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Urban Sprawl: Causes And Consequences

As our society continues to grow, the issue of housing and expansion becomes increasingly important. With increasing numbers of new developments marketed as being more affordable or offering more space, it can be easy to overlook the environmental and health implications that such expansion can pose. This week, we discuss and reflect on the concept of urban sprawl and its consequences.

What Is Urban Sprawl?

The term ‘urban sprawl’ refers to the unrestricted growth of housing development, commercial development and roads in urban areas, which increasingly encroach upon rural areas, blurring the boundaries between the two and, at times, with apparently little concern for the impact.

The term itself is highly politicised and often carries negative connotations. These are predominantly due to the negative consequences that it has been linked to, such as environmental degradation, increased health problems and social segregation. However, there remains ongoing disagreement on what precisely constitutes urban sprawl or how it can or should be quantified.

The Causes Of Urban Sprawl

The main cause of urban sprawl, some argue, is the need for more housing to accommodate our growing global population. As more people need to work in or around cities, they must by sheer demand, ‘sprawl’ outwards. For many people, the appeal of housing in these areas is primarily driven by more affordable housing.

However, in many cases, the problem is that much of the housing in these urban sprawls are characterised by being low-density single-family dwellings. For some people, including younger families, the prospect of having more space for their family is particularly appealing. Yet, these savings are contradicted by increased costs in travel and even in some public services, as infrastructure has to specifically built or expanded upon in order to accommodate these growing areas, meaning that some services can be more expensive.

For developers however, it means that they are able to purchase land at cheaper costs and local governments are able to meet increasing housing demands by providing new builds, which are often advertised as being more affordable.

The Impact Of Urban Sprawl

The main criticism levied at increasing urban sprawl tends to focus on the negative impact that it has on both health and the environment. One of the biggest impacts of urban sprawl in the increase in traffic and congestion. In many instances, residents of these areas require increased use of private vehicles in order to get around. This is particularly true for areas where public transport infrastructure has not been suitably expanded to cope with the housing growth. As such, residents are not able to easily access services which they need on foot.

As a result, more people living in these areas tend to own private vehicles and make more use of them than those living in cities. The problem is further exacerbated by people increasingly using vehicles for shorter trips over smaller distances. This also leads to reduced physical activity and can lead to health issues such as weigh-gain and increased obesity and hypertension.

With the increase in traffic also comes the problem of increased air pollution. This can lead to a number of health issues, including greater numbers of asthma sufferers and increased respiratory illnesses associated with air pollution. Similarly, this also contributes further to greenhouse gases and to a worsening climate crisis.

A further problem of urban sprawl is water pollution. Due to the increased area of land being covered with impervious surfaces, such as concentrate and asphalt, there is less land available for rain water to be effectively absorbed. This rain water can in fact pick up pollutants, petrol and motor oil from roads, which leads to increased water pollution. Similarly, there is also an increased risk of flooding due to a reduction in available land for water to be absorbed.

However, one of the main criticisms of urban sprawl is directed at the loss of habitat and subsequent displacement of wildlife and the reduction in biodiversity which it causes. Not only is the natural habitat of many animals lost, but it also disrupts native plants growing in these areas and can even introduce invasive plants into the environment instead. This has a negative impact upon the whole local ecology and also leads to a loss of outdoor and open spaces.

Finally, increased urban sprawl can also lead to a decline in social capital, or the way in which social groups, identities, relationships and communities are formed. Sprawling neighbourhoods actually lead to less cohesion and group identity, which can create social barriers and lead to fewer social interactions and shared public spaces and activities. Rather than improving quality of life, it can actually erode it and lead to more segregation between people.

What Can Be Done?

The only way in which urban sprawling can be meaningfully prevented or slowed down is though policies designed to reduce it. In many cases it is down to government and local authorities to ensure that they have planning policies in place which support and guide sustainable growth within targeted areas.

Planning policies should be aimed at promoting what has been termed ‘smart growth’, restraining development so that it does not sprawl out into rural areas and preventing development from taking place in undesirable areas. Crucially, policies need to be actively implemented which protect ecologically critical areas, not only on a national level, but within local areas too.

An Invitation...

This week we invite you to take a walk in your local nature reserve. Take the time to simply reflect on this area and the natural space it offers.

As we slowly emerge from our lockdowns, take the opportunity to reflect on how open, green spaces have been used. How did they impact or shape your experience? For many of us, these shared natural spaces provided some essential freedom. They have been incredibly beneficial for many people during the course of the last few months, helping to support our mental and physical wellbeing.

As you walk, we invite you to pause and reflect on the issue of urban sprawling and the impact that it could have on such spaces. Consider if there are any small actions you could take to help protect such areas.

Are there any choices you could make to contribute positively to your local area? Could you reduce your private vehicle use? Perhaps you could get involved in some local conservation work? Maybe you are interested in becoming more active in your local community in voicing concerns or sharing ideas about local planning proposals? Or perhaps you can help to educate and inform others by discussing the topic of urban sprawl and making more people aware of the implications involved?

As always, we warmly welcome you to share your comments, thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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