Roland Oehme

How Suburban Sprawl is Killing Us

by , 05/27/14

Urban sprawl, sprawl, suburban sprawl, suburbs, climate change, traffic, obesity

Have you ever thought about how the design of our cities, towns, and communities has wide ranging effects on both our own lives and on larger global issues? Yes, simply by changing the way we design our living spaces, we affect many things in both good ways and bad. In this article, I will focus on the negative effects of American sprawl, since it is widely acknowledged to be a wasteful and inefficient design model.


One of the more obvious ways that sprawl affects our society is that it has helped to create an epidemic of obesity. In the sprawling suburban lifestyle, people drive everywhere and no longer engage in meaningful exercise. This is a big change from before the rise of suburbs and the subsequent rampant increase in the number of cars; when people lived in small towns and cities and walked much more. Back then, people got plenty of exercise in their daily activities, but there has since been a sea change from a largely agrarian society to a white-collar workplace. Today, we have very little chance to exercise unless we actually choose to do it. This lack of exercise, along with other factors such as a lack of nutrition and over-exposure to processed foods, has given rise to obesity.

Related: INTERVIEW: 5+Design’s Michael Ellis Discusses How Architecture Can Fight Obesity

Sprawl has also helped create one of the most wasteful societies on the planet. Americans consume the most resources of any country in the world, and sprawl is one of the reasons for this wastefulness. Sprawl means that everything is laid out horizontally, covering large areas, and this immense surface area must be serviced with water and utilities. By using cars to drive through this sprawl—from home to work, to school, to shopping, and back again—we are burning a lot of fuel. Add to that the fact that the sheer number of single-family homes in this sprawl demands a huge amount of resources. If we look at the European model where many people live in apartments, you can start to picture how fewer resources are consumed via that kind of vertical mode of living.

But the biggest effect of sprawl concerns the entire planet. Urban sprawl contributes to climate change as ever-reaching housing developments contribute significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than efficient urban housing. Some might say that renewable energy and green-designed vehicles and homes will save us from inevitable climate disaster, but I disagree: I believe that one cannot simply look at the efficiencies gained from green technology. One must also consider the increasing global population, which is demanding an ever-increasing amount of resources. Additionally, many developing societies, like China, are adopting the American style of suburban development and thus end up using even more resources.

Related: Amazing Interactive Map Shows Carbon Footprint of all 31,000 U.S. ZIP Codes

My last point is that with our increasing population, we will not be able to house everyone in single family homes in sprawling suburbs, but we should instead turn to the increased density found in vertical urban housing for efficient, eco-friendly housing. The good news is that there is currently a resurgence in urban living as more people are realizing that they don’t want to spend the whole day driving and would rather live in a more central setting where they can walk to most amenities.

So, what is the solution to American sprawl? Academics can generally agree on anti-sprawl as the answer: living in denser urban living arrangements of apartments and townhomes within easy walking distance of work, schools, shops, and restaurants is the more efficient route to take. There appear to be several real issues with this, though:

  • Would most people want to leave their suburban single-family home and move to an urban village?
  • What do we do with our sprawling suburban areas?
  • Do we just desert them or do we convert them to urban villages?
  • If so, how would we go about converting them?

It’s a major expense to convert from suburban to urban communities. We as a society will have to deal with all of these issues and more, both now and in the future, as we certainly can’t continue to consume vast resources forever. Fossil fuel supplies are finite. Someday our reckoning will come and the question is, will we be prepared for the new reality?

+ Green Harmony Design

All images via Shutterstock

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