Human activity has fundamentally altered the
natural world in countless ways. Geologists and environmental scientists alike
are consistently looking at the various aspects of our environment that are
suffering under humanity’s watch. And although issues such as climate change
and air pollution tend to get the bulk of media coverage in regards to
environmentalism, we shouldn’t overlook similar topics such as urban sprawl.
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Today, more people live in cities than in rural areas for the first time in history. This has led to the practice of systemic urbanization, which is relatively new. While major cities certainly existed before the 1920s, it was during this decade that urbanization truly took hold. And once urban streets were literally cemented in place, it helped shape the future of urban sprawl.
Considering the Merits and Pitfalls of Urbanization
From a geological standpoint, the effects of urban sprawl are easy to spot. Urban geologists around the world have noted various environmental issues that are a direct result of urbanization. Land erosion is common in urban areas, for example. What’s more, soil erosion often causes a cascade effect wherein cities are more vulnerable to floods and potential groundwater contamination.
Urban sprawl has also left a variety of social problems in its wake, including unequal housing opportunities. As the subject of urbanization thus encompasses multiple disciplines, so do potential solutions to its negative effects. In recent years, so-called “smart growth” initiatives have gained traction as a viable means of addressing urban sprawl.
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Smart growth focuses on securing affordable housing opportunities, encouraging neighborhood beautification while avoiding gentrification. The preservation of historic architecture is also a vital part of smart growth, alongside improving community diversity and quality of life. Of course, the environment also benefits greatly: the ultimate goal of smart growth land development strategies is to preserve natural land and conserve resources.
Mixed land usage is a cornerstone of smart growth plans. Rather than investing in areas that are zoned for single-use, whether residential or commercial, proponents of smart growth focus on mixed-use. In mixed-use zoning, apartments and other residential spaces exist alongside businesses, strengthening communities while streamlining land usage.
Yet mixed land-use and smart growth can’t exist in a vacuum. To effectively combat the negative repercussions of urban sprawl, we must also acknowledge certain economic and social factors. For starters, you pay much more to live in a city than a rural community or small town.
Food is typically more costly in urban grocery
and convenience stores, while commodities such as gas, entertainment, and
parking also command a higher price tag. Lower-income residents may even find
that they are denied a home loan for a pricey urban dwelling,
only to qualify for a cheaper rural property. Therefore, to combat the spread
of urbanization, affordable housing programs should be prioritized.
The Connection Between the Environment and Your Daily Life
Investing in affordable housing and community wellbeing can help preserve natural spaces, but other factors must be taken into account. Across the U.S., public transportation in urban areas is frequently inadequate, with cars still the nation’s most-utilized form of transportation, by a wide margin. While the numbers may have altered slightly in the wake of the pandemic, before the COVID-19 outbreak, personal vehicles were used for a full 87% of daily trips.
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The continued dominance of personal vehicles over public transportation has a detrimental effect on the air we breathe. And make no mistake: poor air quality is as much of a public health issue as it is an environmental one. By encouraging the use of carbon-neutral forms of transport such as bicycles, especially for short trips, or public transportation, fewer greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. Not only that, the public health of the community is cyclically increased by both exercise and improved environmental conditions.
In cities across the nation, urban sprawl and the use of personal vehicles go hand-in-hand. The resulting air pollution is just one of the myriad environmental implications of urbanization, alongside groundwater problems and land erosion. Urban sprawl also perpetuates housing inequality. As such, it’s our duty as scientists and global citizens to find viable solutions, such as smart city initiatives and improved roadways that prioritize efficient, affordable, and eco-friendly public transportation.