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Suburban Sprawl to Smart Growth – Shifting the American Dream

by Yvette on October 8, 2009 · 18 comments

in Philosophy,Urbanism

Yvette is interning with us this fall and will be writing regularly on planning issues. We ask our regular readers to reward her with their expertise and opinions in the comments.

A McMansion, three cars, and spacious back yard in the suburbs, is this the American Dream or the American suburban sprawl nightmare?

Suburban sprawl is the development of land into sparse one family housing developments, significantly reducing open space and the natural aesthetics of the land while creating a society dependent upon cars for transportation. It is an epidemic that has affected our country since the start of the industrial revolution. As a wave of new immigrants became city residents, wages rose and those who could moved into the suburbs in search of what they considered to be enhanced quality of life. This suburban migration has become a modern day rite of passage to success.

In short suburban sprawl effects:
1. Environment
-Runoff, air pollution, global warming, groundwater recharge
2. Farmland
-Poor food systems, loss of aesthetics, reduced farming culture and a lack of diverse landscapes
3. Biodiversity
-Destruction of habitat and species extinction
4. Quality of life
-Increased traffic, poor air quality, isolation from neighborhood

I think we all know examples of suburban sprawl. I grew up in a small suburban town in New Jersey where the average home sits on an acre of land. My parents have lived in the same home for over 25 years, and we still don’t know our neighbors. We are completely dependent upon car transportation. If I walk around my neighborhood, there are no sidewalks, and I only see other homes. I’m sure this picture of my town paints a similar image for others across the country. While this is no longer a lifestyle I subscribe to, I couldn’t imagine my parents living another way, and I’m sure the same goes for millions of other people. However, this way of life is unsustainable and change is necessary if we are going to avoid further environmental damage.

As a solution to suburban sprawl we can opt for smart growth. Smart growth allows for more densely populated communities, mixed land use, and communities with character. It encourages less driving, transit oriented development, minimizes impervious ground and it maximizes groundwater recharge. It also allows for beautiful green and open land that can be used for recreational purposes, farmland, or simply for aesthetics, like Central Park in NYC. It reduces pollution because it gives its residents the opportunity to walk to a friend’s house or to the store opposed to being dependent upon a vehicle for transportation.

A recent example of the adoption of smart growth is Tysons Corner in Virginia. In September 2008, after 3 years in development, a plan was approved for this small suburb of DC to evolve from a traditional, car dependent, land consuming suburb to a modern green city dependent upon the gift of non-motorized and public transportation as well as smart land use while enhancing culture and living conditions. I’m so excited to see that changes are happening and people are beginning to reach outside the realm of traditional planning and development.

While I adore the idea of smart growth, I don’t live in a bubble. I realize that millions of people have invested their lives in attaining this version of the American dream, and I know that dream isn’t going to change to smart growth over night. There are hints of change throughout the country and even locally. The Delaware Valley Planning Commission launched a smart growth program this year in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties but we still have a long way to go. How do we further the revolution when this sprawling version American Dream is so ingrained in our culture? What is the best way to encourage smart growth? How strong do you think the resistance to this idea will be? Will people be willing to shift their lifestyle simply by understanding the stakes or will we need government mandates and incentives to encourage change?

Tell me what you think in the comments.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

There also isn't much conversation to be had here . . . at least not with us. So come on over to the Postgreen Homes Blog and tell us what you think of our new(ish) digs and crazy ideas. We will be sure to tell you what we think of your opinion.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Land Ethics- And Idea of the Past or a Solution for the Future? | 100K House Blog
November 2, 2009 at 11:03 am
The Blame Game… Who’s Accountable for Pedestrian Deaths? « UCLA Extension Public Policy Program Blog: The Stuff You Might Have Missed
August 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ramsey October 9, 2009 at 11:03 am

“It is an epidemic that has affected our country since the start of the industrial revolution.”
Epidemic? Woa…be careful in how you encourage the suburbanites to the city core.

My wife and I like the idea of what urban living can offer, but there are some serious issues that exist.
1) Few families – We are quite independent, but the idea our kids not having a community is very discouraging.
2) Schools – More often than not, the schools associated with urban areas do not compete well with suburban schools
3) Perceived Safety – I need to look into crime rates by zip code, but suspect that the urban core still leads crime over suburban sprawl.

My family moved from perhaps the largest suburban sprawl know to man, Orange County California. I couldn’t stand the lack of culture and diversity. However, there are reasons for the success of suburban neighborhoods and its not so that they can increase traffic and destroy biodiversity. I suspect it is for reasons similar to above. In addition, they are not areas of isolation, quite the opposite, there are few places that see less action of teaming kids and activities than a suburban cul de sac. Suburban neighborhoods offer consistency, predictability and managed environments.

Until urban proponents can remedy the above issues, I don;t see the suburban sprawl going away. I didn’t like it, but I think I understand why it is winning.

2 GreenBuildinginDenverdotcom October 11, 2009 at 12:49 am

Once again the 100k discussion touches on the same issues we are dealing with here in Denver. In fact, Denver City Council votes this Monday to ratify a certain “Light Rail Station Area Plan”.

The City Planning staff reached out to the stakeholders in the neighborhood adjacent to a nine year old light rail station to help develop a plan for the future. No significant station area redevelopment had occurred yet, so they felt that the zoning codes within 1/2 mile of the station needed tweaking before much would/could happen.

Most of us who have studied the sprawl problem were in favor of the urbanization of this industrial and residential neighborhood. However, in many other areas of town there is pushback and a desire to hold the status quo of single family homes on large lots. It’s as if the opponents still cling to the ideals of the 50′s — the last time the zoning codes were updated.

In this century, the nuclear family ideal of the 50′s just isn’t as common as it was then. Under 25% of our households have the traditional Mom, Dad, and 1+ kids, so naturally housing in the future should be different than it was in the 50′s.

This really is happening all over the country wherever a rapid transit system has been installed. The train is just the catalyst for a more sustainable urban environment.

The “Station Area Plan” concept is a pretty common way to approach the problem, and once the zoning is adjusted to match the plan, property values may spike up a little bit.


In Denver, many neighborhoods near the urban core have been revitalized with young families. Young couples have done poptops and additions to bring the housing stock up to acceptability. Then once they started having kids, the elementary schools’ performance also has been improved through “brute force” parent involvement, and just the sheer volume of bright and enthusiastic kids. The middle schools are still lagging, and many parents don’t let the kids go to them, but they should improve soon.
For more info:

3 Paul Joice October 12, 2009 at 7:38 pm

Hi Yvette,

You ask what can be done to further advance the goals of smartgrowth, and you are your own answer. There are a lot of positive trends towards more sustainable communities, including the new developments in Washington DC, where HUD, DOT and EPA are collaborating to help federal programs promote smartgrowth. But more promising is the fact that the market is shifting. People finally want smartgrowth. Changing demographics (like more active seniors and fewer family households) are a big part of it, but so is the work of people like yourself who make the case day in and day out for more sustainable development. So in short, keep up the good work.

The one major challenge I will point out is the ever-present density battle. There’s really no way around it; sustainable communities cannot be built at low densities, and a large part of our country was built at low density. Redevelopment that increases density, especially around transit-accessible or walkable cores, is essential for more smartgrowth. But that’s a very tough fight. When it comes to redevelopment of existing neighborhoods, most people only care about traffic and safety, and when you talk about building more dense housing in their neighborhood, they don’t like it. To overcome this hurdle, here are a couple ideas that smargrowth advocates need to be able to articulate:

1. The people who are added to transit-oriented and walkable developments don’t drive at the same rate as those in typical suburbs, so increasing density doesn’t always increase traffic.

2. Bringing in more people brings with it more of a market for the amenities that make neighborhoods wonderful.

3. There are two constituencies: those that live in a neighborhood currently, and those that will live there in the future. The job of planners and other visionaries is to balance the two, but current residents generally only care about themselves. There’s no easy way to do this, but smartgrowth advocates need to work with current residents and keep them from reflexively opposing positive changes.

Thanks for focusing on this important issue, and good luck!

4 RitaF October 13, 2009 at 11:27 am

Yvette, welcome aboard.

We also live in a neighborhood like your parents of single-family, one acre, three car garage homes but find it so much more than could ever be offered by living like cattle in a pen.

We have lived here for a dozen years and everyone in the neighborhood gets along superbly. We enjoy seasonal picnics and regular activities with neighbors that we actually know. Wives walk, jog and shop together; husbands golf, BS and do guy things together. Our kids go to safe public schools where the success rate is one of the best in the state.

Shops are nearby within walking distance. Yet spread throughout the community are acres and acres of farmland.

Compared to high density Philadelphia, as an example, most of the homes are extremely energy efficient and we have more green per acre (where runoff doesn’t flow into a combined sewer systems) than most of the city.

As far as transportation I would venture that a higher percentage of our residents work in the immediate area (meaning they do not commute long distances) than what is experienced in Philadelphia.

I lived in the city for many years. The people in my apartment house were just noise behind doors with newcomers coming and going regularly with nobody wanting to get involved. People didn’t get out in a fashion to really interact. I didn’t have a car because I couldn’t put up with the hassle of finding a parking space. Needless to say the lack of supermarkets made week to week living a real chore not to mention the rip off prices one ended up paying at local bodegas.

I saw your suburban sprawl effects and beg to differ.

In our community we have less run off than most of Philadelphia with the bulk of rainwater going back into the ground. The acres and acres of grass and trees as well as farmland clean the air. More people in our neighborhood go to buy produce from the local farmers than go to supermarkets. And the so called isolation you speak of is a product of dull people and nothing more. Last weekend our neighborhood had an outside movie theater in yes, a cul-de-sac, so that neighbors & kids could have a fun evening.

I forgot to add that nobody has been shot or stabbed in many, many years and that sure beats the daily carnage in good olde Philly.

Bottom line is that by not pushing the number of people that live on each acre beyond reason the people and land can live in balance where with good stewardship there is a level of sustainability. Trees, plants, produce and animals flourish where I live yet at any next inner city redevelopment project the bulk of the grass is covered by concrete people are not safe at night and the overall neighborhood becomes a trash can for everyone not responsible for their little piece of earth.

Somehow I think the definition of suburban sprawl is incorrect and the focus instead should be on individual lifestyle management. When people start taking care of their surroundings (in the suburbs, in the country or the city) then wherever they live will become a place where a healthy balance can be achieved.

Good luck on your new assignment.

5 Nic Darling October 13, 2009 at 2:39 pm

The problem I see with many of the defenses of suburban sprawl is that they are anecdotal and inwardly focused. Rita may live in an idyllic neighborhood of tree lined streets and happy neighbors. That is wonderful for Rita, but the effect of that kind of development on a broader level can be devastating.

A suburban neighborhood might be a nice looking place, but the divided highway, strip mall, box store wastelands that sort of car-oriented development spawns are some of the most hostile and unfortunate we create. The lawns on a cul-de-sac may drain well but the acres of parking lots developed around the retail outlets and work places that serve that population don’t . . . unless it is into the damaged wetlands on which they sit. Suburban developments have eaten up the arable land that once provided food to our cities. That which is left is a fraction of that which once was, and this mismanagement has led to a reliance on distant food sources and unsustainable growing practices. The overall impact of this sort of development practice cannot be described by the insulated experience of one, two or even a hundred families.

Many of the problems that both Rita and Ramsey brought up regarding urban living find their cause in our glorification of suburbia. I think Ramsey put it best when he said, “Until urban proponents can remedy the above issues, I don’t see the suburban sprawl going away.” Therein lies the problem. We have a huge portion of our society (non-urban proponents) who have no interest in solving the problems of our urban environments. Their money, expertise and energy are instead devoted to perpetuating irresponsible development (even if inadvertently). Sure, if the schools were better or if crime were lower or if the parks were nicer, they might move to a denser, more sustainable neighborhood, but how can any of that positive change happen without their buy-in. (This sounds like another post in the works so I’ll drop it for now).

But in the end, this isn’t about urban vs suburban necessarily. It is about growing smarter. Simple population studies will tell you that we need to build denser (not necessarily cattle pen dense but . . .). Common sense will tell you that a cul-de-sac is a selfish construction, cutting lines of walkability for large groups of people. Prices of food in the coming years will put an exclamation point on the importance of local production.

And I’m done with my long-winded rant . . . for now.

6 Yvette October 14, 2009 at 11:09 am

Thank you everyone for the comments. I think this is important discussion and I’m happy to learn from everyone’s point of view.

I agree with Nic, this isn’t about urban vs suburban its about developing our communities to be sustainable, safe, and livable for future generations.

I don’t hate the suburbs and I can understand why Ramsey and Rita have opted to live there, especially since Ramsey lives in Orange County. While I personally prefer an urban lifestyle I know it isn’t for everyone. I’m not suggesting we abandon the suburbs along with the idyllic lifestyle Rita along with so many others desire. I’m suggesting we infuse aspects of smart growth in the suburbs. Smart growth is a great way to revitalize neighborhoods and enhance citizen mobility and overall quality of life. It isn’t a sentence to the dangerous and congested city that some have described it to be.

An example of infusing smart growth in the sprawling suburbs is Edison NJ. I think its important moving forward that we learn from the development errors of the past, listen to everyone’s lifestyle needs and desires, and move forward to a sustainable future.

7 Ramsey October 14, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Nic and Yvette, I am not a suburban proponent nor am I glorifying it, I’m a pragmatist.

Just to be clear, We moved OUT of Orange County for the reasons I stated. Our move was not prompted because we came to the realization that we were a scourge on the land or thoughts of idealistic environmentalism.

We chose to move to a small mountain town. Park City has more of a small community setting, exercise and recreation, good schools for our children and diverse points of view. We enjoy the culture of the Sundance Film Festival and other arts and music events. We feel a strong connection to nature and the environment. We joined a CSA upon moving here and started to grow some of our own food as well. I work from home and have reduced my footprint significantly. I tell you this because when we moved we could choose almost anywhere since I would be working from home. Those factors I outlined in my previous post are real and used by many people when moving to new communities. I am willing to do my part, I think I am to some regard. However, it is not realistic to think that people need to “buy in” or as GreenBuildinginDenverdotcom said “brute force” the change in urban settings or sustainable neighborhoods.

We will not force people into situations for which they are uncomfortable or where they perceive risk. In developing products for industry, I quickly realized that you must address needs and wants while innovating for the greater good. The criticisms of urban environments must be addressed and compromise must be meet. That is how change happens in our country, not by idealistic rhetoric.

8 Chris October 15, 2009 at 11:49 am

This idea that somehow the Earth can’t support more population growth without going vertical is quickly discredited by hopping on an airplane and flying hundreds (or thousands) of miles in any direction. Nothing but open space as far as the eye can see. There is plenty of space on this planet for everyone to enjoy blue sky and a little elbow room. It just takes creative thinking, and technology will play a huge role. Better energy efficiency and resource management. More efficient transportation. And perhaps most importantly, the reduction of this archaic need to trudge to city center skyscrapers just to type on computers and talk on phones all day. Many of us are information worker now, not factory workers. Yet we still subscribe to the factory worker mentality. In the information business I can do the same work from, say, Bozeman, Montana that I can in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Yet here we all are, millions of us, hopping into metal transporters that carry us many miles through congestion-clogged concrete arteries to human worker compartments (err…cubicles) where we “plug in” for the day. Bizarre. It’s like bad sci-fi come true.

9 Goran October 17, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Interesting discussion. Personally, I have a hard time working from home because I need the 9-5 face to face interaction with people.

I lived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn a long, long time ago. Despite loving the city, I was glad to leave Sunset Park because of the horrible schools and crime. Today the neighborhood is transforming itself from a gang infested ghetto to a desireable place to live, because of the heavy influx of Chinese and Mexican residents. I’ve seen other blighted communities turned around the same way, with the support of a single “sponser” group, either ethnic or political. New Haven, CT, Providence, RI.

To create the kind of change Nic is suggesting takes effort from everyone in the community, and that requires a strong human instinct like our tendency to join groups.

The other, universally successful, way I’ve seen of building up a community is to improve the school system. I have a 5 month old daughter, and I can tell you the quality of the public school system is a very strong attraction for residents. Look on “”, find the top rated (10) school districts, and compare the real estate values to other areas right next door. Sometimes they’re double. The communities may have started out as “sprawl” at some point, but because of the strong attractor of schools, people maintain the community, rebuild the homes, improve the infrastructure. People that raise families make a great backbone to a neighborhood.

So, build the schools, and they will come, or attract an ethnic or political minority.

10 buy aion kinah October 22, 2009 at 3:58 am

Nic and Yvette, I am not a suburban proponent nor am I glorifying it, I’m a pragmatist.

Just to be clear, We moved OUT of Orange County for the reasons I stated. Our move was not prompted because we came to the realization that we were a scourge on the land or thoughts of idealistic environmentalism.

11 buy aion kinah October 26, 2009 at 5:15 am

Interesting discussion. Personally, I have a hard time working from home because I need the 9-5 face to face interaction with people.

12 Lawrence April 13, 2010 at 5:18 am

Lol you are saying suburban living causes global warming? China uses far more public transportation than the US and yet its cities are some of the most badly polluted CO2 emitting areas in the world. In fact, Obama is thinking about imposing sanctions on them until they can get their CO2 emissions under control. I see a lot more green in my suburban neighborhood than in New York City. In fact, I think the front yards in my neighborhood alone are home to more grass than all of central park. Also, I live on a lake in a suburban neighborhood. There are friggin pelicans and seagulls and ducks and cranes and egrets and swans and all kinds of birds and fish life that flourish there. Do pigeons count as wildlife? I guess new york isnt doing so bad if they do. Statistics show that low density housing sprawl is much better for the environment at large than high density urban living.

13 Paul Joice April 13, 2010 at 12:15 pm


Send me an email with these “statistics” that show that low density housing is better for the environment. As someone who works with statistics in the field of urban planning, I would be happy to tell you why they’re wrong.

Here’s a short version: “There are a lot of old people in Florida. Florida is sunny and has a lot of hurricanes. Statistics show that hurricanes and the sun make people old.” This logic is comparable to yours.

14 Audrey Bottomly June 30, 2010 at 1:08 am

Durham, NC is restoring and redoing a bunch of old brick former tobacco buildings as lofts and Carborro, NC has mixed use buildings as well. Carborro is a great example of how people can live in neighborhoods but still super close to shops and walk and ride bikes everywhere. I loved living there! There was an atmosphere of space and urban life.

15 Kris December 9, 2010 at 8:33 am

Ah, once again another environmental discussion that gets polarized into a “this is the solution”. I am in the camp of people that hates seeing poorly designed development whether it is in an urban, suburban, or rural setting. The problem is not so easily solved by just saying “build urban” because it is the most sustainable. The solution is making sustainable choices wherever someone decides to live or build. To me, one of the biggest points of sustainability (though certainly not the only one) is being able to work near where you live. This challenge is greater because of dual career households. I think the assumption made in the post and in the comments about the stereotypes of suburban or urban living are just that, assumptions. Urban development is unsustainable if it is not planned well with adequate public transportation (greatly lacking in our urban area…but slowly improving), good schools, and safe neighborhoods. Surburban development is unsustainable if it continues to resist doing mixed zoning areas so that it can create smaller “communities” in which people can walk or bike safely. Many 1st ring suburbs in our area have small business zones mixed with residential but that model is dropped as you go further out. I think governmental cooperation is important. Having “mixed” development also increases the chance that people will find housing close to their work place. I think we should look at what works well in urban settings and push for that to be our stanndard and look at what works well in suburbs and push for that to be a standard. Neither type off development is the answer by itself.

And, frankly, I think the best path to sustainability no matter where people opt to live is education which Postgreen has done well. Teaching developers that they can build smarter and more sustainably and still be profitable is so needed. Educating homeowners when they buy such houses how this improves their lives and the environment is key. Getting local governments to balance development in their community with efficient transportation, work opportunities close to home, well supported schools, well designed green spaces in addition to addressing poverty, affordable housing, crime and other issues that destroy a community is key.

It doesn’t necessarily matter where people builda community, it matters how they build a community.

16 Mark August 1, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I have a difference of opinion on the matter. People move out of the city because there is too much crime, and we don’t want to have to take our children to the park to play. City Playgrounds are where children are picked up, murdered, or eyed up by weirdo’s. I would much rather keep my child safe in my own back yard playing with select friends that I am comfortable of him playing with, as opposed to listening to the foul mouth litter language of children with irresponsible parents. I don’t know my neighbors either, but guess what- I am fine with that. I would prefer to live in a farm house on 10 acres where I can rev up the motorcycle, enjoy snowmobiling, four-wheeling, or bicicyling down dirt paths out into the field or trails in the woods. Bicycling down a paved abandoned railroad right-of-way is anjoyable seeing the views of farmland, tractors, trees, and animals. This is my American Dream not riding in soms concrete tunnel on a subway train crowded full of people all sporting earbuds, scribbling on I-Pads or texting on their phones. That to me is hell. Your idea of forcing it with Mandates and Government regulation just demonstrated how when the left has idealogies or opinions that they desire, they want to shove it down the throats of everyone whether we agree or not. Thef left have no consideration for the opinions and views of people who don’t think like them, and quite frankly, I am sick of it. If you want to live in the concrete jungle, then go ahead, but leave those who do not share that opinion alone.

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