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Urban Sprawl

A visual essay on the growing problem of

urban sprawl.

Ashley Kaisershot
Five years ago, a man in a suit knocked on our
door at our family farm in Montgomery, Minnesota. This
man asked if he could talk to the owner of the residence.
I could hear only muffled parts of the conversation be-
tween my father and the man in the business suit as I eves
dropped from around the corner. I heard the mystery man
ask my father if he could take a look around the property.
I assumed the man was a hunter and my dad would reply
with a simple, “No, we don’t allow hunters on our prop-
erty.” I heard my dad ask the man “What is your name?”
My guess is that my dad was curious as to why a man
in a suit has knocked on our front door in the country of
southern Minnesota and didn’t introduce himself. The man
replies confidently: “I am a developer and I will be building
on this land in ten years, I would just like to look around.”
Why do we, country dwellers and farmers dislike these
land hungry, city dwelling developers who wouldn’t know
peace and quiet if it knocked on their door? The answer is
simple. These developers don’t know the feeling of pride
over the land one owns.
Where generations and generations of families have
been born and raised. To the developers, we—’the farmers’
are just people and our land is just another way to make a
buck. When in actuality, the land is where ‘the farmer’ has
put their blood, sweat and tears in the land they own, and
love. That is accomplishment. In tough times like these, what
helps small farmers get through the day is being able to look
at the window at their hard work. That, is accomplishment. It
is hard to fathom the thought of a developer buying our the
land to mass reproduce the same cookie-cutter house that
is found across the United States of America.

Farmland is being eaten up by urban sprawl at an

alarming rate across the United States to create industrial
parks, new highways and sprawling housing developments.
This loss of precious land is syphoning our ability to grow
food, timer and fiber. In this essay, urban sprawl will be
clearly defined, the theory of “building up not out” will be
introduced and the consequences of not building up will be
discussed. By putting the topic of over-population on the
back-burner, urban sprawl will grow so rapidly, that all agri-
cultural, wetland and green space will eventually be lost.
Urban sprawl is defined as “the increased use of urban-
ized land by fewer people than in the past” (Webster’s Diction-
ary). Urban sprawl deals with the developed land outside of the
city boundaries. In the suburbs of St. Paul and Minneapolis in
Minnesota, urban development pressure and increased prop-
erty taxes has forced many farmers out of business. Farmland
and wildlife habitats have been greatly effected by this trend.
Farmland has been disappearing at an unbelievable rate. Urban
sprawl has become a problem in the midwest as early as 1950.
According to the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service: “In
1950, Wisconsin had 23.6 million acres of farmland but 32.6% of
this farmland has disappeared leaving us with only 15.9 million
acres in 2002. The numbers of Wisconsin farms has dropped ex-
ponentially with numbers going from 178,000 to 77,000 through-
out the years of 1910 to 2002.

Wetlands, shore lands, grasslands and wild forests are

also disappearing. These natural elements are being replaced
by hardscape, structures and housing developments. Accord-
ing to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: “More
than 51% of Wisconsin’s original wetlands have been lost on
the lower Bay of Green Bay, more than 90% of the wetlands are

“Increase in human activity.”

Urban sprawl is creeping in on some of America’s most im-

portant ecosystems such as Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades
and is the largest threat to endangered plants. The Endangered
Species Act was signed into law in 1973 which provides protec-
tion of certain plants, wildlife and fish that have become almost
extinct due to urban development. Sprawl is not only a problem
in the United States, but it has found it’s way to China. In the ar-
ticle How does the conversion of land cover to urban use affect
net primary productivity? A case study in Shenzhen City, China it
states: “Cropland, forest and area occupied by bodies of water all
decreased during the seven years. Between 1999 and 2005, land
development irreversibly transformed about 20.21% of Shenzhen’s
surface... All these indicated the substantial increase in human ac-
tivity.” Population growth has changed the rate at which sprawl is
growing outwards. Although this new city-growth may seem devas-
tating, there are solutions to keep urban sprawl at bay.

Urban planners, city officials and landscape architects all

over the world are teaming together to find a solution to urban
sprawl and land conservation. The theory of intensification is said
to be “One of the easiest ways to reduce our ecological footprint”
(OneArchitecture.nl). Intensification will address the challenges
that face our cities such as excessive energy consumption, traffic
congestion, increased pollution and urban sprawl.

The theory of intensification is a simple process. The theory will
accommodate large urban population growth in already largely
developed cities. By being able to accommodate this large popu-
lation, it will boost job rates and services in the area. These goals
can only be reached if building heights are increased and build-
ing setbacks are eliminated, which will bring buildings closer to-
gether Intensification will in time halt if not end urban sprawl.

Intensification in many ways provides a return to the pre-mod-
ern concept. Human settlement in pre-modern times were fare more
compact than today sprawling cities. Conserving agricultural land
around the city was extremely important. This land provided the city
with high levels of food security. It was impractical for sprawled cities
during this era because the distances that were crossed were done
by foot or packed animal. Intensification involves protecting agricul-
tural land and will maintain a plentiful supply of it. The city residents
will be able to easily access their destinations by walking or using
public transportation. This in turn will change the dependency on the
automobile. With less vehicles on the road, traffic congestion and air
pollution will be significantly lowered.

Intensification offers superior advantages. It allows city resi-
dents to live in close proximity to the services they need; places of
occupation, schools, shopping areas and places of recreation which
will all be within walking distance.
It will provide a more efficient use of the existing infrastructure. Intensi-
fication not uses existing infrastructure to control the problem of sprawl,
it also is far more cost effective to serve a large number of people in a
small area rather than a small number in a large area. Water and sew-
age lines, garbage collection, electricity grids and transportation would
be able to cover shorter distances, saving many tax dollars.

Not only is intensification a superb idea, it will create the great-

est design challenge ever thought of. Planners, architects, landscape
architects, engineers and interior designers will have the opportunity
to take what is already existing, and grow upward. This is the ultimate
design challenge that we, as designers, strive for in every project. The
challenge is to create a livable atmosphere that solves the problems
of overpopulation, transportation, climate and urban heat island effect.
Shopping malls, parks, business districts and public transportation will
all be included in and around these existing structures. It is highly impor-
tant that parks are included in the building heights of the newly designed
structures. The article Impact of land use and land cover changes on the
ambient temperature in the middle scale city, it states that: “Vegetative
zones should be maintained in urban areas in order to realize sustain-
able urbanization.” All designers, engineers and city officials will work
hand in hand to create a solution to the problem of urban sprawl by
creating a comfortable living environment.
The greatest successful example of this design challenge is Shibam in
Yemen. Yemen is known for it’s large array of dense multi-story buildings in a
relatively small area. Intensification is successful in this area because it pro-
vides much needed shade. Also stated in the article: “In several cities, the ur-
ban temperature has been continually increasing with an ever large disparity
becoming evident between urban and rural temperatures.” The tall buildings
are able to house thousands of people while conserving precious agricultural
land around the city. Intensification will not be possible everywhere with social
and economical problems, but in time, Intensification is answer to conserving
our landscapes.

Shibam, yemen.
“With heavy congested traffic throughout our cities,
it makes the job of the EMS even harder.”
Urban sprawl not only affects America’s farmland, wetlands and forests
outside of our cities, but sprawl is starting to creep into the heart of America’s
cities. Water quality, infrastructure costs, air pollution and pedestrian injuries
are on a rise of concern and are consequences of not acting on the growing
problem of urban sprawl.

A study was done to see how urban sprawl and Emergency Medical
Services interfere with one another. In the article entitled Urban Sprawl and De-
layed Ambulance Arrival in the U.S., it states that: “The result of this study sug-
gests that promotion of community design and development that follows smart
growth principle and regulates urban sprawl may improve EMS performance
and reliability.” Due to the heavy use and reliance on the automobile, vehicular
crashes and pedestrian injuries are on the rise. Motor vehicle crashes are the
leading cause of death between the ages of five and twenty-four. With heavy
congested traffic throughout our cities, it makes the job of Emergency Medical
Services even harder.

With Construction detours and the poor street connections that sep-
arate residential and commercial, it is taking longer to get to the injured.
As stated in the article Urban Sprawl and Delayed Ambulance Arrival in the
U.S., “Urban Sprawl patterns that is developing in the United States is re-
sulting in longer trip distances, increased traffic congestion and trip time
variability for commuters and high rates of traffic and pedestrian fatalities.”

Urban sprawl has struck the quality of city water. Due to the growing ar-
eas consumed by sprawling communities, forests, farmland and wildlife habitats
are being cleared to be covered with impervious surfaces such as concrete and
asphalt. In the suburbs and downtown areas, rainfall is less effectively absorbed
into the ground water aquifers. This growing problem threatens the quality and
quantity of water supplies.
“City officials in Portland, Oregon, have drawn an invisible cirle around
the city limits and has restricture any new growth outside this circle.”

Water pollution increases with urban sprawl as the rain water is saturated with
gasoline, metal residue, motor oil, antifreeze and other pollutants from the runoff
of motor vehicles.

The city of Portland, Oregon, is trying to put an end to sprawl. Portland’s
city officials have drawn an invisible circle around the city limits and has restricted
any new growth outside of this circle. Portland is now growing up and not out.
Portland is one of the best examples in the U.S. to show how successful “growing
up, not out” really is. City developers are given the challenge of using the spaces
more efficiently. By building on what is already established, the buildings are again
turned into residential and commercial areas such as housing, office space and
shopping centers. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is another great example showing how
to successfully turn downtown into a safer city in which to live. Many large cities
around the Great Lakes region are struggling with depressed downtown areas.
With the help of the mayor, John O. Norquist, he was able to clean up the down-
town and convince businesses and people to come back to the city. Milwaukee’s
job growth is on a rise and with simplifying zoning laws and by lowering city taxes,
Milwaukee was created a safe and comfortable environment that is gaining nation
wide attention.

Development not only affects the community, but it affects the areas to the
north, south, east and west of the growing communities. NASA has just recently found
itself involved in the fight between city planners and land conservationists. Chet Ar-
nold, the associate director of the Center for Land-use Education and Research at
UConn states: “Currently there’s no good end-to-end system for getting useful sat-
ellite date on the impacts of urban sprawl into the hands of local decision makers.”
Teamed up with NASA, Chet and his team were able to create a project called NAU-
TILUS which will provide city planners with satellite date in a form that ‘non-scientists’
will be able to understand. Humans are visually oriented, meaning that graphics will
work in a superior way that will communicate complex information quickly. Watching
a visual presentation on the changes in the landscape is much more successful than
piecing through maps and reading information. NASA took this idea of how humans
are visually orientated and created the computer program called Community Viz. This
computer program will enable city planners to envision their city in the future. There
are applications that will allow the user to “fly through’ the photorealistic 3D future city.
The program most importantly will let them make changes and view the out come of
different design proposal scenarios.

Above are satellite images that show how much Baltimore, Maryland, has spread
between the years of 1792 and 1992.
The urban developer whom knocked on
our front door five years ago will never leave my
thoughts. I decided to pursue my education in the
field of landscape architecture and city planning,
thanks to the man in the business suit. In Land-
scape Journal: Nature Constructed and Revealed it
states: “Landscape Architects not only design land-
scape forms and functions, they design our experi-
ence. They direct our vision and our movement;
they emphasize, they accentuate, they reveal.”
With my knowledge and the software out there, city
planners, architects, and city officials will work togeth-
er to stop the spread of urban sprawl. Without farm-
land there will be no food and without green fields,
structures and parking lots will litter the land. The
consequences of not doing anything about this ever
growing sprawl problem is knocking on our front door.
It has been five years since the developer knocked
on our front door. Our farm isn’t going anywhere.

“Landscape Architects not only design

landscape form and functions, they design our experience.
They direct our vision and our movement; they emphasize,
they accentuate, they reveal.”

DeYong, Y., Hongbo S. (3 Nov2009).

How does the conversion of land cover to uban
use affect net primary productivity? A case study
in Shenzhen City, China. Vol. 149(11), 2054-2060.
Retrieved from:

Nonomura, A., Kitahara M., Masuda, T. (Aug2009)

Impact of land use and land cover changes on the
ambient temperature in the middle scale city,
Takamatsu, in Southwest Japan. Journal of
EnvironmeNtal Management.Vol. 90(11), 3297-
3304. Retrieved from:

Thawbridge, M., Gurka, M., O’Connor, R. (Nov2009).

Urban Sprawl and Delayed Ambulance Arrival in
the U.S. American Journal of Medicine. Vol. 37(5),
428-432. Retrieved from: