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When Trees Become Publix Stores: What’s the Big Deal?

Urban sprawl in western Las Vegas over the past few decades, image source: Britannica.com

I remember driving through a town I used to live in and how startled I was to see the green lettering of a Publix store pop up on the left. I did a double-take. It hadn’t been long since I’d visited the area, and in that time they’d managed to uproot a large section of forest–for what? Commercial development? The road I was on already was adjacent to a Harris Teeter, and a Walmart, and a Food Lion, only in about the span of a mile. Why was there any need for a fourth grocery store? As I went further into town, I spotted a slew of apartment complexes that I’d never seen before near the historical district. The once small, suburban town I’d lived in seemed to be growing at an unprecedented rate and trying to accommodate more and more people.

Urban sprawl is a growth trend that involves the development of forests, rural and suburban areas, and the outskirts of city centers. It focuses on the expansion of residential and business establishments. However, homes that are created through urban sprawl are generally distanced from commercial and industrial areas, and this separation leads to longer commutes and greater personal vehicle use.

Urban sprawl results in a wide range of negative impacts on the environment and human health. Because this form of urbanization is linked to longer commutes and less public transportation availability, more emissions are produced from travel. The increased dependency on personal vehicles causes more traffic, and greater levels of idling in cars and trucks occur with traffic congestion on streets. The greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants, like volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, produced from this contribute to global warming and the formation of ground-level ozone. In turn, poor air quality resulting from higher concentrations of pollutants and ground-level ozone can cause irritation and exacerbate respiratory issues in people.

Urban sprawl is also linked to more frequent and extreme flooding. Urban sprawl-related developments can reduce areas of permeable ground, land that aids in draining water naturally, and vegetation that helps to absorb water. So when hurricanes hit urbanized areas, they’re able to affect those communities in more damaging ways because of the greater capability for flooding.

Additionally, urban sprawl causes habitat loss, especially from the destruction of forests and rural lands, and it causes habitat fragmentation from branching streets and low-density development patterns. The degradation of animals’ habitats leads to a higher risk of threatened or endangered species, and it forces wildlife into closer contact with humans which contributes to the transmission of zoonotic infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Thus, urban sprawl can be connected to a heightened risk of disease outbreaks and pandemic-level events.

Some methods to combat the detrimental effects of urban sprawl include New Urbanism and smart growth. New Urbanism focuses on revitalizing city centers so that there’s less demand for urban sprawl. This approach to development aims to reduce pollution, to restore deteriorating buildings and infrastructure, to better public spaces, and to improve the quality of life within cities and towns. Smart growth is more of a broad strategy for managing development that helps communities grow sustainably. Smart growth strategies involve making affordable and suitable housing opportunities accessible to all people, creating patterns of development that bring residential spaces closer to commerce, enabling walking as a reasonable means of travel and public transportation usage, strengthening energy efficiency, drawing defined boundaries to protect natural resources and lands, and more.

What can you do about urban sprawl?

  1. Help educate your community about the effects of urban sprawl on the environment, human health, and economy.

  2. Observe and research to become aware of how your community has developed either in an unsustainable or sustainable way.

  3. Lobby your local government to adopt approaches to development that fall under New Urbanism or smart growth, or speak at city council meetings to voice your concerns about urban sprawl-related issues.


Brody, Samuel. “The Characteristics, Causes, and Consequences of Sprawling Development Patterns in the United States.” Nature Education, 2013, www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/the-characteristics-causes-and-consequences-of-sprawling-103014747/.

Maier, Casandra. “Solutions to Solving Urban Sprawl.” Key Biscayne’s Citizen Scientist Project, Key Biscayne Community Foundation, 5 Jan. 2019, www.keyscience.org/solutions-to-solving-urban-sprawl/.

Rafferty, John. “Urban sprawl.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, inc., 7 Feb. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/urban-sprawl. “Rethinking Urban Sprawl: Moving Towards Sustainable Cities.” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, June 2018, www.oecd.org/environment/tools-evaluation/Policy-Highlights-Rethinking-Urban-Sprawl.pdf.

“Smart Growth in Small Towns and Rural Communities.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/smart-growth-small-towns-and-rural-communities.

“Urban Sprawl.” ToxTown, U.S. National Library of Medicine, toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/sources-of-exposure/urban-sprawl#:~:text=Urban%20sprawl%20can%20cause%20increased,services%2C%20and%20neglected%20city%20centers.

“What is New Urbanism?” Congress for the New Urbanism, www.cnu.org/resources/what-new-urbanism.

Photography by Sahil Sethi, Lucy Grossmann, and others
©2020 by SEEC