Urban Sprawl Activity


By John G. Mitchell       Photographs by Sarah Leen

Most people agree that unchecked development is a bad deal—for commuters, for taxpayers, for the
environment. But few can agree on how to achieve smart growth.

Read the following excerpt from National Geographic:
Tom Spellmire lives with his mother on an 87-acre (35-hectare) farm in Turtle Creek Township, Warren
County, Ohio. One county away, to the south, lies Cincinnati. One county north, Dayton. Spellmire‟s is a
place of silos and barns and a turn-of-the-century white frame farmhouse with a green roof. Another farm
or two can be seen along the road in one direction. But going the other way, after a mile or so, you begin to
run out of green roofs and open fields, and what you see instead are the kinds of manicured lawns and
picture windows that for half a century have signified fulfillment of the American dream.

One blustery day late last year I traveled with Tom Spellmire to see how that dream had been playing
around Warren County. Harvest time was behind him then, the corn and soybeans taken in, the winter
wheat planted. Crops from a homestead of 87 acres (35 hectares) couldn‟t begin to pay all his taxes, so
Spellmire leases 2,400 acres (970 hectares) from other landowners, though this is not as many acres as were
once available to him. As we drove south, then west into an adjoining county, he could point to a
subdivision (like Four Bridges) or an industrial site (Mitsubishi Electric) saying, “We used to farm all this

Spellmire is a tall, ruddy, intensely focused man who served on Ohio‟s Farmland Preservation Task Force
in the 1990s. And he is not happy about the prospects for farming in Warren County. “Believe it or not,” he
says, “this county is promoted as having rural character, but the zoning codes, in effect, say: „We want to
develop everything.‟ That‟s why the county is a haven for real estate investors.”

When investors come, can developers be far behind? And behind the developer comes the family in search
of a home in the suburbs. We drove past or through a dozen new subdivisions that day. The Meadows at
Mason. Heritage Club. Hickory Woods. Simpson Creek Farms. Presently we arrived at a subdivision called
Trailside Acres, featuring homes that we figured might sell for up to half a million dollars apiece. At the
end of a cul-de-sac Spellmire gestured toward a wide, open field we could see in the distance beyond the
slim side yards of the big houses.

“We lease that farm,” he said. “We rotate corn, soybeans, and wheat on it.” Then he shook his head. “And
what I find so ironic is that all these people who live here look out their back windows and see this fine old
farmstead. When I‟m out there on a tractor, the subdivision kids are hanging over their fences, watching
me. And you know what their parents say to the people who own that farm? They say, „You‟re not going to
sell it for development, are you? Are you?‟”


Sprawl is dispersed, auto-dependent development outside of compact urban and village
centers, along highways, and in rural countryside.

Sprawl is typically characterized by...
      Excessive land consumption
      Low densities in comparison with older centers
      Lack of choice in ways to travel
      Fragmented open space, wide gaps between development and a scattered appearance
      Lack of choice in housing types and price

   Separation of uses into distinct areas

      Repetitive one story development
      Commercial buildings surrounded by acres of parking
      Lack of public spaces and community centers

Consider the following differences between new urbanism and sprawl. Which one better
represents the current situation in Southern California?

Regional Transportation

New Urbanism

      Mass transit—light-rail, buses, subways—is within walking distance of most homes and

      The goals:
           o fewer car trips
           o fewer highways
           o shorter commutes
           o more time for family and community life
           o less car-exhaust pollution

      Mass transit can also bring city-based low-income workers into job-rich suburbs—“no car”
       doesn‟t have to mean “no job.”


      Highways are often choked with traffic and its pollution, due largely to
           o street plans that feed cars onto a few big roads,
           o lack of convenient mass transit, and
           o isolation of retail and residential complexes, which require a car trip for nearly every
              errand or visit.

      Roads are often widened to ease congestion, which attracts more drivers to the area, who soon fill
       the roads to capacity again, prompting appeals for further widening.

      Businesses relocate from traditional main streets and scatter along a few wide roads designed
       mainly for cars—few sidewalks, vast parking lots, and so on.

      Results:
           o In the U.S. a two-car suburban family makes ten car trips a day, on average.
           o In one year a commuter with a one-hour commute (each way) spends the equivalent of
                about 12 workweeks driving to and from work.
Street Plan

New Urbanism

      An interconnected street network distributes traffic evenly and makes walking easy by offering
       direct routes between points.

      Connected streets ease traffic by providing drivers with alternate routes.

      With many alternate routes, streets can be narrower, making them safer to cross and less land

      Sharp street corners, narrow streets, and frequent intersections naturally induce drivers to go more
       slowly and be more alert.

      Each street follows one general direction—north-south for example—allowing for easier
       navigation and better orientation.


      Subdivision street networks and retail and office parking lots often connect only with a wide,
       pedestrian-unfriendly collector road. A result: quiet subdivisions, gridlocked main roads.

      Residents need a car for even the simplest errand.

      Streets designed for easy driving—wide lanes, vast cul-de-sacs, few and wide intersections, few
       trees or buildings that block lines of sight—may encourage speeding, endanger pedestrians, and
       discourage walking and bicycling.

      Subdivision streets often twirl back on themselves or dead-end, confounding even the best sense
       of direction.

Shops, Civic Buildings, and Workplaces
New Urbanism

      Mixed-use zoning allows for shops, restaurants, offices, and homes all to be within walking
       distance of each other—or even in the same building.

      With most of life‟s necessities within walking distance, fewer car trips are made, easing pollution
       and encouraging community interaction.

      The young and the very old—those carless millions—enjoy a measure of independence, bicycling
       to the soccer field, say, or walking to the movies.

      Allowing for apartments and offices above stores provides patronage for the shops, living space
       for lower-income residents, and activity for the sidewalk—and a busy sidewalk is generally a safer

      Zoning generally prohibits developers from building shops, restaurants, or offices within

      Some characteristic results:
          o A vast office park next to a sea of houses next to a massive municipal center beside a
              shopping mall—no town center and little sense of community to speak of.

             o   More homeowners have expansive yards.

             o   Kids remain dependent on their parents for transportation until they reach driving age.

             o   The loss of a driver‟s license puts many seniors out of reach of the store, the restaurant,
                 the theater—and into retirement communities away from their hometowns

Residential Distribution
 New Urbanism

      Different housing types—apartments, row houses, detached homes—occupy the same
       neighborhood, sometimes the same block.

      People of different income levels mingle and may come to better understand each other.

      A family can “move up” without moving away—say, from a row house to a single-family home.

      Property values don‟t necessarily suffer when housing types are mixed. New-urbanist
       neighborhoods are generally outselling neighboring subdivisions, and some of the United States‟
       most expensive older neighborhoods—Washington, D.C.‟s Georgetown, Boston‟s Beacon Hill,
       for example—are marvels of mixed housing.


      Developers often fill whole subdivisions with one type of residence—say, $300,000 ranch houses.

      Zoning often outlaws apartments and houses in the same development.

      Sequestered in a narrow sliver of society, people may develop or maintain intolerance of those
       outside their ilk.


  New Urbanism

      Parking is concentrated alongside curbs, in lots behind shops, and in garages off rear alleys.

      Parking behind, rather than in front of, shops allows buildings to be at or near the sidewalk‟s
       edge—more welcoming and pedestrian friendly than a store in a sea of asphalt.

      Placing garages and driveways behind houses allows the houses to be brought closer to the
       sidewalk, enlarging backyards and adding interest and a feeling of enclosure to the street—a
       feeling that new urbanists believe adds to a walker‟s sense of comfort.
      On-street parking insulates pedestrians from traffic, encourages street life by requiring drivers to
       walk the final steps to their destination, and lessens the need for parking lots and garages.


      Store and office parking is in lots in front of businesses, pushing buildings back from the street
       and farther away from each other.

      Residential parking is generally on street-facing driveways, which requires that the house be far
       back from the sidewalk. The resulting, rarely used front yard may offer a feeling of estatelike
       spaciousness but discourage neighborly interaction.

      Parallel parking is often discouraged as a hazard to moving traffic.


A small town was established in the late 19th century. It was located about twenty-five
miles from a major city. Since the trip to the city was too long for people to make on a
daily basis, the town was self-sufficient and did not consider itself a suburb.

With the opening of a freeway between this town and the city in the 1960s, some people
began to use the town as a "bedroom community." Within the last decade, the town has
experienced a huge influx of people from the central city and other suburbs. Many new
subdivisions have been developed, along with shopping malls and "business parks."

Sketch a map of this town as it would look today. Your map should show street patterns
and types of available transportation (e.g., bus routes, light rail tracks, or major "feeder
roads"), the location of housing, shopping malls, parking, city and civic buildings, parks,
etc. Be as creative and detailed as possible. I have colored pencils, rulers, crayons,
markers, etc, available for those of you who would like to use them. Be sure that your
maps represent the characteristics of urban sprawl that we have talked about.

Then, on a separate map, take that same city and adapt it to fit with the characteristics of
new urbanism. Be sure to consider the differences in transportation, housing
developments, shopping malls, parking, and city buildings.

You should finish with two separate maps that have clearly identified differences.

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