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Urban Sprawl: The Importance of a Strong Central City Core

Updated on October 27, 2014
Urban sprawl in northwest Calgary, Alberta.
Urban sprawl in northwest Calgary, Alberta.
Bergen City Norway.
Bergen City Norway.

Man's Greatest Experiment

The metropolitan environment is a very complex network of policies and administrative procedures that are responsible for everything from how many homes are built to how tall a lawn can be. Having reached the status of “metropolitan-hood” is a very prestigious honor for a city because it defines two things about the area: it’s dense and is usually associated with being very progressive. There are over 329 metropolitan areas in the United States alone and most of them have a standard population of over 256 million residents (Stephens and Wikstrom, 3). A metropolitan area is made up of an agglomeration of several adjacent cities. Each city that is represented in the metropolitan area has access to all adjoining cities; thus, making it completely networked from roads to municipalities. Many people relocate to these metropolitan areas to enhance their quality of life; thus, making the metropolitan area such a prime destination for new residents to settle into. However, having bestowed such a high honor also entices the metropolitan area to have many deficiencies; most of the shortcomings are caused by negligence. Many cities in the United States are experiencing a drastic decline in the city center. The main consequence resulting in the drastic decline is urban sprawl. Urban Sprawl is defined as a great exodus out of the central city core, usually uncontrollable, into the fringes of the metropolitan area. It notoriously carries a negative overtone because it is the primary cause for health problems and the United State’s contribution to global warming. Obesity is a common issue regarding to sprawl because of the dependence on the automobile. Urban sprawl is also disreputably controversial because it is an ongoing debate about how the consumer prefers a cheaper, low density neighborhood with a presumed overall better quality of life. Sprawl is considered to be an urban planner’s worst nightmare because it is something that is substandard to the conventional methods of planning. Sprawl is also a very big reason why CO2 emissions are so high. Because “sprawlers” depend on the car as their main means of transportation, all the CO2 that is expelled into the air will harm the environment. Sprawl is also linked to the main reason why metropolitan interstate and local highways are usually congested; thus, making traffic the most time consuming activity in the daily routine of a metropolitan citizen. Urban sprawl has taken root and is now a big part of our American culture; thus, making it very hard for planners to make the central core more attractive for “sparwlers” to relocate. Although the metropolitan area is considered to be prestigious, it still has many disadvantages due to the neglect of inner city revitalization resulting in the manifestation of a substandard central city core.

A Rotten Core

The core of the metropolitan area needs to be the represented figurehead of the region. The importance of the central core is vital because it houses most of the administrative offices that administer the policies across the region. Because the inner core neglects to revitalize itself, the sprawl pandemic will manifest. Urban sprawl occurs mainly because of either the lack of or ineffective administrative policies enacted by the central city. Other reasons do contribute to why sprawl manifests; however, they are deemed insignificant compared to the main contributing factor. The main motives would be that the city is either hesitant to enact policies that will benefit the citizens or too eager to enact policies that will impede its citizens. To give a sense of scale of the municipal range, the metropolitan city is systematically divided into rings and each concentric ring represents different divisions within the region. The core is usually the sector that is most dense and each ring that follows it continues that pattern until it ends at the outskirts of the city. As the rings divides the city and its people, one thing is apparent and that is the overall quality of life because a resident should be “satisfied with the quality of life they enjoy” wherever they are in the concentric ring system (Wikstrom, 24). Because the quality of life is so important, people of the city will fight for their right of choice. However, in the case of sprawl, the quality of life is substandard and that is why these residents choose to leave the city.

San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria talks about increasing the local minimum wage to $13.09.
San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria talks about increasing the local minimum wage to $13.09. | Source
Historical buildings fallen into disarray.
Historical buildings fallen into disarray.
"Mooney Building Supply Company"
"Mooney Building Supply Company"

The Plight of the Unfulfilled Demands

The quality of life in the metropolitan area is a very big concern for most residents. Because the quality of life is associated with various other qualitative variables, it is hard to distinguish a single variable and claim complete dependency on that single variable. When it comes to the quality of life, the metropolitan’s shortcomings have resulted in many “push” factors that force people out of the city which is mainly the cost of living. Urban growth is an inevitable feature in the metropolitan area and the city usually benefit from it because it promotes, obviously, profit/higher standard of living. Growth is usually generalized by the population size. Usually when growth happens, the city will accommodate by providing jobs and reforms to benefit the average citizen. In the last decade, our cities have experienced a drastic increase in population; therefore, bringing the attention of the huge influx phenomenon to of the administrative offices. With the growth phenomenon, many issues tend to manifest from uncontrolled growth and most of the time, the city can not resolve the problem because the city is reluctant to enact anything unless there is sufficient evidence that the resolution will be effective. Fodor explains how growth increases population and all other aspects and that “growth tends to raise local tax rates” (39). Furthermore, taxes are raised mainly because “urban growth place new demands on local resources and divert money away from other important public services” (Fodor, 39-40). Because of the raise in taxes, the quality of life will be slightly altered to because the price of goods and services will be raised. What is also very important to know is that a larger metropolis will “tend to have higher per capita taxes. The bigger the city, the higher the taxes, according to the empirical data, it is unlikely that becoming a larger city will reduce our tax burden” (Fodor, 41). The main concept is that as a city grows, the citizens will demand services that need to be supplied. Because the city is so great, there is a lot of square footage that needs to be accessible to provide such services. It is considerably more difficult to deliver services in a city with a diameter of 10 miles than a city with a radius of 15 miles. The cost to supply such services will cost more; thus, raising the taxes that an average citizen must pay to either get a fire truck 5 miles away or providing spatial green parks that for a community. Taxes are associated with jobs because taxes create jobs for the average citizen to fill. Therefore, Taxes and jobs generate the revenue and regulate the flow of currency within the city. The flow of currency similar to the blood that flows in our own body; however, in this situation, it circulates through the various arteries of the metropolitan area. The city’s problem with taxes is more than just a single problem by itself, because growth doesn’t mean that the city will “grow our way out of the local unemployment problems. Growth just makes the problem bigger” (Fodor, 40). Growth is inevitable because of the huge influx of people who want to become permanent residents to the metropolitan area. But what makes it even harder is that services and funding requires more than just the citizens’ labor. The city will need to monitor growth because the only way to decrease growth in a city will have to be the administration and their policies that they enact to whatever private or public sector. This will enhance the substandard city by having a lower unemployment which is better than having an astronomical percentage of unemployment.

Abandoned house in Detroit.
Abandoned house in Detroit.
Earnest Burgess Zoning Model
Earnest Burgess Zoning Model

Quality of Life Poll

Using the Burgess Model above, how satisfied are you with your quality of life based on your living situation?

See results

A Careless Central Core Promotes Urban Unrest

Uncontrollable growth is presumably the worst pandemic for a metropolitan area. Since the city is reluctant to reform to accommodate the average citizen, the quality of life drastically diminishes. The game of neglect that the inner city often engages in recreation with is a very dangerous practice. With the central metropolis being careless as well as not monitoring the unstoppable growth, the city will lose control the growth of the urban environment. The city is experiencing a recession that will result in the mass exodus of the former residents of the prestigious metropolis. Residents will now seek other places to live because in the central core, their demands were not met. They were suppressed because as residents their right of choice was not met; by sprawling to the fringes of the outermost concentric rings can they choose a better quality of life. However, with choice sprawl occurs and it does impact the natural environment and the urban environment very negatively. The new land development tends to lead to “racial segregation, sprawl destroys a sense of community on a larger scale” (Meredith, 461). The very reason why people move to the fringes is to isolate themselves from the greater whole. The inner core tends to have “increasingly, concentrated pockets of the poor and the elderly, of unemployment, of blight, of outmoded substandard housing and derelict commercial buildings and of crime are found in many of the neighborhoods of our inner-ring suburbs” (Wikstrom, 27). Former residents move away to the fringes because they felt that in the city they were uncomfortable with the other residents because the poor resulted with the city ignoring their demands. Blight negatively impacted the inner city by not having sufficient education as well as the quality of the level of the services that were being delivered. This directly correlates to why the city is responsible for the substandard transformation of the inner city.

Map of St. Louis showing a decade of transitioning of whites out of the central city into the suburbs and the blacks concentrating more and more densely in the central city.
Map of St. Louis showing a decade of transitioning of whites out of the central city into the suburbs and the blacks concentrating more and more densely in the central city.

Location of St. Louis

The Inevitable By-product of Urban Decay: Crime

As crime and other forms of unattractiveness pushes the residents out of the core city, the once former inner city residents will bring forth another problem that will match, it not exceed, the caliber of the preexisting problem. It is unfortunate; however, the only rational thing to depend on if the average citizen decides to move considerably far away from the inner city. Because former inner city residents decide to move into the outskirts of the city, their only means of transportation is the automobile. It is the best and most efficient form of transportation because it allows the citizen to commute anywhere to their liking; however, it is also the most lethal and damaging to the planet. The car is by far the most versatile and most important asset to any citizen in the metropolitan area. However, the car brings forth greater problems that include the space to house them as well as the rising output of carbon dioxide into our air. Sprawl only relies on the car because it is the only form of transportation that allows the citizen to commute back and forth freely. However, that freedom costs a very significant price on the account of the natural environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that “in 1997, motor vehicles emitted over 50 million tons of carbon monizide into the air, over 7 million tons of nitrogen oxides, over 5 million tons of volatile organic compounds, 320 tons of sulfur dioxide, and almost 15 million tons of road dust into the nation’s air” (1). Because the average citizen depends so much on the automobile, it directly effects “the environment in the form of air and water pollution, soil erosion, and increased energy consumption” (Meredith 461). That car increases energy consumption, because it relies on gas which is in turn increased because of the high demand for it. Resources that are also required to pave the road for cars to drive on is also increased because the further the developments are built, the further the roads have to be paved to accommodate the citizens. A lot of resources are used and they all directly impact our environment because all of it requires transportation and labor that will cause a huge output of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Nozzi, states a fact that “cars have gobbled up from one third to one half of all land in U.S. cities” (1). It seems that the citizens of the city are slowly losing the use of their legs because all they would depend on is the car. Living in a sprawl environment forces “the urban dweller to become increasingly depend on the automobile and gradually loses the ‘blindness’ of the lover’s embrace” (Ingersoll, 73). As cars become the main form of transportation, people will have to drive further and longer to the places they want to go to because they live in a sprawl environment. As our lifestyle adapt to fit urban sprawl our “driving times are increasing, road congestion is getting worse, and our lives suffer as a result. Cars may have initially made living easier, but that is no longer the case. They now make our lives miserable” (Morris, 53). With sprawl being such a dependency it is inevitable to believe that the car will become the path to the “Road to Ruin” (Nozzi, Dom). The car which was invented to help us move from point A to point B is now at its extremes, we are in the car so often that our lives are stolen away from us making it a regretful choice to pursue a better quality of life.

"Thin Blue Line" by Michael Stutz. Located in Richmond Virginia in the Monroe Ward District. This piece is a 1,200 lbs stainless steel art installation to symbolize the humanity of the Police Department; however, at the same time to show sternness.
"Thin Blue Line" by Michael Stutz. Located in Richmond Virginia in the Monroe Ward District. This piece is a 1,200 lbs stainless steel art installation to symbolize the humanity of the Police Department; however, at the same time to show sternness.

A Decision Made by No Fault of Their Own

Although, that the facts lead to the destruction of our natural and urban environment, sprawl is really the only rational solution for them. The average citizen chooses to relocate from the inner city because they are in search of their sacred quality of life. The choice that they are offered when they move into the outskirts is considerable better than the choice they are offered in the core. There is definitely a wider variety of options for the residents because there is just so much land. Developers can accommodate the “sprawlers” better than the city can. Citizens choose to leave the inner city because they feel that the city was too substandard and felt that their demands were not delivered. Wikstrom, believes that “other scholars, while acknowledging that sprawl does result in some inconveniences and higher transportation costs per household, have argued that sprawl is simply the latest manifestation of the onward march or urbanization and that it serves, through the market, to enhance the overall quality of the lives of many of our metropolitan citizens” (33). The concept of an evolution of the city is a very common belief because it is a rational one. The metropolitan area is a huge region, because the name obviously gives the size of the city away. The huge influx of residents and business will cause the city to grow, mainly because everyone wants to have a stake of it. The city has grown to such a huge place; it is inevitable that the city will grow out of its existing boundaries. Wikstrom continues about how that because of the choice that the residents made “the less dense American metropolitan areas have a higher quality of life” (33). It is true in a different perspective because it shows that the people who moved away from the central core did it because they know the consequences of living further away from the inner city. Usually, the people who move away are richer than the average citizen and can afford to live that kind of lifestyle. The metropolitan city is a network of relationships, “the commercial districts of the city interact with suburban employment centers, and the manufacturing areas typically found along the fringes of the metropolitan area interact with residential neighborhoods large and small” (Bogart, 1). Because of the dependencies one affects the other and that kind of relationship shows a sense of symbiotic network. The city is an organic creature because the citizens made it that way. The city is run by the people who inhabit it and they are the ones who manage to make the city expand and what not. The dependence on each other shows that the city is dynamically active, “everyday, people and goods move throughout the city. Over time, the vary structure of the city evolves. Trending places is an active phrase, reminding us of the kinetic nature of the metropolitan areas” (Bogart, 16). It is rational to make the deduction that as any dynamic organism, growing is an inevitable biological advancement. The growth is considered to be similar to of Wikstrom’s concept because both associates sprawl as an eventual transformation.

Cross Section of Quality of Life in a Typical City
Cross Section of Quality of Life in a Typical City | Source

Leaving a Habit Unchecked...

Another eventual transformation will be the very planet that all of the metropolitans exist on. If sprawl were to continue on, the natural and urban environment will be the cause of the planet’s demise. If all citizens of the inner city decide to invest in sprawl, globally, the planet will suffer tremendously because of the astronomical amount of CO2 that will be released into the atmosphere. Based upon both sides of the spectrum of opinions about sprawl, the moral and ethical reasoning only circulates but produces no solution. However, in the modern age, the one thing that halts sprawl would be global warming. Because of the increased carbon dioxide output into our air, it is rational to try to relocate closer to diminish the use of the car. Because sprawl focuses mainly on the car for transportation hundreds and thousands of cars are on the road each day producing tons and tons of pollution. It is predicted from the past that “carbon dioxide emissions from transportation in 1984, which was 32 percent of all carbon dioxide into the air, was 379 metric tons in the United States. It rose to 473 million tons by 1997. From 1996 to 2020, carbon emissions are projected to increase by about 48 percent” (Nozzi, 3). As the car becomes the standard way to commute, it will be harsh on the natural environment because the amount of time the average citizen spends on the road will all be cumulative. The shear number of automobiles that commute highways will increase as time progresses. It is hard to distinguish if the natural environment will ever be saved because sprawl seems to embellish it.

Left unchecked: Mexican "suburb" slums.
Left unchecked: Mexican "suburb" slums.
Left Unchecked: Hong Kong's Kowloon then "Walled City."
Left Unchecked: Hong Kong's Kowloon then "Walled City."
Left Unchecked: Detroit.
Left Unchecked: Detroit.

Blueprint to Build a Better Future

As CO2 increases, urban planners try to work out the best solution for sprawl. Because the matter is so problematic and so unattractive, there is no other alternative but to plan for the greener future. Rationally the best means of an alternative way of living would be to completely abandon sprawling areas and move back into the central city. However, this is easier said than done, urban planners make the city more attractive by incorporating more attractive levels of element into the city. Also, urban planners are now more geared towards a more sustainable environment because they know that the only way to cure the illness of sprawl is to cure the problem from the source, the inner city. The planner will have to design for the people because it is a rule of thumb that if a resident can get out of his or her house and walk 10 minutes to anywhere, then it will reduce the use of the car. The best way to build for the people would be to introduce “people scaled designs” (Nozzi, 109). This way the city will be planned around the average citizen rather than for anyone else. Like Bogart said before, the people are the ones who run the city and that make the city seem like the organism. Usually these “designs includes buildings on smaller lots; mixing different types of housing with parks and commerce; keeping streets narrow, parking lots small, and light poles short; putting buildings close to the street, the sidewalk, and other buildings” (Nozzi, 109). The preservation of the old will supply planners with existing places for residents to move into because the old, such as a warehouse, can be turned into a very modern apartment for people to move into. The word sustainable will be the main term that will be engrained into every upcoming and existing planner’s mind. The main concept is to build for the people as well as for the environment. Because if the planner plan for the average citizen, it will indirectly result in the betterment of the environment because the citizen will not drive to wherever they need to go but rather they will walk or take public transportation; thus, making this the new urbanism movement. To design for a walkable city will be for the betterment of the entire whole. This will create a bigger and more tightly knit community because it will enhance everything. Unlike sprawl, “environmental psychologists have found that people who are integrated into a local community network report fewer symptoms of psychological disturbances than individuals who are socially isolated. Doctors warn that isolation and alienation are risk factors for disease, much like smoking or drinking” (Morris, 49). People will no longer be isolated because sprawl “has dramatically separated the functions of daily life so that even though we are constantly surrounded by swarms of people, the vast majority of them are strangers” (Morris, 47) whereas new urbanism promotes unity and community. From the perspective of the inner city, they will have to undergo a transformation to help reverse the effects of sprawl. The metropolitan city is “the ‘flagship’ of its region, serves as a larger, or regional, community image, or symbol, and provides a nomenclature for outsiders” (Wikstrom, 43). Because the city needs to retain its prestige because the commerce is what brings the city its reputation. The most assuring way of retaining an acceptable inner city administrative policy would be to:

  1. Core city political leaders must exercise strong, imaginative, and resourceful leadership on behalf of policies designed to stimulate job growth, the construction of affordable housing, and revenue enhancement.
  2. States and cities must promote a working political alliance and encourage greater intergovernmental cooperation between core cities and first, or inner, suburbs.
  3. The federal government must strengthen and more adequately fund housing mobility programs that enable residents living in the inner-city concentrated poverty to relocate to neighborhoods of their choice.
  4. Metropolitan areas – working with citizen and civic groups, the regional council, and the area’s jurisdiction – must cooperatively adopt fair and affordable housing polities designed to ensure that all residents have decent housing where they desire to live. (Wikstrom, 44)

Wikstrom believes that the inner city is in dire need of revitalization. He believes that the most important people who can transpire the ideas to reverse sprawl are the political leaders. The government is the soul provider of change and that policies need to be enacted, without hesitation, to assist the average metropolitan citizen. Because housing is such a huge issue, having affordable homes in the inner city will drastically change the image of the core because the government promotes choice for residents. But the government must be the heart that pumps the policies so that they can be enacted to heal certain organs of the metropolitan area. With these strategies, the inner city can reform itself and then make enhancements so that it will promote a greater and more sustainable urban growth.

Arlington Virginia: currently implementing smart growth design as a requirement.
Arlington Virginia: currently implementing smart growth design as a requirement.
"Transit Oriented Development" at work. In Arlington Virginia, take note of the straight route development following WMATA Washington DC Metro Line Orange.
"Transit Oriented Development" at work. In Arlington Virginia, take note of the straight route development following WMATA Washington DC Metro Line Orange.

Conclusion

The neglect that the city often sport around with is dangerous because it caused the city to digress. The negligence comes from the central core by not enacting policies that will benefit the average citizen. They are more reluctant to enforce something that will assist the average citizen because the administration fears the unknown. By not revitalizing the central core of the city, it has caused the metropolitan area to undergo several transformations. The first transformation was the transformation into a metropolitan area, the second would be the transformation into a substandard region; however, the third transformation will be the transformation back to the once prestigious metropolis. Sprawl happened because of the workings of a negligible inner city. The only way to eradicate sprawl would be for the inner city to realize the symptoms so that the city can properly prescribe a remedy to cure the epidemic. In our present day, it is hard to deny that sprawl has a direct relation to the greenhouse gases increasing. The world has proof that such a problem exists and now has become a world wide pandemic. By eradicating sprawl, the city can once again flourish and indirectly remedying the environment as well. It is obvious that the carbon footprint of the citizens of the metropolitan area relates to the decline of our environment. The United States alone has over 300 metropolitan areas, and each one is experiencing a similar situation. The 300 some metropolitan as a whole adds up to an astronomical number in reference to cars and people. A professor at Virginia Commonwealth University stated that “We are the first generation to articulate about global warming, and the last generation to escape its consequences” (Dr. Cindy Kissel-Ito). We are the last chance to make a difference and the environment’s future will solely rest on the shoulders of our generation. That first step in making that journey to preserving the environment is to rehabilitate the metropolitan area and that will directly reduce our carbon footprint as well as enhancing the metropolitan citizen’s revered quality of life.

Future of Karamay City in China.
Future of Karamay City in China. | Source

Work Cited

Bogart, William. Don’t’ Call It Sprawl. New York: CambridgeUniversity. 2006

Fodor, Eben. Better Not Bigger. Canada: New Societies Publishers, 1999.

Ingersoll, Richard. Sprawltown: Looking for the City on Its Edges. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2006.

Kissel-Ito, Cindy. Personal Interview. June 12th, 2008.

Meredith, Jeremy R. "Sprawl and the New Urbanist Solution." Virginia Law Review. 89. 2 (2003) 447-503. 29 may 2008 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3202437>

Morris, Douglas E. It's a Sprawl World After All : The Human Cost of Unplanned Growth -- and Visions of A Better Future.Gabriola Island, BC, CAN: New Society Publishers, Limited, 2005. <http://site.ebrary.com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/lib/vacommonwealth/Doc?id=10089250&ppg=81>

Nozzi, Dom. Road to Ruin. Connecticut: Praeger, 2003.

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