The History of Urban Sprawl and the Effects on the Environment

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The phenomenon of urban sprawl began over a hundred years ago and continues to take over land in the United States. Urban sprawl adversely affects the environment in many ways.

In the United States progress is often measured by growth and development, but as the quality of the environment diminishes with the destruction of natural land, the question of progress must be re-addressed. The conquering and development of natural land has, in the past, been identified as a mark of human civilization. People tend to equate development with success of a society. This is apparent in the settling of America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the pursuit of the American dream of Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny, first proposed by John L. O’Sullivan in 1839, was the idea that America was divinely destined to spread across the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Manifest Destiny stirred a rush to settle the frontier and spread human development throughout the country. In order to stimulate this westward movement, the government offered incentives such as the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Morrill Land-Grant Act of the same year. (1) These acts distributed rural land to prospective builders and created settlements across the United States, thus opening the untamed frontier. Despite government encouragement, the majority of United States population remained living in urban centers until the 1950’s when the suburban movement began. The suburban movement fueled more widespread development by introducing the standard of driveways and backyards for every home. Growth and expansion were incessant forces throughout the twentieth century and continue to plague the United States. The effects of mass development are extreme and are encouraging the United States to re-examine the definition of progress.

The widespread development and demolishment of natural land is often deemed urban sprawl. Just like it sounds, urban sprawl describes cities that have grown to gargantuan proportions, and stretch over vast areas of land. Some of the most visible cases of urban sprawl in the United States are the greater Los Angeles area, the stretch of metropolis between Boston-Washington D.C. and the Dallas area. (2) These giant cities have overtaken neighboring towns to create seemingly endless urban regions. Urban Sprawl is apparent in most major cities in the United States. The plague of mass-development poses many threats to the environment.

Urban sprawl is encroaching on America’s natural and agricultural land, destroying the landscape and consuming the resources of the given area. In effect farmland, forests, rangeland, wetlands, and desert are lost. Suburban and exurban growth also threaten wildlife and native plants because of the upset to their natural habitats. This is visible throughout the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have identified Southern California as “one of the most depleted habitat types in the United States.” The state has become inhospitable to many native plants and animals of the area, including varieties of Sage plants, which at one time grew rampantly throughout California. (3) The changed land of California is in large part due to the phenomenon of urban sprawl. Agricultural land in the United States has decreased significantly as well. In 50 years, 1950-2000, The United States lost 22% of farmland to development. (4) The loss of natural land is a pressing issue in today’s world, yet urban sprawl is relentless.

1 The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, also known as, “The College Act,” was proposed by a Vermont Congressman, Justin Morrill, and passed by President Abraham Lincoln. The act granted 30,000 acres of public land for each congressman in each state in order to build colleges. The act favored populous states and it is often seen as a counter to the Homestead Act of the same year. (John Y. Simon, “The Politics of the Morrill Act,” Agricultural History, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Apr., 1963), pp. 103-111,

2 The urban area between Boston, Massachusetts and Washington D.C. is often known by the name “BosWash” in reference to the two cities seamless connection due to urban spraw.

3 Jutka Terris, “Unwelcome (human) Neighbors: The Impact of Sprawl on Wildlife,” National Resources Defense Council (1999),

4 Warren E. Johnston and Alex F. McCalla, “Whither California Agriculture: Up, Down or Out?

Some Thoughts about the Future,” Giannini Foundation Special Report 04-1, (2004): Sect III,