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Stop Sprawl
Sprawl: The Dark Side of the American Dream


sprawlSince the end of World War II, the American Dream has been defined as a house in the suburbs. Sparked by a series of federal and state government policies, including home-buying subsidies provided by the GI Bill, massive roadbuilding projects and community planning designed around the car, Americans abandoned the cities for greener pastures in suburbia.

Now we are running out of greener pastures and many Americans consider overdevelopment -- to be the fastest-growing threat to their local environment and quality of life.

And with good reason. Between 1970 and 1990, more than 19 million acres of rural land were developed. Every year 400,000 acres are being bulldozed under. And the rate of development is accelerating. The American Farmland Trust reports that an astounding 70 percent of prime or unique farmland is now in the path of rapid development.

The consequences of decades of unplanned, rapid growth and poor land-use management are evident all across America: increased traffic congestion, longer commutes, increased dependence on fossil fuels, crowded schools, worsening air and water pollution, lost open space and wetlands, increased flooding, destroyed wildlife habitat, higher taxes and dying city centers.

Sprawl - technically defined as "low-density, automobile-dependent development beyond the edge of service and employment areas" - is ubiquitous and its effects are impacting the quality of life in every region of America, in our large cities and small towns.

In Atlanta, where motorists now lead the nation in miles driven per person per day, air pollution is so bad the area has lost federal highway funds for failing to meet clean-air standards.

Despite the fact that Prince William County, Va., in metropolitan Washington, D.C., has the highest property tax rate in the Commonwealth, the cost of providing services to new developments is so high, the county is experiencing a $1,688 shortfall for every new house built.

Planners in Minneapolis-St. Paul estimate it will cost $3.1 billion for just the new water and sewage services that will be needed to accommodate projected growth between now and 2020.

In Seattle, development around Puget Sound is being blamed for the polluted water and habitat destruction that has resulted in the proposed Endangered Species listing of chinook salmon.

Interstate 95

The suburbanized area of America's fastest growing city, Las Vegas, increased by 238 percent between 1990 and 1996. As a result, this mid-sized city, which gains a new resident every nine minutes, now has serious air- and water-quality problems.

And in the Texas border town of McAllen, population growth of 40 percent between 1990 and 1996 has put intense pressure on scarce water supplies.

County by county, city by city, community by community, local decisions are being made that are threatening the quality of life and eroding the national progress we've made protecting our environment under legislation such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. And federal policies - such as transportation spending bills, home mortgage deductions and federal tax laws - continue to encourage sprawl and reward people who settle in areas far from populated centers with existing services.

But Americans are beginning to realize the costs and consequences of sprawl. They are starting to question the wisdom of growing faster than infrastructures can support or service. They are starting to recognize that decades of roadbuilding have yet to - and may never - alleviate traffic congestion. Some communities that once welcomed development with open arms now consider the cost of lost farm land not worth the benefits of a new strip mall.

By increasing dependence on the automobile as the primary mode of transportation, and by encouraging inefficient community models, sprawl is also contributing to one of the biggest international environmental problems today - global warming. Cars zipping around highways, or, worse, cars stuck for hours in traffic jams, spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere each year. Even though sprawl is considered a regional problem, its consequences are global.

Right now, our nation is on the verge of a locally driven, publicly supported, grassroots movement to rethink and rewrite development patterns that date back to the end of World War II. For more than two years, the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign has been working with local communities to slow development and encourage "smart growth."

The goal of the Sierra Club's campaign is not to stop progress, but to help communities recognize and remedy the effects of sprawl and to promote growth that does the least amount of harm to the health, safety and welfare of communities and their residents.

Smart growth channels development to areas with existing infrastructure and consumes less land for roads, houses and commercial buildings. A number of communities across the country are starting to implement smart-growth initiatives to curb sprawl, preserve green space, recover wetlands, protect farm land and rural legacies and restore urban cores and redevelop abandoned industrial sites ("brownfields").

This report, "The Dark Side of the American Dream: The Costs and Consequences of Suburban Sprawl," is the Sierra Club's first annual report on the state of sprawl across the nation. It focuses the national spotlight on the top 20 population centers where today sprawl is threatening the quality of a community's life and accelerating at a faster rate than cities of comparable size.

The cities in this report were selected and ranked by a committee of Sierra Club sprawl experts who analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Highway Department, the Texas Transportation Institution and the American Farmland Trust. The criteria included population shift from city to suburb, time wasted in traffic jams, growth in the land area of metropolitan areas and loss of open space. The committee also considered the ecological and historic importance of the cities.

The purpose of the report is to educate the public about the devastating impacts of sprawl on our families, air, water, parks, wildlands and wildlife. The report also explores the impacts of sprawl on rural America, the environment and historic treasures of the country. And it looks at how Americans everywhere are grappling with the challenges of unplanned sprawl and what solutions local, county and state policymakers are implementing to balance growth with the needs of the community as a whole.

More than fifty years ago, America defined the American Dream as a home in suburbia. Now our nation is redefining the dream, weighing the values of healthy communities and green space against consequences of unbridled, development. It is a debate the Sierra Club hopes this report will help inform and shape.

The Costs of Sprawl

Sprawl Costs America’s Rural Landscapes
The movement of people from rural or "nonmetro" areas of the country to more heavily populated cities and towns (an established trend for many years) has been reversed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As people leave the city, they bring development - residential and commercial - to the countryside.

openspaceThe haphazard and arbitrary scattering of structures across the landscape devastates rural areas in many ways: it homogenizes the countryside once dotted by forests, fields, farmland, and rivers, lakes and ponds; it destroys the agricultural heritage of this country; it upsets small-town life; and it changes the economic and cultural character of these areas.

Between 1970 and 1990, almost 20 million acres of rural land were developed nationwide. A total of 400,000 acres a year are chewed up to build residential and commercial centers.

Even places like Vermont, a state with a powerful rural legacy, is not immune to development pressures. The very name of the state, "Vermont" is practically synonymous with rural life in this country. Its rural personality is largely responsible for the area's economic health as millions of tourists visit Vermont each year and produce billions of dollars in revenue for state coffers.

Yet, beginning in the 1980s, as more and more people moved to Vermont in search of a better quality of life, development (often in the form of malls and superstores) began to slice up this bucolic countryside. In just two years, the state lost 10 percent of its farmland.

Farmland all across the country is threatened by contagious sprawl. Today ribbons of highway reach across acre after acre of lush fields. The seemingly unstoppable march of development across fertile, high quality farmland is quickly undermining the nation's agricultural productivity.

An astounding 70 percent of prime or unique farmland is now in the path of rapid development, according to a report recently released by the American Farmland Trust which analyzed 181 major land resource areas. Texas lost more prime and unique farmland than any other state, nearly a half million acres from 1982 to 1992.

Rural areas everywhere are today paying the price for the sprawl that inevitably accompanies population growth - traffic jams, more air pollution, cookie cutter-like housing, and ruined environment.

Sprawl Costs Our Natural Environment
Sprawl chews up the countryside rolling over millions of acres of forest, wetlands, and prairie, fragmenting landscapes, disrupting wildlife habitat, and altering rivers streams and watersheds.

One of the most damaging impacts of sprawl on the country's natural resources is run-off from farms and city streets which carries pollutants and excess sediment into waterways, degrading water quality and smothering habitat.

Two of this country's greatest natural assets, the Chesapeake Bay, the largest watershed in the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware, and the Sonoran Desert are suffering the ravages of sprawl.

Around the Chesapeake Bay, sprawl is gobbling up open space and forest lands quickly. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, more than 90,000 acres are consumed by sprawl each year in the bay states. Today, 4 to 5 times more land is used per person than 40 years ago. As a result, toxins and sediments are flowing into the bay in increasing amounts and upsetting the delicate balance of the watershed's ecosystem. Sprawl is undermining progress in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and protecting habitat for fish and wildlife.

The Sonoran Desert is the largest desert in North America, covering about 120,000 square miles. Daily summer temperatures exceed 100 degrees F (38 degrees C). Most parts of the desert receive less than 10 in (less than 250 mm) of rainfall a year. But, far from being a parched and barren wasteland, the Sonoran Desert is one of the most botanically diverse deserts in the world. More than 2,500 plant species and various desert animals call the Sonoran Desert home.

Today, more than 80 percent of Arizona's population lives in the Sonoran Desert, which includes the rapidly growing areas around Phoenix and Tucson. For the natural habitat of the Sonoran Desert, which evolved gradually over millennia, the rapid changes brought by man-made development, including fragmented habitats, new competition for food and water by imported non-native species, and changes in air and climate conditions, could pose a very serious threat.

Sprawl Costs Our Historic Treasures
When commercial and residential development swarms over the countryside, people are drawn away from the older, established central cities, downtowns, and neighborhoods where so much of this nation's heritage is concentrated. These areas then lose their economic health, and the buildings and other historical reminders which define these once bustling places fall into disrepair.

Two examples of historically important centers now experiencing this trend are Spokane, Washington and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Lancaster County has been called "the Garden Spot of America, a kind of Eden on the East Coast, the idyllic farmscape where the Amish retreat from the modern world" (Boston Globe, Michael Grunwald). The county also produces hundreds of millions of dollars in farm products and hosts thousands of tourists every year who come to enjoy the area's beauty and experience a piece of American history.

But Lancaster is beginning to take on the cast of the rest of suburbia. While an agricultural protection program is in place, the county has lost about 4,800 acres to development each year since 1980 - or 68 square miles over a ten-year period - to house 60,000 people, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). To add insult to injury, Walmart has proposed building five stores which the Amish and other dedicated citizens are trying to prevent from happening. Lancaster County has in fact been named one of the most endangered historic sites in the world by the NTHP because of the devastating effects of sprawl.

The historic city of Spokane, Washington used to be known as "The City Beautiful." But today citizens believe the car has taken over and crushed the area's charm. While the pressures of growth are nothing new for Spokane (beginning as early as the 1900's), now the city is at a crossroads. A projected 54,000 new residents are expected to move to Spokane in the next 20 years. Citizens are now mobilizing to find ways to mitigate sprawl while accommodating growth that is consistent with quality of life.

Sprawl and Flooding
Overdevelopment can have disastrous consequences. Filling in and paving over wetlands is increasing flooding all across America. With few exceptions, floods are most frequent, and loss of life and property are greatest, in counties that have lost the most wetlands - especially in the past 30 years.

The science is simple: Wetlands work as natural sponges that soak up and store rain and runoff. When these wetlands are bulldozed over and asphalted under, water that would have been stopped or slowed is free to flood.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the government entity responsible for disaster response and prevention, the number of floods, flood deaths and property losses caused by flooding is increasing. Nationwide, floods killed 892 people between 1988-97, and cost an average of $4.3 billion each year during the same time period. And FEMA believes a principle cause for this increased flooding is poor planning and unwise development that destroys the wetlands and open space that protect communities.

In an effort to promote and encourage local communities to stop destroying wetlands and building in the floodplains, to manage their growth wisely and include disaster prevention in their land use planning, FEMA has inaugurated Project Impact: Building a Disaster Resistant Community. Specifically, this initiative is designed to reduce the costs of future disasters by helping local governments work with business, education and environmental partners in their communities. They can take action before disasters strike, including altering zoning laws, buying out flood plains, and discouraging destructive and potentially disastrous development. For more information, call Kim Fuller in FEMA's Office of Emergency Information and Media Affairs at 202-646-4117.

Who pays for sprawl?
We all do. The idea that development strengthens the local tax base - a fact in the 1980s - has turned into fiction in the 1990s. Today, increases in tax revenue are eaten up by the costs to the community of delivering new services, including water and sewer lines, schools, police and fire protection, and roads for people who live far away from existing infrastructure. Here are some examples:

Between 1970 and 1995, Maine spent over $338 million building new schools while the number of public school students declined by 27,000.

The city of Fresno has doubled in size since 1980, producing $56 million in yearly revenues, but the cost of services has risen to $123 million (not including costs for roads and sewers).

From 1970 to 1990, Minneapolis-St. Paul closed 162 physically adequate schools in urban and central suburban areas and opened 78 brand new schools in the outer suburbs.

Providing services to new development has grown so costly in Prince William County, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., that even though the county has the highest property-tax rate in the Commonwealth, every new house brings a $1,688 shortfall.

Sprawl Solutions: Smarth Growth

In response to the growing public outcry, community leaders and concerned citizens around the country are exploring alternative approaches to control suburban sprawl and grow on their own terms. Their efforts demonstrate creativity of thought as well as dedication and commitment to developing common-sense, cost-saving and effective solutions that sustain quality of life and protect parks, open space and wetlands as their towns and cities expand.

Following are examples of potential solutions now being debated and implemented in many areas, from Vermont to Arizona to California.

Purchase Land
A number of communities are now purchasing environmentally sensitive land or farmland to prevent development. For example:

Citizens in Peninsula Township in Michigan's rural northwest recently voted to pay farmers to keep farming rather than to subdivide their land.

Maryland's Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Program includes $71 million to buy agricultural, forest or natural areas that may be developed.

Tallahassee plans to pay $1 million to buy land that will increase the city's Rural Legacy Program.

On the national level, 30 years ago, the federal government established the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which sets aside a percent of royalties from offshore oil drilling to acquire or expand recreation land and open space.

Establish Urban Growth Boundaries
An urban growth boundary (UGB) is an official line that separates an urban area from its surrounding greenbelt of open lands, including farms, watersheds and parks. These boundaries protect the wide diversity of natural resources that wrap around population centers while funneling growth to areas with existing infrastructure. Increasingly, many rapidly expanding cities and towns are experimenting with UGBs.

Oregon and Washington require all communities to draw long-term UGBs. Portland, Ore., has had a UGB in place since the 1970's with solid success. Though pressure on the boundary is mounting as buildable land inside the designated growth area shrinks, Portland is still one of the nation's most livable cities.

Local jurisdictions, such as Boulder, Colo., have fixed boundaries while others, including Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, have voluntary lines.

Many areas in California have successfully put UGBs in place, including San Jose, Morgan Hill, Napa and Santa Rosa.

Revitalize Existing Towns and Cities
Momentum is developing to revitalize once-thriving towns and cities - where mass transit, existing infrastructure and high-density living can support growth - in order to draw potential residents and limit urban flight.

Minneapolis has a tradition of investing in and maintaining its parks, which boosts real estate values and generates hundreds of millions in private redevelopment.

Chattanooga, Tenn., cleaned up its once seriously polluted hometown river, the Tennessee, and created a riverfront park and a promenade that now attract both wildlife and people.

To draw people (and the potential for revitalization) to inner neighborhoods, the state of Maryland gives at least $3,000 to people who buy a home in areas closer to their places of work. This provision is part of the state's smart growth plan passed this year.

Approve Open-Space Revenues
In the last couple of years, voters in many states across the country have approved local and county efforts to raise revenues in order to protect open space and slow suburban sprawl. For example:

Recent polls show strong voter support for New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's proposal to raise the gasoline tax to help preserve 1 million acres of undeveloped land over the next 10 years.

Monroe County in Pennsylvania approved a $25 million bond referendum to purchase undeveloped land over the next ten years.

Voters in Austin, Texas, supported an increase in water rates to raise money to protect thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land around the city.

Mobilize the Grassroots
The many approaches now before policymaking bodies on the local, county or state levels are inspired by voter concern. Grassroots efforts are also focused on gaining a greater voice in the decision-making process. For example:

Mary Handrick, founder of Protect Our Parks in a northwest suburb of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, persuaded the city council to preserve the 300-acre Rum River Park and natural area instead of selling the parcel to developers.

Residents in Spokane, Wash., have banded together to form Spokane Horizons project and are now working on a new comprehensive plan for the city for the 21st century - a plan that will address issues like parking, new roads and infrastructure capacity while calling for a healthy downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. The plan will be presented to the city council this winter.

A coalition of neighborhood and environmental groups in Arizona's Pima County developed a desert protection plan to protect the county's endangered species and preserve open spaces. The Board of Supervisors voted in early May to support it. This vote signified the first time the board had adopted a citizens' plan in more than 20 years.

A neighborhood association near Atlanta succeeded in stopping the construction of a $13 million interchange that would have increased traffic in the area by 60 percent.

Agricultural zoning allows development only on lots of a minimum size and restricts land uses such as large subdivisions that are incompatible with farming.

Clustering allows the same number of lots on a given parcel of land, but requires that they be clustered on one portion of the parcel. Sensitive areas, buffers and open space are situated on the remaining land.

Conservation easements are created when land owners donate the development rights to their land to organizations such as the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. Land owners receive income-, property- and estate-tax relief. Land trusts may also purchase development rights.

Tax-base sharing seeks to reduce the difference in the relative financial health of local governments in a region and thereby reduce the competition for new development. Typically, the communities pool a portion of the growth in the commercial, industrial, and residential property-tax base and then redistribute it based on an agreed-upon formula.

Transit-oriented development guidelines seek to strengthen ridership on public transit by encouraging or requiring more compact mixed-use development around transit stops.

How States Can Control Sprawl
States can play a critical role in controlling urban sprawl and helping communities grow on their own terms. Initiatives to date have taken three forms:

  • Encouraging or requiring local comprehensive plans that are consistent with state goals;

  • Channeling state funds to existing urban areas; and

  • Empowering municipalities and regions to use a variety of growth management techniques.

Twelve states have passed comprehensive planning legislation. These include Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and, most recently, Tennessee.

In 1997, Maryland enhanced its existing planning requirements with Smart Growth legislation that guides state funding to priority growth areas including existing municipalities and enterprise zones. A number of other states have explicitly authorized the use of different growth management techniques such as impact fees, the transfer of development rights, and regional revenue sharing. Together, these measures can help communities regain control of their future.

The Ballot Box: A Tool to Plan Growth
Voters are increasingly turning to the ballot box to halt poorly managed development and champion responsible smart growth. Currently, local and state officials all over the country are debating ballot proposals for November that restrict growth, protect the natural landscape, or promote other conservation-related causes. Many of these will include revenue-raising devices, such as open-space taxes. Sprawl is becoming a looming presence on the political landscape. Here is what some communities are considering:

The Washtenaw County Commission (Michigan) is determining whether voters will act on a 10-year mill tax increase to purchase open land and buy farmers development rights.

Martin County, Florida will ask voters to buy certain "environmentally significant lands" to protect natural resources and water quality.

Bergen County, New Jersey, is debating a ballot proposal to increase taxes to buy and preserve open space.

San Diego, California, will offer voters a ballot initiative that would help to protect wildlife habitat, water resources, and farmland by restricting development in San Diego's environmentally stunning backcountry, the eastern two-thirds of the county.

About this Report

How were the cities ranked?
Cities were ranked by a committee of Sierra Club suburban-sprawl experts. Selection criteria included trends in population and land-area growth for the urbanized areas, as well as traffic congestion and open-space loss indicators. Sources include the U.S. Census Bureau, the Federal Highway Administration, the Texas Transportation Institute and the American Farmland Trust. Other criteria, such as loss of important habitat and historical importance, were also taken into account. The committee ranked cities in three individual size categories: major metropolitan areas with populations over one million, metropolitan areas with populations between 500,000 and one million, and metropolitan areas with populations from 200,000 to 500,000. The urban-area populations were determined by 1990 Urbanized Area data compiled by U.S. Census Bureau.

This report ranks cities using criteria weighted to measure recent change in urban core population compared to surrounding suburban population. Some sprawling cities, especially in the West, don't show up in the rankings because there is little contrast between the old urban core and newer suburban sprawl.

These cities - like Spokane, Wash.; Boise, Idaho; and many California cities - developed in the era of sprawl, and never grew densely populated urban cores. They grew up sprawled.

Definitions and Data Sources
Demographic information contained in this report, including population, land area and population density data, is from U.S. Census Bureau reports for 1970, 1980 and 1990, and from Federal Highway Administration (FHA) reports, "Highway Statistics 1990" and "Highway Statistics 1996."

All references to trends in population and land area growth between 1970 and 1990 are based on U.S. Census Bureau data for Urbanized Areas and Cities. References to trends in population and land area growth for urbanized areas between 1990 and 1996 are based on FHA data for Federal Aid Urbanized Areas. Population data from the FHA reports are estimated. Population figures for cities during that time period are based on U.S. Census Bureau data for 1990 and 1996 (estimated).

The Census Bureau defines Urbanized Areas as: "One or more places ('central place') and the adjacent densely settled surrounding territory (`urban fringe') that together have a minimum of 50,000 persons. The urban fringe generally consists of contiguous territory having a density of at least 1,000 persons per square mile." (For a full definition of an Urbanized Area, please contact Sam Parry at the Sierra Club, (202) 675-7907). The FHA defines Urbanized Area similarly as a "Federal Aid 'Urbanized Area' with 60,000 or more persons, that at a minimum, encompasses the land area delineated by the Bureau of the Census."

Transportation trends and information are based on 1982 to 1994 data from the Texas Transportation Institute. Open-space loss information is based on 1982 and 1992 data from the American Farmland Trust.


Writers: Ann Brown, Carrie Collins, Tim Frank, Kim Haddow, Ben Hitchings, Sam Parry, Ginger Vanderpool, Lisa Wormser

Sierra Club sprawl experts and consultants: Glen Besa, Larry Bohlen, Barbara Boyle, Tim Frank, Brett Hulsey, Joy Oakes

Photographs were generously provided by George Sibley, producer and director of Gale Force Films, Richmond, Va.

Sprawl Report Online: Sierra Club Webmasters Mike Papciak and John Kealy

This project was made possible only through the hard work of many dedicated people inside and outside the Sierra Club. Among them, we would like to give our special thanks to:

Constance Beaumont, The National Trust for Historic Preservation; Allison Daily, Sprawl Watch; Jennifer Dempsy, American Farmland Trust; Bryant Gross, Federal Highway Administration; Delores Hott, Texas Transportation Institute; Jane Holtz Kay, author of "Asphalt Nation"; Marrie Pees, U.S. Census Bureau; Janet Pelley, sprawl consultant; Jim Sayer, Greenbelt Alliance; Mary Suggett, Universal Press Syndicate.

We want to particularly thank all the Sierra Club activists who contributed time and creative thought, including:

Tina Arapkiles, Denver, Colo.,; Mark Behar, Boca Raton, Fla.; Jim Blomquist, Los Angeles, Calif.; Glen Brand, Cincinnati, Ohio; Carolyn Chase, San Diego, Calif.; Scott Elkins, Minneapolis, Minn.,; Larry Freilich, Austin, Texas; Renee Guillory, Phoenix, Ariz.; Bryan Hager, Atlanta, Ga.; Randy Harness, Las Vegas, Nev.; Ginger Harris, St. Louis, Mo.; Frank Jackalone, St. Petersburg, Fla.; Mary-Slater Linn, Orlando, Fla.; Jim McKenzie, Little Rock, Ark.; Ron McLinden, Kansas City, Mo.; Michael Paparian, Sacramento, Calif.; Albert Pollard, Richmond, Va.; Nancy Rauch, Philadelphia, Pa.; Julia Reitan, Seattle, Wash.; Rosalie Shaffer, Pensacola, Fla.; Deanna White, Las Vegas, Nev.

Read the Report | Clickable Sprawl Map | Sprawl-Threatened Cities

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