The downside of suburban sprawl

Over the past 60 years, Americans have seen their communities develop in ways that have altered the way we live our lives.

Beginning in the 1950s with the Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Administration, veterans began receiving low-cost mortgages, which typically were doled out at rates less than rental costs. This led to a massive housing boom in the United States. The upkeep of existing housing underwent neglect.

Coincidentally, the Interstate Highway System tore through many inner city areas, while mass transit withered. Houses built out of pre-cut wood and concrete slabs started the phenomenon we know today as suburbia, or suburban sprawl.

Before suburbia, businesses were either in downtowns, which were either in the center of the town or within a five to 10-minute walking distance. Streetcars would run in both directions along the middle of the main streets, sometimes along a grassy median.

There were traditionally built houses in neighborhoods, which were connected to a transit line grid network. Few dead-end streets existed, if at all, and most streets consisted of square or rectangular blocks no wider than 500 feet. In most cases, the whole town never exceeded one quarter or half mile in radius.

Downtown was usually focused around a public square, which typically had the county courthouse on its grounds or had the city government facing the square, or both.

Other civic buildings such as libraries, masonic lodges, or other organizations would be located downtown or along main street.

Cemeteries, colleges, and, in the case of large cities, hospitals were either located on whole city blocks in the city. In the case of cemeteries and colleges, they were sometimes at the edge of town and had their own lots allocated to them.

Churches were built in downtown along main street, or they were built within a quarter mile of transit stops and along the main streets and they only had parking in the street. Schools were so small and so frequently built (there was one built for every half mile of land area in each city or town) that the whole student body could walk to school every day.

Above restaurants and retail stores were efficiencies, which had their own kitchenettes and baths. There were neighborhood centers with “mixed-use” buildings. Trains would be the main mode of intercity transportation, and industry would be located along rail corridors. At the edge of downtown, the railroad would have a train station where it would run past the downtown through the city.

The main streets usually turned into the main two-lane roads going through the countryside after passing through the neighborhoods of the city or large town from the downtown.

These and many more characteristics defined cities before World War II, most of which were abandoned in the design of new, suburban sprawl built after World War II.


Sprawl swept aside these and many other good characteristics of growth. Instead of cities, towns and neighborhoods, we have subdivisions, office parks, and shopping centers, all surrounded by parking lots. Instead of old two-lane roads, boulevards and main streets, we have the interstate highway, divided open-access collectors, and four-lane undivided collector roads. Instead of classical, tall, pedestrian-scaled civic buildings, we have low-rise, pancaked civic buildings surrounded by moats of parking.

Instead of business offices located downtown or in neighborhood centers along transit stops, we have single-use, low-to-high rise office park buildings located on huge suburban office park campuses surrounded by surface lot parking along collector roads.

Instead of shops and restaurants located in individual mixed use buildings with residences on top and commercial entities below, we have malls, suburban shopping and lifestyle centers, none of which have people living in them.

Instead of neighborhoods and towns within a grid plan along transit or rail lines, we have huge homes built on large lots with little to no street connectivity or accessibility by foot from the main roads connecting it to the rest of suburbia.

Instead of custom houses and buildings built by architects, we have standardized structures by the same developer.

Instead of pedestrian, bike, and transit oriented cities, towns, and villages, we just see suburban growth with no sidewalks, no street parking and no transit stops with mixed-use development.

We don’t even call them towns, neighborhoods, or downtown anymore, we just call them “municipalities” and “subdivisions” and “developments.”

Instead of town founders and visionaries, we just see real estate agents and developers.


Now what has this caused? Almost absolute dependency on cars, which are a dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists. There is nowhere for any of us to walk and a lack of decent public transit.

And what does this mean?

Well, for one, if you don’t own a car then you must be dependent on others to take you everywhere. The elderly become trapped in their nursing homes, the poor in their isolated apartment buildings. Car dependency deprives a huge segment of our population from living enjoyable, productive lives. Trapped at home, many lower income people become dependent on welfare.

If you have children, you must pick up your children from school, which is so much of a chore that you cannot work for a whole hour of the day, limiting job opportunities. Mothers become, in essence, taxi drivers.

You never have a chance to get any good exercise, unless you are rich enough to have your own bicycle machines or treadmills in your home. Obesity becomes a health hazard.

Mississippi has the lowest average public transportation miles per person of any state in the country, and our average commute time is 24 minutes. Meanwhile, over 36 percent of our population is obese. Automobile accidents are the leading cause of accidental death. Mississippi, with the lowest percentage of public transportation usage in the South, has the second highest rate of fatal automobile accidents.

From these and many other objective measures, we know that suburban sprawl produces many unintended negative consequences.

So what is to be done to combat sprawl and create walkable, mixed-use communities accessible by transit?

John Emmerich is a student at Belhaven University.


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