Defining sprawl

Sprawl from the air

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons


According to the National Resources Inventory (NRI), about 2.2 million acres of land in the United States was developed between 1992 and 2002.

Unfortunately, many urban areas like Pittsburgh have expanded geographically even though they are losing population. Srawl is generally characterized by the following land use patterns, which often occur in concert:

Single-use zoning where commercial, residential, and industrial areas are separated from one another and large tracts of land are devoted to a single use.

Subdivisions are large tracts of land consisting entirely of newly-built houses. This type of development often incorporates curved roads and culs-de-sacs, with only a few places where residents can enter and exit the development. Many subdivisions often share a single main road, which ends up causing high volume rush hour traffic in the area.

Low-density areas are characterized by large lot sizes, small families in large homes, and residential and commerical buildings separated from each other by lawns, landscaping, roads, and parking lots. Because walking and other modes of transit are impractical, these areas rarely have sidewalks.

Leap-frog developments have large tracts of undeveloped land between subdivisions, malls, and office parks. In many suburban communities, stores and activities are hard to get to without a car because there are no sidewalks and the landscape is peppered with fences, walls, and drainage ditches.

Strip malls are characterized by a collection of single-story retail stores that share a common parking lot. These strips often include big box stores and are generally built on high-capacity roadways that accomodate other commercial buildings and office parks.

Shopping malls are usually composed of a single building that contains multiple shops, "anchored" by one or more department stores. Unlike strip malls, the focus of shopping malls is on recreational shopping, rather than on the purchase of groceries and other daily goods. Shopping malls are often detrimental to downtown shopping centers since they often replace the function once served by the city center.

Fast food chains are common in suburban areas and are often built early in areas where the population and traffic is predicted to boom. Fast food restaurants and where large traffic is predicted, and set a precedent for future development. in his book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser argues that fast food chains accelerate suburban sprawl and help set the tone with expansive parking lots, flashy signs, and "plastic” architecture.


Published December 2008