Probably to most counter intuitive, counter productive, inefficient and unhealthy ramifications of the social developments of the previous two centuries is the increasing tendency of urban sprawl. Each an every one of us in developed western communities have seen at least one advertisement regarding some new suburban development, where you can own a nice patch of land with sweeping views, fresh air and only a short drive from business district areas! Sounds great doesn’t it? Give it a decade and your view is replaced with the neighbour’s second floor and the short drive to work becomes a long painful creeping journey, nose to tail and immersed in the fumes of idle engines. Give it a decade and you’ll soon be watching the next new development and wanting to move there for the sweeping views and easy commute into work. This is arguably the life of urban sprawl.
We want the personal patch like we want that burger…
… and it’s potentially just as unhealthy. Overman et al. (2008) demonstrates that the relationship is, however, a difficult one to truly assess, where they concluded that it is likely that people prone to obesity are inclined to favour sprawling neighbourhoods rather than the opposite – that urban sprawl tends to cause an increase in body mass index (BMI) – that is concluded in a number of other papers. Of course, when looking at human motivators, results are hard to conclude, due to the various nature and nurture influences on the individual level, however, the majority of work (including the previously mentioned paper) do find a general increase in BMI in sprawling neighbourhoods compared to none sprawling areas. Urban sprawl is typified by suburbs of low-density, relatively homogeneous residential living (Frumkin, 2002, and, Ewing et al. 2003). In these sprawl areas, walking to the services is less likely than in older mixed use neighbourhoods, more or less due to this separation from services (Ewing, 2003).
A review of much of the literature demonstrates a fair amount of debate regarding the physical and mental health aspects associated with urban sprawl (see Brueckner and Largey, 2008), however, I agree that the detrimental impacts out weight the benefits of such low-density homogeneous suburbs (see Frumkin, 2002). Locally, such sprawling suburbs areas were, until recent decades, rural agricultural land. The reduction in profitability of agricultural land is arguably the result of cheap imports discussed in previous sections, while the profitability of landscape for residential use is quite likely the result of cheap fuel and the continuing desire for open space living. This is based on the observed population growth throughout the Mt Lofty region although public transport has not significantly improved (in fact train services are currently not in use). As a result, much of the most fertile land on the Adelaide plains and into the Mt Lofty region are now under concrete slabs. Although Brueckner (2000) states similar, while ending on the note that it is unlikely that there will be a significant loss of agricultural land, I would agree, but only on a global scale and one that superficially reflects quality of ecological services and production of remaining primary production.
Although, like BMI results, there is general consensus that there are many benefits to open spaces and that of personal fitness, sprawl obviously reflects a lifestyle that leads to a reduction of diverse open space and encourages personal vehicle use rather than personal fitness benefits of public transport, bicycle use and walking (Brueckner, 2000, Frumkin, 2002, Smil 2009, ). When one includes the loss of fertile agricultural land, ecological loss and fragmentation, water quantity and quality security concerns, continuous population growth, peak oil and commuter congestion (and related pollution regarding both exhaust and tyre wear), it’s not difficult to come to a conclusion that sprawl is unsustainable and impractical.
In a number of the referenced papers, there is also mention that typically related infrastructural costs and driving related health cost are ignored in the development of new suburbs. That is to say, the true cost is often greater than the advertised sales cost of new property and one that is somewhat dispersed among the great population.
Such costs might dull the vivid sunset glow on the posters.
For as much as we all seem to appreciate the tranquillity of open spaces, we lose this when we’re all there together. For as much as we yearn for an escape, the further we move, the more time we find ourselves stuck in traffic, wishing ever more loudly for a holiday. For as much as we long for that patch, we all too often find ourselves looking up at our neighbour staring down at us and our kids from their second story window.
We want space and we want easy transport options to work, services and for leisure purposes. Most people would happily agree that preservation of natural environments should be on the cards. I personally feel that this is all possible, while we begin to address the problems associated with the use of fossil fuels and continue population growth, without major political regulation. We just need to change our attitude.