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Stop Sprawl
Sprawl Overview

Revitalize America: Sprawl Hurts Us All

"Nobody in this town has ever said no to a developer. We spend tax dollars to encourage sprawl, and then it comes back to us as air pollution."
- Don Steuter, air-conditioner repairman and avid hiker who fights sprawl in Phoenix, Ariz.

Poorly planned development is threatening our environment, our health, and our quality of life. In communities across America "sprawl" - scattered development that increases traffic, saps local resources and destroys open space - is taking a serious toll. From Connecticut to California sprawl is increasing air and water pollution, devouring wetlands and forests, and burdening our communities with the social and economic costs of unplanned growth.

But runaway growth is not inevitable. Hundreds of urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods are choosing to manage sprawl with smart growth solutions. These solutions, including establishing urban growth boundaries, preserving farmland and green space, investing in alternate forms of transportation, and building compact pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, can help manage growth and control sprawl.

Sprawl increases traffic on our neighborhood streets and highways.

Sprawl lengthens trips and forces us to drive everywhere. The average American driver spends 443 hours per year - the equivalent of 55 eight-hour workdays - behind the wheel. Residents of sprawling communities drive three to four times as much as those living in compact, well-planned areas. Adding new lanes and building new roads just makes the problem worse - studies show that increasing road capacity only leads to more traffic and more sprawl.

Sprawl pollutes our air and water.

As sprawl increases our reliance on cars and driving, it makes our air dirtier and less healthy. Cars, trucks and buses are the biggest source of cancer- causing air pollution, spewing more than 12 billion pounds of toxic chemicals each year, or almost 50 pounds per person. Our wetlands - nature's water filters - are also under attack. Each year more than 100,000 acres of wetlands are destroyed, in large part to build sprawling new developments. Since wetlands can remove up to 90 percent of the pollutants in water, wetlands destruction leads directly to polluted water.

Sprawl worsens the damage from killer floods.

Sprawl increases the risk of flooding. Development pressures lead to building on floodplains and the destruction of wetlands, natural flood-absorbing sponges. In the last eight years, floods in the United States killed more than 850 people and caused more than $89 billion in property damage. Much of this flooding occurred in places where weak zoning laws allowed developers to drain wetlands and build in floodplains.

Sprawl destroys parks, farms, and open space.

Sprawl destroys more than one million acres of parks, farms and open space each year. This threatens America's productive farmland, and turns our cherished parks and open spaces into strip malls and freeways.

Sprawl wastes our tax money.

Our tax money subsidizes new sprawling developments, rather than improving our existing communities. Sprawl costs our cities and counties millions of dollars for new water and sewer lines, new schools, and increased police and fire protection. Those costs are not fully offset by the taxes paid by the new users. Instead, sprawl forces higher taxes on existing residents and hastens the decline of our urban tax base.

Sprawl crowds our children's schools.

Sprawl creates crowded schools in the suburbs and empty, crumbling schools in center cities. New development puts more children in suburban schools, but does not pay for the new schools that inevitably must be built. According to Florida's Department of Education, 17,738 temporary or trailer classrooms are currently in use in that state, and a report by the Conference Board claims that 20 percent of school kids in California learn in temporary classrooms.


Smart growth provides a range of solutions to the problem of sprawl. Smart growth means planning our communities so that our streets will be safer, our neighborhoods will be nicer places to live, our air and water will be less polluted, and our parks, farms and open space will be protected. Smart growth includes:

  • Enacting growth boundaries, parks and open space protections - like those in Oregon, Tennessee and Colorado - which allow growth without creating sprawl;

  • Planning pedestrian-friendly development where people have transportation choices, such as commuter trains and bus service;

  • Directing new highway transportation dollars to existing communities to improve safety for walkers, bicyclists and drivers, and to promote public transportation choices;

  • Reversing government programs and tax policies that help create sprawl. The U.S. EPA practiced smart growth by denying permits for the proposed Legacy Highway near Salt Lake City - a highway that would destroy wetlands, increase air pollution and promote sprawl;

  • Saving taxpayers money by having developers pay impact fees to cover the costs of new roads, schools, water and sewer lines, and requiring property tax impact studies on new developments;

  • Advocating for revitalization of already developed areas through measures such as attracting new businesses, reducing crime and improving schools;

  • Preventing new development in floodplains, coastal areas and other disaster- prone areas.

The Sierra Club's Campaign to Stop Sprawl is supported and implemented by the more than 700,000 Sierra Club members in Chapters and Groups across America. The Sierra Club has four national priority campaigns: protect America's water from factory farm pollution; protect wildlands; challenge sprawl; and end commercial logging in our national forests.

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