Weighing the Costs and Benefits of Sprawl

Reasonable people can disagree on the costs and benefits of suburban sprawl because suburbanization affects every person differently. Generally, the benefits of sprawl are immediate, short-term, and focused towards private individuals, and the costs are gradual, long-term, and shared by the public. Every stakeholder has his own agenda, and in many circumstances these interests conflict. An aspect of suburban sprawl that profits one person might damage the welfare of another or vice-versa.

One of the primary benefits of suburban sprawl is the opportunity for land ownership. Developers, middle class homeowners, and businesses migrate to the periphery of metropolitan regions because these areas have cheap real estate, subsidized infrastructure, and enticing tax incentives (Gillham 2002). The availability of land in the suburbs has allowed more people to fulfill their dream of owning property and developing personal equity. Additionally, suburban growth permits commercial entities to maximize profits via access to natural resources, employees, and transportation systems.

However, minorities and the low-income population have few opportunities for land ownership. Businesses, private developers, and government agencies have shifted their investments from the city to the suburbs. The abandonment of central cores has left many inner-city neighborhoods economically and socially vulnerable (Jargowsky 2002). Regions that were once inhabited by employers and middle class residents are now racially and economically segregated enclaves of unemployment, delinquency, and physical dilapidation (Powell 2002).

Another benefit of suburbanization is the freedom of mobility. Motorists can travel anywhere at anytime without relying on other people’s schedules (Gillham 2002). The federally funded highway system and the proliferation of the automobile have given citizens more access to economic, educational, and social opportunities (Helling 2002). Geography and distance are no longer barriers of travel, and as a result Americans can live and work wherever they wish.

The construction of America’s transportation networks has left an everlasting imprint on the environment because roads, highways, and parking lots require an extensive amount of land and natural resources. Consequently, the natural landscape is disappearing, biodiversity is declining, and scarce energy resources are diminishing (Nivola 1999). Furthermore, automobiles contribute heavily to air and water pollution. Automobiles are dependent on fossil fuels, and the burning of fossil fuels produces unhealthy air pollutants that threaten human health and add to global warming (Cieslewicz 2002).

The sprawl debate is difficult to solve because suburbanization has brought personal wealth and individual freedom to many citizens. Even though studies have shown that suburban sprawl is an unsustainable form of growth, many citizens support sprawl because their personal gains outweigh the societal costs. In fact, recent polls have shown that a majority of Americans prefer the suburban lifestyle (Gillham 2002).

Ultimately, a planner’s primary responsibility is to serve the public interest. Thus, urban planners must find a compromise between the advocates and opponents of sprawl that maximizes its public benefits and minimizes its individual costs. Planners can accomplish this goal by acting as social scientists, social workers, and surgeons (Baum 1997). A multi-faceted approach involving empirical analysis, public education, and policy is needed because suburbanization is a convoluted problem that involves many different stakeholders.


Baum, Howell. 1997. “Social Science, Social Work, and Surgery: Teaching What Students Need to Practice Planning” Journal of the American Planning Association 63:179-188.

Cieslewicz, David J. 2002. “The Environmental Impacts of Sprawl.” pp. 23 – 38 in Gregory Squires (ed) Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Responses. Washington D.C. The Urban Institute Press.

Gillham, Oliver. 2002. The Limitless City: A Primer on the Urban Sprawl Debate. Washington, D.C. Island Press.

Helling, Amy. 2002. “Transportation, Land Use, and the Impacts of Sprawl on Poor Children and Families.” pp. 119- 139 in Gregory Squires (ed) Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Responses. Washington D.C. The Urban Institute Press.

Jargowsky, Paul A. 2002. “Sprawl, Concentration of Poverty, and Urban Inequality.” pp. 39-71 in Gregory Squires (ed) Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Responses. Washington D.C. The Urban Institute Press.

Nivola, Pietro. 1999. Laws of the Landscape: How Policies Shape Cities in Europe and America. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Powell, John. 2002. “Sprawl, Fragmentation, and the Persistence of Racial Inequality: Limiting Civil Rights by Fragmenting Space.” pp. 72- 118 in Gregory Squires (ed) Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Responses. Washington D.C. The Urban Institute Press.


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