Urban sprawl is a multifaceted social issue that arose in post-WW2 development of America, wherein cities grew in population size and expanded to lessen population density and accommodate housing for commuters. Urban sprawl was characterized by large intrastate highways, suburbanization, automobile dependence, and single-use land zoning. Although it was a sign of an economically thriving urban environment, urban sprawl poses a serious threat to issues of sustainable land use, public health, and spatial inequality. In my podcast covering the topic, I give a brief overview of the definition of urban sprawl and its history in the United States. I also used information gained from my interview with professor Lemir Teron from the faculty of SUNY ESF to condense the issue of urban sprawl and applied thematic environmental justice concepts to the redevelopment of the I-81 viaduct in Syracuse.
Physiological effects of urban sprawl can be measured by the increased body mass index of residents in areas of high-income inequality and low access to healthy food options. Urban sprawl creates food deserts because there is often little space for grocery stores or food markets. Instead, land use in cities is highly contended and only the most economically viable businesses can sustain themselves in an urban environment or risk being outcompeted by larger chains. Another effect of urban sprawl is the creation of ‘heat islands,’ or an increase in ambient temperature due to a lack of green space and the abundance of heat-absorbing blacktop surfaces. This abundance of blacktop and roads results in reduced impervious cover, in turn increasing the potential for run off and deposition of contaminants in the city. The negative health effects of urban sprawl continue to grow, and more will surely be discovered as the phenomenon continues to be researched. Urban sprawl began in the middle of the 20th century and its consequences have only recently been studied. Therefore, I have cause to believe that more serious health risks will be discovered in association with the effects of urban sprawl, such as an increase in food deserts and prevalence of heat islands.
In speaking with professor Teron, he enlightened me on one of the effects of urban sprawl in our own city of Syracuse, that being the I-81 highway. The viaduct beneath the highway is quite literally crumbling due to poor construction practices and frequent collisions, and it has seen use far past its life expectancy. Not only is the highway technically inefficient but, according to Teron, purposefully runs through a community that experiences high levels of income inequality and is demographically diverse. One of the primary urban infrastructure planners in the 20th century was Robert Moses and he tended to propose highways that ran right through minority communities, such as I-81 in Syracuse.
In evaluating how to address issues of urban sprawl and environmentally unjust urban infrastructure planning, we must be direct and transparent in our goals and the steps to achieving those goals. Redevelopment efforts, and many efforts to improve the health of the environment, sit comfortably behind the frame of ‘sustainability’ without truly defining what is sustainable. This results in stagnation of policy and action. In contrast, we need to employ goals that specifically target individual cities and their unique environmental hazards. Some of these specific frames include “low carbon cities,” “food secure cities,” or cities that can promote “urban resilience.” With more specific and transparent guidelines, we can better approach the communities affected by urban sprawl and their unique struggles with a plan that can target the environmental weaknesses of individual cities.
Overall, the point of my podcast and accompanying article is not to propose one blanket solution to the issue of urban sprawl. Instead, it is a call to action for urban infrastructure planners, environmental justice advocates, and urban communities to work together to redevelop our cities so that we can all live equitably and with equal access to public services.