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Urban Sprawl

What is Urban Sprawl?

Urban sprawl is widespread development outside city centers, usually on previously undeveloped land. Also called suburban sprawl, urban sprawl is often created by developing farmland, forests, and wetlands. It is characterized by having few people per acre, homes that are separate from commercial and industrial areas, and branching street patterns.

Why is Urban Sprawl a concern?

Urban sprawl results in increased dependence on automobiles and other vehicles, and high energy and water use. Urban sprawl often does not support the use of public transportation. Because homes are spread out and separate from places of work, stores, and services, residents must usually drive for all their travel.

Urban sprawl can cause increased traffic, worsening air and drinking water, threats to groundwater supplies, high rates of polluted runoff, and increased flooding. Urban sprawl also contributes to longer commutes, high costs of services, and neglected city centers. It can lead to habitat loss for native species in the area, and thus allow more invasive species.

Who is at risk?

People who live and work in suburban areas marked by urban sprawl are at risk for harm from air and water pollution. People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children are at greater risk for illness.

What pollutants are of greatest concern?

The following issues may contribute to pollution in areas affected by urban sprawl:

Reduce your risk

  • Do you live near high-traffic areas?
  • Do you live in an area with smog and air pollution?
  • Do you use well water?

When possible, choose public transportation over driving.
Routinely check your well water for pollution.

  • If your well water has high levels of pollution, contact your local or state health agency. Ask these agencies for information on how to reduce your exposure.
  • If your well water contains chemical levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water advisory levels, consider using bottled water for drinking and cooking. You can also use an activated carbon filtration system or reverse osmosis system.
  • Monitor air quality through the Air Quality Index maintained by the federal government (e.g., by checking the EPA AirNow site). Avoid outdoor activities when air quality is poor.
  • When air quality is poor, choose indoor activities, especially for children with asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Additional Resources

  • Healthy Places by Design
    UNC School of Public Health
    A website for a program that advances community-led action and proven, place-based strategies to ensure health and wellbeing for all.
  • Smart Growth
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Information on development and conservation strategies aimed at protecting human health and the environment, as well as economically strengthening socially diverse communities.
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