Sustainability Vol. #2: Pushed to the Burbs

Sustainability Series 2The more aware I become about systemic environmental and social issues, the more I realize that American’s needs to address the issue of sprawl immediately. Our country is at a critical point. We can either forfeit our open spaces to suburban slums or we can develop healthy urban communities that enhance quality of life.

The American Farmland Trust calculates that almost a million acres of farm and open land are lost to sprawl each year. According to the Brookings Institute, metropolitan geographic expansion is outpacing population growth in 94% of US cities.

Pittsburgh’s growth profile between 1970 and 1990 demonstrates the problem. During that time the city’s metropolitan population declined by 9%, but its urban land area increased 30% (180 square miles).

As people move to the fringes they typically get farther and farther away from the workplace. The commercial and public infrastructure needed to support modern life also becomes more dispersed. This increases the reliance on automobiles, leading to increased air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Mass transit and cycling can reduce automobile use, but sprawling cities test the effectiveness of even the most progress cities. In Omaha, local groups have worked together to create a series of alternative transportation programs. But nearly all of these are limited in their ability to affect the entire geographic area of the city. These groups end up compromising their objectives to focus on a limited geographic area. As a result, massive segments of the city are left untouched by the programs.

For years I’ve advocated urban growth boundaries and infill development to help reverse sprawl. I thought the answer to sprawl was found in restricting outward development and forcing people to stay near the city center. This solution increases population density and makes mass transit, cycling and walking feasible transportation alternatives.

But the other day I met with a sustainability expert at the university about the issue and he presented a disturbing perspective on today’s housing market. He suggests that the current combination of an over-saturated suburban home market and a cash-strapped citizenry will lead to a whole new wave of people pushed to the burbs.

This is a scary prospect, especially with the cost of living on the rise. People will be forced to move to what are essentially low-income suburban slums. Additionally, they will be shackled to their cars and forced to drive. The circular nature of this system is totally unsustainable.

I looked into this issue and found that other experts agree that suburban growth is going to accelerate. A number of groups are assuming that the systemic push to the fringes is too powerful to halt completely, so they are now shifting their focus away from restricting sprawl completely in favor of making sprawl more environmentally sustainable. They want to limit sprawl, but at the same time develop livable suburban communities.

Suburban communities can actually shift in a way to improve quality of life and reduce environmental harm. The goal is to develop stable access to commerce and resources in both urban and suburban areas.

This is one of the key elements of the New Urbanist development strategy. New Urbanism brings work, home, school, and various community facilities closer together. Often such regroupings are linked to mass transit access points and facilitate pedestrian transportation.

This alternative solution to the problem of sprawl reminds me that I should avoid being myopic in advocating single solutions to complex sustainability issues. I need to define the issues that I’m concerned about and then research several reasonable solutions.

I’m not planning on embracing sprawl anytime soon. But rather than being resentful towards the people who buy homes in the hinterlands, but I will help them understand the issues so they can develop their suburban areas into communities like the Midtown area that I live in and love.

Harvest Design & MarketingRyan Atkinson is a former bike industry bum who wandered into the real world to start his own business. In 2007 he launched a sustainable marketing agency called Harvest. Ryan is a regular contributor to cycling and environmental publication on the topic of bikes and sustainability. He is still active in cycling and the bicycle industry, advocating improved access to bikes and better conditions for riding. He currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska and rides every day.

Learn more about Ryan at


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