Urban sprawl: The negative effects

14 min read

Introduction

Urban sprawl is a much-discussed topic today due to its proliferation and effects. The rush to acquire new homes, wherever they may be located, and ignoring other basic considerations have led to the current situation. The impacts on public health, urban planning, the environment, and society have been negative and sometimes devastating.

Obesity trends since 1960. The graph shows a significant jump for the worse after 1980.

Urban sprawl leads to the wastage of limited resources. As authorities strive to connect homes to power, water, and sewerage, they are likely to spend more money than if such amenities were being offered in denser communities. Additionally, the wastage of these resources due to the distance they have to cover is another issue that makes urban sprawl such an expensive endeavor in the long run.

Urban sprawl and public health

Close to 10% of Americans suffer from asthma. [1] The situation is even worse in some groups and localities. The increase in asthma cases and the heightened risk of asthma attacks are directly related to air quality. Bad air quality, in turn, is a direct product of vehicular traffic that is so rampant today. [2]

Contrasting images of the main modes of transport in the US (left), and Europe (right).

Why vehicular traffic and pollution matters

Americans are so car-dependent that they are likely to make 85% of their trips by car. The situation is rather different in Europe, where only 50-65% of trips are by car. [3] While the distance to be covered may be a factor, Americans are likely to make even much shorter trips by car, as indicated before in this article. The link between car reliance and urban sprawl is interesting. On average, Americans spend a large portion of their day in traffic, as they need to travel long distances to and from work.

Environmental pollution and urban sprawl

Besides asthma, other respiratory illnesses are on the rise too. For a long, researchers have tied these diseases to air pollution, but they have now been able to tie the problem to vehicles traveling longer distances than they did in the past. Specific types of cancer, especially throat and lung, are no longer exclusively linked with smoking, but with the air pollution that is caused by vehicles. [4]

As vehicles dominate the American transport system, so too do roads, parking spaces, and other aids to make vehicular traffic run smoothly. Research has clearly linked cars and air pollution as we’ve just discussed.

Less discussed and appreciated is the link between cars and water pollution, and the dangers that this poses to public health. Toxins that run off parking lots and roads drain into creeks and rivers and find their way to the tap. Research has suggested that such pollution may be responsible for increased cases of birth defects.

Urban sprawl and poor infrastructure design

Cars in suburbs have to travel through massive roads that are extremely pedestrian-hostile. Seven-lane motorways leave pedestrians and cyclists with no means of getting across. Every day, 120 Americans lose their lives on the roads. Road accidents maim hundreds more, sometimes too badly to ever return to their normal lives. [5] This is a product of urban sprawl. A big number of accidents are due to negligent road design that only considers cars and trucks, assuming that everyone wants or needs to arrive in a vehicle.

Lifestyle diseases link to urban sprawl

Reliance on cars for movement, even when it is not necessary, is impacting people in other ways too. Inactivity-caused obesity is so dire that the last lean Americans will cross over in 2040. [6] In other words, if the current trajectory continues, we won’t be seeing any lean Americans in 2041.

Americans spend too much of their time in traffic- the average rush hour period in most cities has grown to 7 hours. Added to the fact that Americans work longer hours than most people in the developed world, Americans spend most of their life seated, with little room, facilitation, or inclination to walk. [7]

Rush hour in Houston. Rush hour refers to when traffic is heaviest – an average of 7 hours a day.

Many communities that make up urban sprawl are not walkable. There may not be any schools nearby, nor any shopping centers or even grocers. When people have to use vehicles for any little errand that they should otherwise do on foot, they will naturally become more prone to illness.

How urban sprawl encourages physical inactivity

Besides obesity, physical inactivity is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. [8] According to the latest research on the correlation between the two, excessive fatty acid by adipose tissue leads to insulin insensitivity of muscle, fat, and liver. This leads to raised glucose levels and insulin resistance. When combined with obesity, a patient will see rapidly deteriorating health and mortality.

It is still unclear how physical activity helps reduce cancer. However, it is widely acknowledged that colon, endometrial, and lung cancers. Sedentary activity – sitting down to watch TV, is strongly associated with these cancers.

One may ask, then, what is the link between urban sprawl and physical inactivity? The reason, as we will see below, is linked to the lack of meaningful personal contacts. Children and adults are more likely to go straight home after school or work. They will have few friends from other social settings with whom they can spend unhurried conversation, play a game, or walk. The only way out is sitting at home after sitting through traffic, before retiring to bed. This is the reality of life in most communities that contribute to urban sprawl.

Even diets are not spared by urban sprawl

Americans have to work for longer hours and sit in traffic for longer. This means that they have limited work to get to prepare and consume home-made meals. Instead, they rely on fast foods or foods sold in restaurants. It has been shown that foods cooked in hotels, restaurants, and fast-food joints have a low amount of dietary fiber, and high amounts of fat, sugar, and salt. The current way of life directly leads to the consumption of foods that cause diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and cancer, among a myriad of other illnesses.

Urban sprawl and depression and drug overdoses

The link between depression and urban sprawl is becoming clearer. A rapidly changing built environment has been suggested as a risk factor for depression among residents. Additionally, air pollution can increase oxidative stress (the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body). [9] Oxidative stress is one of the causes of depression. In more acute cases, inflammation and stress caused by air pollution may lead to brain damage, rapid aging, and the common illnesses we’ve discussed above.

Drug overdose-related deaths are 4 times higher than the 2000 levels.

          Deaths from drug overdoses have risen sharply in the 21st century, especially when compared to such deaths in other developed nations. The leading causes of people overdosing on drugs are depression, stress, and anxiety. It is therefore safe to argue that with the accelerated pace of urban sprawl, which is fundamentally changing the way we live, such incidences will continue to rise.

How urban sprawl affects social interaction

Meals are hardly cooked at home because people are rarely ever there. This affects the family unit in several ways. First, a positive correlation exists between frequent family meals and family cohesion. [10] This is to say that when a family rarely eats together, it is likelier to have more conflict.

More family conflict and stress

Divorce rates are at an all-time high.

While conflict by itself is a reality in every family, too much of it, coupled with the busy life and stress that characterizes many working people is the leading cause of divorce. Divorce rates in the US are double where they were in the 1960s.

Divorce negatively affects children, who see their parents less often, and have to be parented by unhappy, less financially secure adults. It can be argued, therefore, that less family time leads to the upbringing of unhappy children who might not have the same outcomes they would have had if their parents stayed together.

Community

As Frumkin and others write in their book, today, it is harder for people to have unhurried conversations in their neighborhoods, with friends they know. It is harder than ever for a person to live the entirety of their adult life in one house. New contacts may be made, but they may not be as long-lasting or meaningful as they were when people stayed in the same place, were close to their neighbors, and developed a strong sense of community.

Urban sprawl in Dallas, showing the individual approach to housing, rather than community. Even from a distance, the roads are almost exclusively for motorized traffic.

Urban sprawl exacerbates social segregation. As people hasten to get out of inner cities to the suburbs, they create two distinct social groups that can no longer interact. This way, children from rich backgrounds have no chance of meeting children from less privileged backgrounds, a factor that significantly impacts society’s worldview and exposure. 

Effect on education

In 1969, half of the school-going children walked to school. At that time, they were expected to be at school by 9.00 AM. Today, only 13% of children walk to school. Most are bussed there or dropped off by their parents. School times have been readjusted so that children are today required to report earlier to school – as early as 7:30 in some cases. [11]

This has mostly to do with the longer distances that children have to travel to get to school. In turn, the distance to be covered is a product of urban sprawl, in which schools were built without a community perspective – that a school was not merely a place where students could get an education, but a social facility around which much of the community discourse was centered.

The long hours that students take at school, as well as to commute have been found to negatively affect their health. Adolescents should normally sleep for 9 hours. In today’s arrangement, this is impossible, apart from the weekend and school holidays. The lack of enough sleep affects academic performance and physical development.

Streets in suburbs are ill-suited for pedestrian traffic.

Environmental impact of urban sprawl

Low-density, single-family dwellings that can mushroom anywhere in the countryside consume more land. When people feel that this is the new way of living, they will put more pressure on farmland, forests, and pastures, replacing the natural environment with a concrete jungle. The resulting deforestation is detrimental to water resources, while it reduces the amount of land on which to raise food for an increasing population. Such development also reduces the natural habitat available to wild animals, potentially hastening their demise.

The carbon that low-density and dispersed development emit is primarily due to the reliance on cars. 27% of all carbon emissions in the US come from transport. In states like Vermont, people travel 30 miles on average to get to work. Public transport inefficiency, in part caused by sprawl makes it impossible to get around without a car for most people.

The runoff water from parking spaces and roads continues to pollute streams and groundwater. The toxic chemicals frequently find their way to the tap and are another public health challenge.

Economic impacts of urban sprawl

Americans spend an average of US$10,728 per year on their cars. The costs include fuel, insurance, depreciation, and other costs that come with owning a vehicle. As more people move to the suburbs and become even more reliant on cars to go to work and run errands, these costs will only appreciate.

In 1995, Pennsylvania estimated that it would have saved up to US$120 million if it had avoided sprawl. [12] The costs would have been saved mainly by avoiding developing roads to suburbs that had gradually eaten up rural land. The costs of building roads, schools, and utilities go up dramatically when urban sprawl is allowed, or even encouraged. Urban sprawl also means that even after developing the said utilities, maintaining them is more expensive than would have been the case if these utilities were in the traditional town setting.

Businesses may be tempted to move to the suburbs to escape higher taxes and rent. However, they may often find that the opportunity cost for this is less connectivity, which might potentially mean fewer profits.

Besides the costs incurred by individuals and governments in developing sprawl, and settling the costs that come with it, there’s the hidden cost of healthcare. As we have seen in this article, urban sprawl is directly responsible for many diseases that have become a mainstay in American health discourse.

Health Costs

These illnesses impact the economy in two ways. First, they inhibit the productivity of millions of people, who can spend either spend time seeking medication, [13] or are unable to work as optimally as they would had they been enjoying sound health. Second, the government, insurance companies, and private individuals spend enormous amounts of money treating and preventing illnesses that are directly caused by the lifestyle that urban sprawl demands we live.

The average annual health spending per individual is US$10,495. While this amount is a product of many variables, it is also a suggestion that Americans are on average more likely to need medical attention. In 2017, for instance, America had 410,000 excess deaths when compared to Europe. Excess deaths in this instance mean these deaths would not have occurred if the US had Europe’s lower death rate. [14]

This is significant because it means 12% of annual American deaths are excess. The reason behind these deaths is diseases that develop mainly due to lifestyles, which are influenced by urban sprawl. The social costs notwithstanding, losing so many people pokes a substantial hole in the country’s economy.

Potential solutions

Smart growth

America and other countries across the globe that have had to deal with urban sprawl appreciate that they have legislated and subsidized things to be this way. To undo or at least, arrest urban sprawl, it is necessary to remove or dilute the various laws and subsidies that encourage sprawl.

Often, urban sprawl is the product of poor planning and short-sightedness. To address sprawl, it is necessary to educate local communities about the negative effects and unsustainability of urban sprawl. Community involvement is important since it is impossible to develop against the general will of the people.

Smart growth has been suggested as one way of curbing urban sprawl.

Smart growth is a concept that has been promoted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a way of controlling urban sprawl. The concept aims to plan and build cities in a way that gives a stronger sense of space. Developments are aimed to be of a higher density than the low-density reality of most suburbs today. Additionally, the concept of mixed-use is central to smart growth. As much as possible, people live close to where they work.

NewVistas community pattern

The NewVistas community pattern aims to create communities where people live in equality, with shared prosperity and sustainable comfort. The scalable pattern advocates the use of resources that are sustainable for everyone in the world to share equally. This can only be achieved by resetting our current consumption habits.

Efficiency is at the heart of the community pattern. This means more focus on productive scales and proximities that are as efficient as possible. For instance, people live close together in communities that give them the ability to easily interact. They live where or close to where they work.

Multipurpose buildings can be used for a wide range of services, minimizing the necessity of having several buildings dedicated to particular purposes.

Communities are designed in a way that makes virtually anything a person wants to be easily obtainable, and without the need for a vehicle- the community is 100% walkable, with a distance of 1 mile end-to-end. NewVistas shows that it is possible to obtain style, functionality, and sustainability with high density.

Optimal land use frees up so much space for other things, including environmental conservation, recreation, and community participation in decision-making. For instance, the absence of vehicular traffic makes streets conducive for walking or cycling, two activities that are used to partly explain why other developed countries have fewer lifestyle illnesses than America.

 People from different backgrounds and circumstances living together generate a true sense of community. Additionally, the absence of formal employment – people are contractors instead – greatly improves interaction, skill development, and enterprise.

Conclusion

Urban sprawl is seen by some quarters as being synonymous with urbanization. In fact, much of the area that is today urban was once rural land or forest. As population pressures grew, so too did the need for more land to build industry, homes, and commercial space. The impression that high-density living is not good is founded on experience with such settings. Victorian England and the growth of slums in Europe, the US, Africa, and Asia as industry and population exploded meant that people lived in dilapidated dwellings without the most basic of amenities.

The push to the suburbs brought respite. While it was at first controlled, and even developed by the government, the pressure of politics, population, and poor planning meant that development outside towns was haphazard. This has helped create several problems that we’ve outlined in this article. Having established that urban sprawl is unsustainable, and brings more bad than good, it is time to rethink our idea of urban development and make amends.

References and further reading

Guarnieri, Michael, and John R. Balmes. “Outdoor air pollution and asthma.” The Lancet 383.9928 (2014): 1581-1592.

Frumkin, Howard, et al. Urban sprawl and public health: Designing, planning, and building for healthy communities. Island Press, 2004.

Venables, Michelle C., and Asker E. Jeukendrup. “Physical inactivity and obesity: links with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes mellitus.” Diabetes/metabolism research and reviews 25.S1 (2009): S18-S23.

Bhatt, Shvetank, Anantha Naik Nagappa, and Chandragouda R. Patil. “Role of oxidative stress in depression.” Drug discovery today 25.7 (2020): 1270-1276.

Franko, Debra L., et al. “What mediates the relationship between family meals and adolescent health issues.” Health Psychology 27.2S (2008): S109.

Goettler, Andrea et al. “Productivity loss due to overweight and obesity: a systematic review of indirect costs.” BMJ open vol. 7,10 e014632. 5 Oct. 2017, doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-014632

Preston, S. “Excess mortality in the United States in the 21st century.” PNAS 118.16 (2021). <https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2024850118>.

Zachary J. Ward, Sara N. Bleich, Angie L. Cradock, Jessica L. Barrett, Catherine M. Giles, Chasmine Flax, Michael W. Long, and Steven L. Gortmaker. “Projected U.S. State-Level Prevalence of Adult Obesity and Severe Obesity.” New England Journal of Medicine (2019).


  1. Outdoor air pollution is strongly linked with the exacerbation of asthma. The principal pollutants are vehicles, therefore tracing a direct link between cars and asthma attacks.
  2. 91.5% of American households have access to at least one personal car. By 2020, nearly 300 million cars had been registered, in effect meaning that a quarter of all the cars found in the world (1.4 billion of them), a quarter are in the US.
  3. Europeans tend to allow a greater mix of uses in their cities than Americans, which makes distances shorter. While the US championed mass motorization and provided the necessary infrastructure and subsidies, Europeans kept car taxes high and decisively supported public transport, thereby withering the rise of the car as the primary transportation tool.
  4. Average smoking rates have fallen from 42% in the 1960s to less than 14% presently. At the same time, throat cancer has increased, and increasingly affects even those who have never smoked.
  5. Poor road design that makes it difficult for pedestrians to cross or use roads in a friendly manner leads to loss of life. Roads are also hostile to cyclists, making roads a big death trap.
  6. While this statistic by Frumkin is statistically possible, in real terms, it might be impossible to have no lean people in 2041. What’s more likely to happen is that by 2030, women, black non-Hispanic male adults, and people earning below US$50,000 and below will be overwhelmingly obese. One in four people will be severely obese by this time, too.
  7. Longer working hours have historically meant that Americans make more than others in developed countries, and are therefore more likely to afford housing and personal cars.
  8. There is a strong relationship between physical inactivity and diabetes. Additionally, inactivity among people with diabetes 2 leads to higher mortality rates than in people who exercise regularly. This is especially so if such people are obese.
  9. Though the link is not yet clear, it is thought that imbalance affects the brain’s functioning and neural signaling. Oxidative stress triggers excessive brain reactions, which accelerates depressive disorders.
  10. Frequent family meals bring the family closer together. This is an important element in preventing and solving family conflicts. Additionally, cohesive family units are instrumental in helping adolescents make better choices and achieve better outcomes in their lives.
  11. Simply put, the distance between home and school has increased to the extent that it is no longer possible to walk. Buses collect children from widely dispersed neighborhoods, meaning that some children take hours on the bus before they can get to school.
  12. The costs could have been saved by avoiding the construction of roads, electricity connection, and sewer lines to distant neighborhoods that had all along been rural areas without an immediate need to access central sewers and similar services.
  13. For instance, obesity leads to increased rates of temporary work loss (absenteeism) which manifests through sick off and leave. Presentism refers to poor productivity while at work and affects obese people more. Premature death and severe health issues also contribute to a lack of labor, which is quantifiable.
  14. Excess mortality is present in all age groups in the US. To put this in perspective, a 30-year-old American has 3 times more probability of dying than his European counterpart.
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Mbau Tim