Suburban Sprawl in the Northeast

By Dr. Clayton Penniman


Suburban or urban sprawl is a nationwide problem. Sprawl is poorly planned low-density development occurring around the periphery of cities and towns. Sprawl rapidly consumes forest, farmland, and other open space, and carries with it a variety of other environmental problems including air pollution associated with the large number of personal automobiles necessary to carry people from home, to work, to school, to shopping, and so forth.

While areas such as Los Angeles, California, or Las Vegas, Nevada, have become the most widely used examples of sprawl, much of the Northeast is also experiencing problems associated with suburban sprawl. Additionally in the Northeast, unlike the West, most of the land is in private rather than Federal ownership, and relatively little land remains undeveloped making open space extremely valuable.


Suburban sprawl is a relatively new phenomenon dating to the 1920s but increasing greatly in momentum in the post–World War II period. Prior to World War II some metropolitan sprawl occurred as a result of increasing population and rising affluence in the United States along with better transportation infrastructure, and the resulting increase in individual ownership of automobiles. Many perceived the potential for a better lifestyle in the developing suburbs, with single-family homes being a major attribute drawing people to the developing areas.

After World War II, many new and existing government policies became important in increasing the out-migration from urban to suburban regions. The ability to deduct mortgage interest and real property taxes from federal income tax, as well as the provision of Veterans Administration (VA) and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) federally insured mortgages, allowed more people to be able to afford single-family homes. Many of these same programs had the effect of discouraging renovation of existing housing or building new multifamily homes.

Federal transportation policy provided the majority of funds for expansion of the 41,000 mile Interstate Highway System that allowed for much greater commuting distances and attendant diffuse growth. Federal funds also greatly subsidized local roadway construction. The policies that favored highways led to the decline of mass transportation, particularly rail infrastructure.

These various policies combined to help fuel a massive migration from urban centers into the outlying landscape—the suburbs, typified by such places as Levittown, New York. The out-migration of urban dwellers contributed to economic decline of the urban centers.

Initially, suburbanites commuted from homes in the suburbs to jobs and shopping in urban areas. However, soon many jobs and shopping destinations, as well as schools, government offices, and other civic institutions moved into the suburbs as well. Today, many people commute from suburb to suburb. This trend has contributed to an acceleration of urban decline. It has also resulted in development of the exurban areas, or those regions that had been too far away for a commute into urban areas, but with extensive, existing highways are within a reasonable commute into office parks in the suburbs. The expansion of exurban residential communities has resulted in an economic decline of many of the earlier developed suburban regions.

Other factors that have contributed to sprawl include the predominant philosophy of single-use zoning as applied by land-use planners throughout much of the post–World War II era. The separation of residential zones, shopping centers, public buildings, industrial and commercial zones necessitates dependence upon individual automobiles with significant amounts of land consumed for transportation infrastructure. In many areas in the Northeast, sprawl has been promoted, inadvertently, by the large minimum lot sizes mandated by residential zoning and, until recently, by opposition to higher density housing, even to innovative methods such as cluster development. Additionally, it has been easier, and in most cases remains so today, for land developers to build residential housing and commercial buildings in new areas of open space (i.e., greenfields), rather than to redevelop existing urban sites or suburban sites developed earlier.

Although urbanization and industrialization have long histories in the Northeast—indeed the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s in America started in the Blackstone and Connecticut River Valleys—farmland, forest, and other open spaces remain. Because of their proximity to large metropolitan centers, these areas are both extremely valuable environmentally and extremely vulnerable to sprawl. One legacy of urbanization in the Northeast and elsewhere is contaminated industrial sites or brownfields. Recent federal and state programs have begun to encourage cleanup and development of these environmentally contaminated sites.

The solution to urban and suburban sprawl is typified by such ideas as “smart growth,” “livable communities,” “sustainable communities,” and the “new urbanism.” These initiatives share many common themes including lessening the reliance on the individual automobile, greater development of public transportation, regional planning to better utilize land resources and reduce landscape fragmentation and to reduce the need to commute and travel long distances.

Pro and Con Arguments

Environmentalists and many contemporary land use planners view sprawl as having manifold negative environmental and social impacts: air pollution from excessive automobile dependence; conversion of farmland, forest, and other open spaces to developed areas; fragmentation of wildlife habitat and decline in species requiring large contiguous areas of undeveloped land; increased water pollution from impervious surfaces associated with developed land; increased municipal infrastructure costs; as well as increasing economic disparities between urban and old suburban regions and new suburbs or exurban areas. Some extreme environmental groups have reacted to this development by sabotaging the new buildings themselves (e.g., Earth Liberation Front burning newly built homes on Long Island, New York).

Most states in the Northeast, particularly Maine, Vermont, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, are trying to address the problems of sprawl with techniques such as better regional planning. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has become a strong advocate of redevelopment of contaminated urban industrial sites or brownfields.

However, others view sprawl as symbolic of healthy economic growth and raise concerns that planning initiatives, which encourage such alternatives as cluster development, infringe on personal choice and preference.

Connection to Environmental Science

Environmental Science: Toward a Sustainable Future (Eighth Edition) by B. J. Nebel and R. T. Wright provides a variety of background information on issues of sprawl and smart growth including:

·        Chapter 1. Introduction: Toward a Sustainable Future

·        Chapter 22. Economics, Public Policy, and the Environment

·        Chapter 23. Sustainable Communities and Lifestyles.


The New Suburb

A National Geographic Society–produced Website describing sprawl and new, innovative patterns of urban development including a NOAA satellite composite image of U.S. sprawl based upon detection of urban lighting patterns.

Cities & Green Living

Results of a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council giving examples of smart growth in several cities.

Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse

A site developed to compile and disseminate smart growth information

Expansion of Development in Maine

Map projections of land development patterns in southern coastal Maine.

Cost of Sprawl

A report on the costs of sprawl in Maine by the Maine State Planning Office.

Congress for the New Urbanism

A description of and resource links for “new urbanist” planning.

Sierra Club Sprawl Web Page

The Sierra Club’s resources describing urban sprawl.

Sprawl Guide

Extensive information on sprawl and planning initiatives to enhance smart growth.

Smart Growth Network

Information resources for community sustainable growth.

The Sprawl Net

A forum on urban sprawl from the School of Architecture at Rice University.

Divided We Sprawl

An article of sprawl and new urbanism by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley in the December 1999 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Northeast Regional Conference of the Council of State Governments

Website for Northeastern state governments, including Web access to the quarterly publication, The Nor’Easter.

U.S. EPA Brownfields

Brownfields program descriptions.

New England Region EPA Brownfields Page

A description of brownfields redevelopment programs in New England.

Smart Growth Strategies for New England

EPA Region 01’s Livable Communities Web page.

Community Based Approaches

Community-based environmental protection.

Smart Growth in Maryland

Web page for smart growth programs in the State of Maryland.

Vermont Forum on Sprawl

Clearinghouse for sprawl information and initiatives in the State of Vermont.

Who Sprawls Most?

A report by the Brookings Institution on differences in patterns of sprawl across the United States.


Duany, A., E. Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point Press, 2000.

Lucy, W. H., and D. L. Phillips. Confronting Suburban Decline Strategic Planning for Metropolitan Renewal. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000.

Mitchell, J. G. “Urban Sprawl: The American Dream?” National Geographic, 200 (July, 2001): 48–73.

Nicholas, W. “Smart States, Better Communities: What Northeastern States Are Doing to ‘Grow Smart.’” The Nor’Easter, 4 (1999.): 1–5.

Van Metre, P. C., B .J. Mahler, and E. T. Furlong. “Urban Sprawl Leaves Its PAH Signature.” Environmental Science and Technology 34 (2000): 4064–4070.