CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Move It On Over... by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

French geographer Jean Gottmann (1915-1994) studied the northeastern United States during the 1950s and published a book in 1961 that described the region as a vast metropolitan area over 300 miles long stretching from Boston in the north to Washington, D.C. in the south. This area (and the title of Gottmann's book) is "Megalopolis."

Many of your parents grew up in an age when owning a home in the suburbs was what their parents aspired to. I know my parents wanted to fulfill that "American Dream" as much as anyone else. When we finally did move, my siblings and I were farther from our schools so that meant we could no longer walk to school and dad had to drive farther to work, extending his commute by an hour every day. Somehow all of the extra time we spent and gasoline we used seemed worth it. We did however still struggle with walking versus driving and more often than not, we would walk to wherever we needed to be and wouldn't dream of asking dad for a ride. Over the years since, as a society we've managed to move even farther away and now drive just about everywhere. As more and more people are brought into the world, we continue to push the limits of suburbia. Suburbs now have suburbs and suburbs from one urban area butt up against suburbs from another area to form "megacities" (i.e. very large cities). Jean Gottmann described them over 40 years ago.

"Urban sprawl" as it is called, affects almost every urban center. In 1950, seventy million Americans lived in urban areas that occupied roughly 13,000 square miles. By 1990, the urban/suburban population had more than doubled but the area occupied increased by five times to more than 60,000 square miles. Phoenix, Arizona has been increasing in size by an acre an hour, that's about 14 square miles per year. Atlanta, Georgia is already bigger than the state of Delaware! We are also losing farmland, forestland and undeveloped land at an alarming rate of 2 million acres (about the area of Rhode Island and Delaware combined) per year. As the population spreads out across the land, it has to drive farther and farther to places of work, spending extra time in their cars and wasting an estimated $72 billion in time and productivity. And let's not forget that as we move farther away and drive more, we burn more fossil fuel, which adds carbon dioxide to an already overburdened atmosphere.

For some, the "American Dream" is more like a nightmare. The pervasiveness of urban sprawl is used as an excuse by "ecoterrorists" to destroy houses, condominiums, SUVs and anything else that they deem necessary to save the environment. For example, a luxury house for sale in Colorado was burned with gasoline. Some of these terrorist acts have even been dramatized by one of those network television police dramas, which focused on the burning of an unoccupied condominium in New York. It's fairly clear that as our populations continue to grow, our cities will continue to spread outward. Burdens on roads, sewers, water supplies and even our nerves will continue to be heavy. Infrastructures will collapse from under us because we won't be able to keep up with a growing population. What isn't clear is when it will all end or at least change for the better.

Ask Yourself These Questions

Imagine a small Midwestern farming community with a population of 2,000. The town is located in the middle of a 100 square mile area of farmland. For generations, the surrounding farmland has supported the local town by supplying all of its necessary food, while exporting any remaining food. Unfortunately, prices for commodities have been decreasing sharply and the farmers have been under increased pressure to sell their property to developers from the nearby city.

  1. What processes will have to take place as this farming community is converted to a suburb of the nearby city?
  2. If the town planners zoned part of the farmer's land for industry how would this impact the area? What changes in infrastructure would have to occur?
  3. Should the farmers sell their property to the developers? What could they do to avoid selling to the developers and increase their bottom line?
  4. Suppose there is a wetlands area within the 100 square mile farming area. Should development be allowed? If so, should there be any restrictions and what should they be?
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Sprawl Guide Home Page
    This guide is designed to familiarize you with key issues related to urban sprawl and to direct you to other resources available on the web.
  • Megalopolis
    This site describes the "megalopolis" known loosely as BosWash; i.e. the area stretching from Boston, MA in the north to Washington, D.C. in the south.
  • Indicators of Urban Sprawl
    Fact-based page prepared by Oregon's Department of Land Conservation. The information is from the early 1990s but still relevant.
  • Urban Sprawl
    This grassroots site is a clearinghouse for news related to urban sprawl. There is a lot of interesting information here.
  • Critiquing Sprawl's Critics
    In this article, Peter Gordon and Harry Richardson take a look at what they call fundamental flaws in the way we think about and deal with urban sprawl.
  • American Forests: Urban Sprawl Information
    From the website: Two hundred years ago, the United States was a nation of farmers. Today, 80% of us live in urban and suburban areas. As our population continues to grow and sprawl into the surrounding environment, our neighborhood of trees and forests is being lost. This loss is more than sentimental-it carries an economic price tag.
  • The Environmental Literacy Council - Urban Sprawl
    As with every topic they tackle, the Environmental Literacy Council once again does an excellent job here of outlining and analyzing the problem of urban sprawl.
  • Land: Agriculture and Urban Sprawl
    Although this site is specific to the state of Texas, the information here is applicable to all agricultural areas.
  • Sprawl City
    This is a "website about consumption growth and population growth and their roles in the urban sprawl that destroys natural habitat and farmland around U.S. cities".

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003