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The Costs of Sprawl: Looking beyond the numbers

9 Jun. 2011 Posted by Hannah Mich in sprawl, low-density, city development
low-density, sprawl, suburbia, city development, urban sprawl

It is easy to get caught up in a numbers game like costs per-capita when talking about suburbia also known as sprawl or low-density development. One example is that many homebuyers like to point out that the suburbs offer “more house for your money” when compared to many neighborhoods in or on the skirts of a city. This may be true, but like so many things today there are many hidden costs to our lifestyles. Even more importantly there are other factors that play an even greater role in our neighborhood decisions. For example, having a sense of community or belonging, convenience, safety or security, employment and “sustainability”. All of these factors need to be taken into consideration when we look at what kind of neighborhood we want to keep developing and living in.

Although numbers and costs are not everything, let us take a quick look at what some are saying about the difference between sprawl and higher-density living. A 1998 NRDC study found that the costs of wastewater collection systems were greater in low-density compared to high-density areas around Chicago and Cleveland. Therefore the cost of utility services is likely higher and affected by land-use or low-density sprawl. Residents in both low and high-density areas appear to pay similar rates for services; implying residents living in high-density areas are supplementing utility costs in low-density areas.

Others claim that the overall costs per capita are lower in suburbs, but this depends on who or what organization does the analysis. Many factors can be taken into consideration [or left out] such as road construction and maintenance, sewage systems, electricity and water pipes. Costs of living may even be taken into account in studies, or left out. In some studies, real numbers are used from specific areas like the study above using waste management costs of the Chicago and Cleveland areas, whereas predication models that predict the future costs of both low and high-density areas are used in other studies. Confused yet? Well, keep in mind professionals are debating about the significance of all this data and it will end up affecting your current neighborhood, town and state.

Other concerns for sprawl include commuting, traffic, pollution and health factors. Commuting can be considered wasteful in the sense of the amount of time many Americans spend in their cars, the energy or fuel burned and land consumed by roadways. Two and three hours spent commuting a day take up 10 to 15 hours each week. This time could have been spent working; with family or friends; or enjoying a hobby. Commuting and suburbs with roadways as lifelines, creates a disconnect between the residents of different neighborhoods, too.

Ask yourself this, “When was the last time you knew the name of the waitress or cashier at a restaurant or grocery store?” Think about it. A sense of belonging and knowing each other on a personal level is missing in too many of our suburbs. When we know the people who own local businesses, provide local services or live next door, it usually creates a greater sense of personal investment in a community. But today it is not uncommon to hear people “outgrowing” their current neighborhood and therefore leave for the benefits of another one. What kind of community do you want?

Sitting for hours at work and in the car during long commutes does not help the obesity epidemic either. In the name of improving our quality of living and reducing physical hardship, we have merely created different health problems that decrease quality of living just the same. We can address these health problems such as the obesity epidemic much more affectively by working together as a community. As a community, we have a much better chance of making significant changes in our environment and lifestyles compared to doing it on an individual basis.

Creating more little suburbs, highway lanes and strip malls with Starbucks and Blockbusters are not the answer to our current national problems - the real estate crisis, crumbling infrastructure, unemployment, national debt, obesity epidemic and climate change. We need to learn from our mistakes and lack of foresight. We need to stop corporations from randomly building for short-term profits, especially when it does not uphold what we want in our communities. A house is not a home just because it was built. Similarly, a sub-division is not necessarily a neighborhood or community because it is developed.

Although suburbs have created challenges for us to overcome, they are not all "bad". They do in part represent our prosperity as a nation and many call the suburbs their home. But the suburb along with its counterpart the city are frequently run by people who have little insight to what residents need, and these same people are far too focused on the profits to be made. So, do we just continue with business and our lives as usual? I say no. We, the residents and community members, need to evaluate our community development patterns, invest in long-term goals and promote sustainable living.

Call To Action: 

Attend town hall meetings
Get involved with community organizations

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