Ah, urban sprawl. The essence of our lives. Gotta love it.
Urban sprawl is defined as the uncontrolled expansion of urban areas. Or as Wikipedia more aptly defines it, a multifaceted concept centered around the expansion of auto-oriented, low-density development. With the massive expansion of the suburbs over the past few days, it’s becoming an increasingly common phenomenon throughout the United States, and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is a particularly good example. But is it really such a bad thing? And even if it is, is there really anything we can do about it?
Well, both of those questions are entirely debatable. Critics of urban sprawl say that it increases pollution, reliance of fossil fuels, traffic, delays in emergency services, increased infrastructure and transportation costs, and even increased obesity. Proponents say that many households show a preference for the suburban lifestyle and that urban sprawl doesn’t really increase traffic.
First, let’s look at what causes urban sprawl. First come housing subdivisions. Subdivisions are large tracts of land containing entirely of new residences, and usually have distinct suburban characteristics. Because of the way that these subdivisions are designed, often, only a few places are available to enter or exit the development, leading all of the traffic onto larger collector streets.
Once a certain, perceived population threshold in the suburban communities is passed, usually some sort of commercial development will pop up outside of the suburbia. The first of these new developments will usually consist of strip malls or fast food restaurants, which are widely-regarded as the epitome of urban sprawl. These developments are generally not within a reasonable walking distance from the housing developments, usually requiring a vehicle to get to. Additionally, most jobs may be located a significant distance away from suburbia, requiring daily freeway travel and establishing the basis for urban sprawl. As new suburban developments pop up, such as big-box stores (ahem, Walmart) and shopping malls, the effects just get worse.
And when I say “effects,” I’m generally referring to traffic. If thousands of people have to commute to urban areas from the suburbs, congested freeways and rush hour effects become inevitable. This is in sharp contrast to people living in urban areas, where nearly everything is within walking distance from the residences.
So, what can we do about urban sprawl in areas where it has already occurred? Well, any solutions would consist of a long, arduous process in massive areas such as the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Just for a sense of how bad it truly is here, we can compare DFW to New York City. The population density in the DFW is 634 people per square mile, whereas in New York City, the population density is 27,012.5 people per square mile. That’s a massive difference.
Really the only long-term solution that is possible is to immediately halt development of large, sprawling housing developments and to start to build more mixed-use developments where people don’t have to rely on vehicles. Perhaps a good, notable example of this is Southlake Town Square, which combines retail, office, and residential developments and thus is perfect for pedestrians. Doing this on such a large scale as the metroplex, though, would be a huge undertaking that’s nearly impossible.