Land Use And Urban Sprawl

Land use and urban sprawl are major environmental concerns affecting us in a variety of ways. We must adopt sustainable patterns of development which are not self-destructive.

What is Urban Sprawl?

Urban Sprawl

"Sprawl" is the increased use of urbanized land by fewer people than in the past. Traditional cities were compact and efficient, but over the past 30-60 years, the density of land used per person has declined drastically. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population increased 10% since 2000. Between 2000 and 2010, almost every urban area in the country expanded physically. Of the roughly 3,500 urban areas in the U.S., only about 50 shrank in size over the last decade. As the urban population of the country grows, the physical footprint of urbanity can be expected to grow right along with it.

Impacts of Sprawl

1. Loss of Farmland

We're chewing up farms at an alarming rate across the U.S., to create new highways, fringe industrial parks and sprawled housing developments. This loss reduces our ability to grow food, fiber and timber. In many areas, urban development pressure and increased property taxes are forcing farmers out of business. They often sell their farms for housing developments, to provide financial security for their retirement.

Wisconsin Farms -A total of 6,702 acres of farmland were diverted to other uses in 2009, according to the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service. From 1985-2010 Wisconsin lost over 800,000 acres of prime cropland. This number dropped another 1 million acres from 2015-2017, leaving the total at just 911 million acres.

Nationwide: Scientists at the U.S. Forest Service and partners at universities, non-profits and other agencies predict that urban and developed land areas in the US will increase 41 percent by 2060. Forested areas will be most impacted by this expansion, with losses ranging from 16 to 34 million acres in the lower 48 states.

2. Loss of Wildlife Habitat

Wild forests, meadows, and wetlands are also disappearing, replaced by pavement, buildings and sterile urban landscaping. [See Wildlife] The remaining habitat is smaller, degraded and more fragmented, making survival of certain wildlife species very difficult as they try to reach breeding ponds, hibernation sites, feeding locations, or to establish viable nesting areas. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, important habitat types are disappearing. For example:

  1. Grasslands - Wisconsin has only .5% (13,000 acres) of its original grassland ecosystem remaining in a relatively intact condition, but much of this remnant acreage has been degraded to some degree with very few prairies exceeding 50 acres.
  2. Oak Savannas - In the 1800’s, oak savanna once covered more than five million acres in Wisconsin. Now, only a few thousand acres remain, most on private land.
  3. Oak and Pine Barrens - Less than 1% of the pre-settlement oak and pine barren habitat remains.
  4. Shorelands - Degradation of near-shore and shoreline wildlife habitat is increasing with the pace of development, particularly in northern Wisconsin where, since 1960, two-thirds of the larger lakes have been developed, the number of home sites has doubled, and the annual number of permits for sea wall construction has tripled. The WDNR now reviews and processes over 10,000 permits for piers, near shore ponds, and structures each year.
  5. Wetlands - About 47% of Wisconsin's original wetlands have been lost. On the lower Bay of Green Bay, more than 90% of the wetlands are gone.

3. Increased Tax Burden

The costs of providing community services have skyrocketed as homes and businesses spread farther and farther apart, and local governments are forced to provide for widely spaced services. Owners of these dispersed developments seldom pay the full government costs of serving them, forcing the rest of us to subsidize them with higher taxes at the local, state and federal level.

An example: Prince William County, Va., in metropolitan Washington, DC, has the highest property tax rate in the state of Virginia. The cost of providing services to new developments is so high, and the county is experiencing a $1,688 shortfall for every new house built.

4. Increased Air Pollution

Sprawl increases car and truck traffic, leading to major increases in air pollution and smog. Vehicles are the #1 cause of air pollution in many urban areas, and a threat to public and wildlife health. [See Environmental Impacts of Transportation]

5. Increased Water Use and Pollution

Sprawl increases air pollution, which mixes with rain to become water pollution. In addition, urban activities create water pollution directly, through land run-off of construction site erosion, fuel spills, oil leaks, paint spills, lawn chemicals, pet wastes, etc. Sprawled, low-density development produces more than its share of this runoff. [See Non-Point Pollution] In addition, more water is consumed for lawn watering and other landscape activities, straining local water supply systems.

6. Increased Energy Consumption

At a time when we desperately need to reduce our energy use, sprawled developments increase our energy consumption per person, for increased gasoline, home heating, and electricity use. The cost of energy for 50 million people in an urban area is $1.4 billion in energy. [See Energy]

7. Social Fragmentation

Old-fashioned neighborhoods with compact housing, front porches, a corner store, and a school two blocks away were much more conducive to social interactions. It was possible to feel a sense of belonging and community. Now, in sprawled generic housing tracts, many people never meet their neighbors as they pass them in their cars. It's rare for neighborhood events to occur. Families are more isolated and those living alone are marooned in a hostile environment according to Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1993.

8. Loss of Time

Traffic Jam

People are forced to spend more time commuting longer distances to reach their jobs, homes, schools and shopping areas. In a compact, efficient city these travel times are often minimal, but sprawled cities take time to navigate. Suburban tract and country dwellers also spend more time maintaining large, empty residential properties: mowing the grass, plowing long driveways, raking leaves, weeding, etc.

9. Increased Private Costs and Risks

Sprawling business and home owners often fail to realize the long-term personal costs and risks of maintaining distant properties. As property taxes rise to cover service costs, and fuel costs increase for travel and heating large buildings, the owners' budgets may have trouble keeping up. Transportation costs for children and handicapped family members are much greater. As sprawled homeowners age, their large properties become a greater burden to maintain. When they can no longer drive their car, they are stranded. As baby boomers age, large numbers of people will be forced to sell their suburban or country homes to move into the city, creating displacements and possibly lowering the value of expensive homes.
Experts in the building industry indicate cost differences of $5,000 to $20,000 per dwelling are seen for compact developments with 15 to 25 units per acre versus sprawled developments with only five houses per acre. These are overhead and maintenance costs faced by families, beyond the cost of buying or building the home.

10. Loss of Exercise

Sprawled communities force people to drive their cars if they need to get groceries, go to school, or get to work. In the past, cities were structured so many of these destinations were within walking distance. Now, many neighborhoods lack even sidewalks for pedestrians, forcing residents to walk in the street next to the traffic whizzing by. In the past it was normal for kids to walk to school, but now their parents often drive them or they take their own cars. Is it any wonder that an epidemic of obesity is plaguing our country? Walking is the best form of life-long exercise, yet our development patterns actively discourage walking.

11. Degraded, Noisy Surroundings

Helter-skelter sprawl is not attractive, yet many of our transportation corridors are now edged with jumbles of residential, commercial, and industrial developments (and their enormous parking lots), which have no sense of beauty or order. This adds to the stressful, disconnected feelings which urban residents often express. We're losing the "green space" we need as part of our natural heritage. Large areas of noisy, speeding traffic are also not conducive to peaceful communities. Many people want to live in the country to escape this stress, but urban escapees are helping to create these problems instead, as they commute back to the city for work, school and shopping.

12. Tourism Industry Damage

As human developments sprawl into the countryside and wildlife habitat shrinks, we're rapidly losing the scenic qualities that attract tourists to our region. Our country roads are being straightened and widened, or worse yet, converted into four-lane highways (often with additional frontage roads and ugly billboards). Hunters are left with fewer and smaller hunting lands. Anglers are left with crowded, less-appealing fishing sites. This will have direct economic impacts in Wisconsin, tourism generated $20 billion in 2016, more than 193,500 jobs and brought in $1.5 billion in state and local tax revenue.


© Clean Water Action Council

P.O. Box 9144

Green Bay, WI 54308

(920) 421-8885

Office location:
A307 MAC Hall, UW-Green Bay
2420 Nicolet Drive
Green Bay, WI 54311