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Smart Growth: Envisioning a Healthier America

By Kyle Rowe | Final Research Essays

Hour long traffic jams, cookie-cutter suburban homes, strip malls with immense parking lots, and social stratification are all various results of America’s bad case of suburbanization.  These emblems of America’s development exhibit how suburban sprawl has taken over our infrastructure and resulted in a turn for the worse.  Many problems have arisen from the trends of suburban sprawl.  Most notably, climate change is at the forefront of our generation’s issues; and increased personal car usage, which serves as one of the top factors in our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, is directly correlated to sprawl.  Exorbitant fossil fuel consumption and paving over our natural lands only exacerbate the problem (Cooper 471-472).  Furthermore, the growing presence of suburbs in America has led to a separation of classes in the city and the surrounding suburbs, leading to many social problems in the urban environment (Colin, Cars Drive Development 480).  The modern answer to these problems is a theory called smart growth.  Smart growth aims to compact neighborhoods to include office space, housing, schools, and other community services in dense areas that are connected alongside safe sidewalks, bike lanes, and a strong public transportation system.  Smart growth initiatives should be implemented in America to promote healthier lifestyles to our increasingly unhealthy population, encourage economic growth in a time of recession, and build stronger communities in place of minority-secluded, inner-city neighborhoods and middle-class, white suburban neighborhoods.  Above all, we need smart growth initiatives to lead to a more sustainable society to ensure that we are not compromising our future generations’ resources.

Before I expatiate on the problems of today’s sprawled development, it is of the utmost importance that we are in agreement with the definitions of a few key terms. Foremost, Ye and fellow authors provide a great table in their article, “What is Smart Growth? - Really?” displaying the multiple elements of smart growth; redrawn below in Table 1 (Ye, Mandpe, and Meyer 308):

Table 1. Elements of Smart Growth

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One can see from this table that smart growth is a multi-faceted theory that encompasses many ideas from many different fields.  Since it is unreasonable to memorize all of the elements, it is helpful to focus more on the main points and how their efficiency can lead to sustainability.  Sustainability is defined as “meeting the needs of present and future generations through an integration of environmental protection, social advancement, and economic prosperity” (Newman and Jennings 264).  It is important to comprehend that smart growth is just one aspect of sustainability; the goal of becoming a sustainable society defines what the environmental movement desires to achieve.  In addition, understanding the definition of sprawl is imperative to understanding smart growth.  It is a fairly new term in the field of urban studies and sociology, but it has developed a connotation that is critical to our understanding of the issue.  Squires and Kubrin’s definition of sprawl provides a great explanation:

While there is no universal agreement on a definition of sprawl, there is at least a rough consensus that it is a pattern of development associated with outward expansion, low density housing and commercial development, fragmentation of planning among multiple municipalities with large fiscal disparities among them, auto-dependent transport and segregated land use patterns (48).

Before I delve into the crux of the problems with our current infrastructure, I would like to share with you how I first became aware of the drawbacks suburban sprawl has created.

I was raised in Bethlehem, PA, a small suburban town in eastern Pennsylvania.  Bethlehem is located about 15 miles from the PA/NJ border, and due to its close proximity and the higher property taxes in New Jersey, Bethlehem is the new home to many New Jersey families.  However, many of these New Jersey transplants keep their jobs in New York City and continue to make the commute from Bethlehem to New York everyday.  I-78, the main highway that connects Bethlehem to New Jersey and New York City, is clogged with traffic every workday morning and afternoon.  Many of my friends rarely saw their parents on weekdays because they were forced to leave for the city at ridiculous hours in the morning, only to return at eight or nine at night.  Bethlehem is just one case of suburban sprawl.  All over the nation, suburbs are attracting more and more middle-class families.  Looking back, America’s case of suburban sprawl started after World War II.

With millions of troops returning home, excitement from the end of the war, and an economic boost, a very high demand for middle class housing came upon America’s development issues.  Soon after World War II, William Levitt invented the infamous Levittown; a suburban neighborhood that was compromised of identical and inexpensive houses with a garage, a driveway and a white, picket fence around each lot.  And if suburban homes were not attractive enough, the government enacted measures to subsidize families who moved into suburban homes; therefore enhancing the exodus from the city.  Primarily, the government implemented a home-mortgage income-tax deduction.  In addition, the government offered home-mortgage loans to new homebuyers, but the loans were restricted to houses safe from poverty and crime; or in the safe and cozy suburbs (Colin, Cars Drive Development 480).  The economic boost seen by the United States in the late 1940’s, coupled with the invention and mass-production of the automobile enabled millions of Americans to afford personal transportation.  All of these factors made homes in suburban neighborhoods like Levittown very attractive to the white middle-class (Colin, Cars Drive Development 480-82).  In the late 1950’s and 60’s, the populations in suburbs grew from thirty-five million to eighty-four million, that is an increase of one-hundred and forty-four percent!  This trend continued to take hold of America’s development, Graph 1 (below) displays the continuously increasing flux of Americans to the suburbs (Baldassare 477, Squires and Kubrin 49).

From this graph we can see that suburbs became progressively more popular as the years passed.   A form of residential land that was almost nonexistent before the 1950’s had accounted for well over half the population by 2000 (Baldassare 477, Squires and Kubrin 49).  Perhaps the best statistic for analyzing sprawl is population density.  In the time frame of 1950 to 1990, population density in America declined from 407 to 330 people per square mile (Squires and Kubrin 49).  Baldassare also explains how the growth of suburb residents was followed by the growth of suburban industrial lands

By 1980, suburban employment had grown to 33 million jobs, from only 14 million two decades previously, for a growth rate of 136%. Travel from a suburban home to a suburban workplace reached 25 million trips, or 37% of all commutes. Thus, commuting to work within the suburbs became more common than either central city-to-central city trips or suburb-to-central city commute (477).

This is a crucial aspect of suburban living to understand because it provides great exigence for smart growth policies.  In terms of sustainability, making the trip from a suburban home to a suburban workplace and making the trip from a suburban home to a central city workplace are rather than sustainable practices.  These individuals are commuting many miles everyday just to get to work. This leads to gasoline consumption, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and clogged highways.  On the contrary, commuting from a city home to a city workplace is much more sustainable because those individuals can walk, bike, take the bus or metro; given that the city has implemented smart growth practices and has made a commitment to sustainability.  The Oil Depletion Analysis Center, a charity based and independent program that seeks to increase international awareness of global oil depletion, has stated that the era of cheap and plentiful supplies of oil is coming to an end; and they suggest that we start remodeling our energy use systems (Newman and Jennings 36).

A huge problem in twenty-first century America is obesity, and much of the blame lies with the suburban sprawl that infected American’s infrastructure in the mid-1900’s.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention proclaimed that in 2000, sixty-four percent of American adults were over-weight or obese.  Even scarier, the prevalence of obesity in children has tripled since the 1960’s; currently standing at about fifteen percent (Colin, Sprawl and Obesity Go Hand in Hand 474).  How are sprawl and obesity linked?  Since the growth in popularity of the automobile and the increase of suburbs, Americans have fallen in love with their cars.  Activities that used to encourage walking or biking, have now been replaced by the automobile.  With every daily activity, Americans choose to drive to their destination; whether it is getting groceries, going to school, or getting a cup of coffee, we drive our cars instead of choosing a physical activity. 

Many studies have been done to examine the relationships between sprawl and obesity.  One study that provides great evidence for the correlation between denser communities and healthier people is "Associations of Cycling With Urban Sprawl and the Gasoline Price."  In this study, Rashad found that men and women who live in less sprawling areas were more likely to cycle by 3.4 and 1.6 percentage, respectively (32). Although that may seem like an insignificant amount, two or three less people driving to and from work everyday adds up to a considerable amount of GHG emissions saved.  Another great example of this trend is the amount of grade school students who walk or bike to school now compared to their parents when they were in grade school.  As of 2003, eighteen percent of children walk or bike to school.  Shockingly, seventy-one percent of current adults walked or biked to school as a child (McCann and Ewing 7).  Smart growth policies will reverse this trend because denser communities will be created where bus and/or personal transportation will not be necessary.  At the conclusion of McCann and Ewing’s research project connecting sprawl and obesity, they suggest solutions to the problem.  Their list of proposed solutions consists of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, less traffic, safer routes to schools, public transit-oriented development, and other similar ideas (26-28).  In other words, McCann and Ewing are suggesting that we act on smart growth initiatives.

Unfortunately, obesity is just the beginning of our problems related to suburban sprawl.  Everyone is aware that we are currently in a time of recession.  Our economy has a fallen and as of now, there are no signs of it being revitalized anytime soon.  Opportunely, smart growth provides hope for the future of our dismal economy.  Carruthers and Gudmundur explain how our current sprawled development raises the cost of public services because it “fails to capitalize on economies of scale and/or optimize on facility location” (1792).  On the contrary, localized economies that result from higher density reduce costs because the compact living makes access and delivery more efficient (Carruthers and Gudmundur 1792).  For example, we would be paying less for each product we purchase in a more localized economy because the distance that the goods need to be shipped is much shorter, and the locality grants easier accessibility.

There is also a strong correlation between localized economies and sustainability.  In local economies, the people are consuming foods and products that are grown, manufactured, and sold locally.  The amount of transportation local economies cut down on is astronomical.  This field has seen a recent growth in popularity and has even been coined “eco-localism.”  In the conclusion of “Eco-localism and Sustainability,”  Curtis provides a great summation of the new field and everything it encompasses: “Eco-localism exists in specific practices, places and communities and in the values and affirmative economic choices of consumers, farmers, small business owners and many others. It is a growing movement of place, community and nature” (83).  It is intriguing how all of these diverse fields; public health, sustainability, economy, etc., are closely related in the context of smart growth.  Included in this group is sociology, and the separation of classes from suburban sprawl.

Possibly the most alarming issue derived from sprawl is the sociological and demographical event known as the white flight.   The term white flight is used to define the rapid migration of white families out of the inner cities and into suburban neighborhoods (Christiansen 5).  While the percentage of Americans living in suburbs was growing every year, the percentage of wealthy, white families that moved to the suburbs was even higher.  Thus, the minority groups were being secluded in the cities.  Squires and Kubrin explain this phenomena with simple income statistics; in 1960, per capita income in the city was one-hundred and five percent of the suburbs.  By 1990, the roles were reversed and per capita income of the cities had fallen to eighty-four percent of the suburbs (49).   These relationships can be directly correlated to racial segregation.  Over fifty-two percent of blacks live in inner-city neighborhoods while only twenty-one percent of whites reside in the city.  Conversely, fifty-seven percent of whites live in suburbs and only thirty-six percent of blacks live in suburban neighborhoods (Squires and Kubrin 49).  All of this data portrays the concentrated poverty that has risen from suburban sprawl and the white flight.  In conjunction with poverty, these neighborhoods get the short end on quality of life.  For example, in 1995 the infant mortality rate for blacks was 14.3 deaths per one-thousand births.  In the same year, the infant mortality rate for whites was 6.3 deaths per one-thousand births (Squires and Kubrin 52).

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Above all, the degradation to our environment urgently warrants smart growth policies.  Impervious surfaces, GHG emissions, forest clear-cutting, and the other practices associated with sprawl have led to global warming and a bleak environmental future.  We have all heard the stories about the polar bears and the ice caps, the rising water levels, and the unpredictable weather changes.  Thus, a distressful story about mother nature will be redundant.  However, the methods that we implement to solve this dilemma are at the cutting-edge of science and technology.  When examining our fossil fuel consumption with respect to transportation, most environmentalists point their finger at combustion engines and high-carbon fuels.  To truly reduce our GHG emissions from personal transportation, we need to remodel our transportation modes and encourage biking, walking, and public transit (Chatterjee).  Stone et al. performed an excellent study on smart growth policies in conjunction with a hybrid automobile fleet.  They found that if strict smart growth policies were implemented and full hybridization of our automobile fleet happens by 2050, we could reduce our projected GHG emissions by twenty-five percent (1708).  There is hope for our environmental future, but it is not going to happen by itself.  Everyone needs to be empowered to voice their opinions on urban infrastructure, including the oponents to smart growth.

The one downfall of smart growth policies is the loss of land property rights due to zoning restrictions.  The techniques used to catalyze denser populations zone parcels of land for specific uses only.  Thus, practices on a land that is not zoned for use will vindicate higher taxes or even be deemed illegal.  This has increased housing prices and caused an uproar from people who enjoy their land property rights.  A great example of this is the case of Portland, Oregon.  Portland has been the most proactive city in America for practicing smart growth policies.  They have created harsh boundaries that strongly discourage development outside the city limits.  Portland’s city boundaries have enlarged available space by a mere two percent, when population rates are expected to raise eighty percent in the next couple decades.  Bolick, the Vice President and Director of Litigation at the Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., states that Portland is “a city that is bursting at the seams, with nowhere to expand.”  The smart growth policies have led to a 63.8% increase in housing prices from 1990 to 1995, when the nation only saw a 18.2% raise on average (Bolick).  On the whole, Portland chose strict policies to lead the way in urban smart growth development.  However, they lost support from much of their public by implementing these rigid plans, and caused a negative impact on the city’s economic status.  Similarly, individuals all across the nation who enjoy their suburban homes are fearful of smart growth and the increase in housing prices.

However, the environmental, social, public health, and economic reasons deserve greater concern.  In effort to advance society and bring about a better future for our children, environmental degradation and social stratification will not summon a better quality of life.  To argue that housing prices are more important than the health of our people, the quality of our environment, and the coherence of our communities is iniquitous.  For these reasons, we need to encourage smart growth before it is too late.

By 2050, we could reduce our projected GHG emissions by twenty-five percent just from hybrid engines and smart growth policies (Stone et al. 1708).  This presents great hope for the future, and even optimism for the fight against global warming.  In order to acheive this, everyone needs to be empowered to make a grass-roots effort in their local community.  Since smart growth encourages local economies and denser populations, communities should make it their personal responsibility to take sustainability seriously and make changes now.  Enacting smart growth on a global or even national scale is useless since each community has its own needs, values, ethics, etc.  Moreover, smarth growth initiatives should be implemented on a community by community level to produce the most sustainable, economically independent, and socially equitable cities.  If every community creates a localized vision for a more sustainable future, we will be endowed with diverse cities all across our nation; each with a unique character.  There is potential for a brighter, greener future, but change needs to come now.  I believe that a more culturally unique, economically stable, and sustainable America is possible, and smart growth policies can lead us towards this propitious future.



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