after all those shopping malls and strip malls have everything they need in one spot and neighborhoods should be clean, green and quiet. They don’t complain about the inefficiencies of suburban sprawl because they own a car, the solution and impetus behind suburban sprawl.  The automobile lies in the center of this issue because for the past 40 years, the American society has completely engrained the car in to its everyday culture.  Civil engineering has completely adjusted to accommodate the increasing population of cars, not the increasing population of humans.  Society’s dependence on the automobile is the main source of the many problems exacerbated by suburban sprawl.  The distances between the places people live, work, shop and learn create long commutes to everyday locale.  Pile on this the constant traffic congestion caused by mass rush hour and the number of hours spent idling in traffic becomes a daunting total of time, money and fuel wasted.  The dependency on cars has caused residents to put their lives at constant risk of accidents and crashes each time they enter the freeway to carry on their daily lives.

The costs to support suburban civilization are sucking up the resources of countries, cities and individuals as every cost and fluctuation is absorbed by the people.  Until the entire population replaces their gasoline dependent motors, the commuting population will continue to consume and depend on rapidly dwindling, nonrenewable and expensive fossil fuels and continue to leave a massive carbon footprint on the environment.  Especially when cars are just stuck in traffic and exhausting fumes, automobiles are a huge contributor of greenhouse gases that could be completely offset and replaced with cleaner and more efficient public transit.  Also, each individual must continue to pay for car expenses and the fluctuating costs of oil because they have no choice but to pay in order to function in suburban society.  On the same topic of costs, infrastructure such as highways and bridges also carry immense costs for maintenance and repairs due to constant use by commuters and the creation of more roads also cost millions.  Even when roads are built with the intention of relieving congestion, by adding lanes, creating bypassing routes, carpools, this will inevitably invite additional cars and eventually cause more traffic.  Utilities and services must also traverse the long expanses of land to provide electricity, water and sewage services and these costs increase as distances grow longer.  It is ultimately more costly to maintain suburban developments and clearly unsustainable to rely on an automobile dependent lifestyle. 

Upon discussion of the negative impacts of suburban sprawl, the New York Times article “As Suburbs Grow, So Do Waistlines” brought up several concerning correlations between suburban sprawl and various health issues.  Statistics such as “71 percent of parents with school-age children walked to school themselves as children, but only 18 percent of their own children walk to school” suggest that modern suburban neighborhoods have largely displaced their friendly sidewalks for more road space and walking has become a rare luxury to reach anywhere.  Thus, this may attribute to the increasing percentage of obese children and families, that and the ubiquitous fast food chains, which populate those suburbs.  “Stay-at-home wives have often complained about the isolation of suburbia, working parents point to the killer commutes and teenagers moan about the boredom.”  Space is used to create walls and fences between neighbors and this isolation and insular lifestyle is only exacerbated with private spaces in cars and private garages.  As Kunstler also puts it, “these are spaces not worth caring about”, they do not invite the people to socialize and utilize the public space and ultimately enrich the identity of their neighborhood.

We continued to discuss our own personal experiences living in suburbia and reflected how looking at our own very homes and behavior yielded some very inherently glaring fallacies and nonsensical habits.  Cars were unquestionably accepted as the means to live and carry on our lives.  We also discussed the misconceptions about suburban life, the draws and pros to living in the American Dream were actually detrimental to the environment and ourselves. 

We concluded the discussion with the possible solution to suburban sprawl, a movement and code of principles highlighting efficient and progressive use of space and integrating sustainable practices called New Urbanism.  New Urbanism can be seen as the direct and positive opposite of suburban sprawl, and it will require radical changes to resolve our immense problem.  The list of changes can be separated into two categories: changes to transportation and changes to neighborhoods.  In transportation, there must be the complete change of focus away from the automobile and to the people.  This means adjusting the scale of transportation to that of human scales and human speeds.  We can raise the importance of pedestrian minded infrastructure through transit-oriented development, mass transit systems of buses, trams, trains, smaller streets, parking in back or alleyways, more pedestrian and bike friendly lanes.  Everything should be within walking distance or easily reachable via public transportation.  In the neighborhood, there is a change in focus towards mixed-use spaces instead of single use.  Density and compactness is encouraged as it increases diversity among residents.  Again, everything should have close proximity to each other, especially public spaces, city centers, and parks.  And through good design harkening back to old city patterns, we can revitalize neighborhoods and reconnect the residents to the structures they live among.

It is much easier to pursue sustainable and green practices if we live more locally and closer to the things we need.  We can decrease our impact on the earth by first living in a space that doesn’t inherently damage it.  All humans need space but what we must also remember is that humans can easily adapt to any kind of space, whether just enough or outrageously unnecessary.  And the solutions brought forth are not impossible ideas, they are actually just revisits to the Main street, the Manhattan style neighborhood which can serve as old models and inspiration for today’s innovation and technology.  But it all starts with changing our perception of space and improving the way we live by starting with where we live.


McKee, Bradford. “As Suburbs Grow, So Do Waistlines”. The New York Times. September 3, 2004.

Davis, Lisa Selin.  “A (Radical) Way to Fix Suburban Sprawl”.  Time Magazine.  June 11, 2009.

Dowling, Timothy J. “Reflections on Urban Sprawl, Smart Growth, and the Fifth Amendment”.  University of Pennsylvania Law Review.  Vol. 148, No. 3, January 2000.

Kunstler, James Howard. James H Kunstler dissects suburbia. TED talks.  Febrauary 4, 2004.

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last updated 1/25/10