Suburban Sprawl Research Paper

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Suburbanization, the movement of resources and people out of cities, has increased sprawl: the overdevelopment, congestion, and environmental degradation of regions. Suburbanization and suburban sprawl are the result of several factors, including economic change—such as deindustrialization—that acts as a centrifugal force that propels private investment and people outward into the suburbs, large public and private investments in highways, government subsidies for low interest mortgage loans, and suburban housing development. Simultaneously, resources and people are pushed outward to the suburbs by the concentration of problems and poverty in urban

America—unemployment, crime, poorly performing schools, poor services, and decaying infrastructure— which are partly due to a dwindling tax base and comparatively low per-capita government spending. Thus, the growth of the suburbs, which tend to be more affluent and mostly white compared to urban areas, not only has exacerbated residential segregation by race, ethnicity, and class, it has also contributed to the creation of suburban sprawl.

The concentration of poverty in central-city neigh-borhoods—where 20 to 40 percent of a typical region’s population lives—destabilizes families, schools, and neighborhoods. It produces dramatic increases in a host of social ills and the loss of economic and social opportunity. As population and businesses flee, poverty and racial segregation grows. Property values and revenue income erode and deplete needed local social services and government capacity.

Older working class inner-ring and middle-income adjacent suburbs—where 20 to 30 percent of a typical region’s population lives—soon become riddled with similar problems. While poverty rates are twice as high in central cities than in the suburbs, 30.5 percent of the nation’s poor live in the suburbs. Ironically, however, many of these areas—particularly in the older inner-ring suburbs—are less able to address such growing problems because their local governments have fewer resources than the more affluent suburbs. Per capita they have the lowest sales, property, and income tax bases but higher tax rates and lower spending on services. Suburban sprawl spreads out even further to growing middle-class communities— where another 20 to 40 percent of a typical region’s population resides—that often do not have a sufficient property tax base to support the growing needs for schools and other public services. Although some of these suburbs are growing in population, they are not always able to maintain levels of tax revenues needed to meet growing demand for services, including schools, police, fire, utilities, and sanitation, particularly in the context of declining fiscal support from the federal and state governments. These fiscally and environmentally stressed communities become declining suburbs.

The stable, secure, and affluent suburbs—where only 15 to 30 percent of a region’s population live—captures the lion’s share of infrastructural investment and spending, economic growth and jobs, usually paid in part by other parts of the region. They enjoy many benefits: funding for roads, wastewater treatment, airports, shared labor, and product markets. Their tax base expands and per-capita spending soars, while their housing markets exclude others. But their prosperity is not due only to their hard work and good fortune. It has been subsidized by federal and state policies.

The rapid expansion of the number of political jurisdictions to over 90,000 in the early 2000s is mostly due to the creation of new suburbs. Suburban political incorporation allows suburbs to insulate themselves from cities, protect their tax base and property values, build better schools, and siphon off transportation dollars and business investment. Affluent suburbs avoid most regional responsibilities and burdens. They do not pay for central city services and infrastructure that commuters use, including sanitation, police, bridges, airports, sports complexes, and so on. At the same time these affluent suburbs deplete remaining green space and endanger fragile and precious environmental resources.

As a result, the racial composition and quality of life of metropolitan areas has concomitantly shifted dramatically: suburban dwellers, who remain largely white, score higher than inner-city residents, who are predominantly people of color, in nearly every opportunity category— including income, employment, assets, quality of education, and housing—and with lower crime rates.

Conventional explanations of suburban sprawl include: (1) individual choices and cultural differences; (2) poorly designed urban renewal and social programs; and (3) deindustrialization, changing market forces, and globalization.

But others have shown that suburban sprawl is also a consequence of a host of historically created and contemporarily sustained sets of public policies and private practices. Following World War II (1939-1945), billions of dollars wielded by national, state, and local governments provided pathways out of cities for millions of white working and middle-class residents. For example, the GI Bill, the Interstate Highway Act, and home mortgage loan programs contributed to suburban sprawl. Without aid for home buying and highway construction, white middle-class exodus would not have occurred on such a large scale. In short, suburban sprawl has been subsidized. Moreover, inner-city poverty and suburban prosperity are not coincidental; they are two sides of the same coin.

Ironically, the fate of suburbs, central cities, and older suburbs are inextricably linked. Both suburbanites and inner-city residents have a stake in regional developments, partly because regional economies prosper or falter as a whole. Their destinies are intertwined. Thus, regional level solutions may be necessary to address inner-city poverty and suburban sprawl.


  1. Benfield, F. Kaid, Matthew D. Raimi, and Donald D. T. Chen. 1999. Once There Were Greenfields: How Urban Sprawl Is Undermining America’s Environment, Economy, and Social Fabric. W
  2. Dreier, Peter, John Mollenkopf, and Todd Swanstrom. 2001. Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty First Century. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.
  3. Jackson, Kenneth. 1985. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: New York University Press.
  4. Katz, Bruce, ed. 2000. Introd. to Reflections on Regionalism. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
  5. Lindstrom, Matthew J., and Hugh Bartling. 2003. Suburban Sprawl: Culture, Theory, and Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  6. Orfield, Myron. 1997. Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
  7. Pastor, Manuel. 2001. Geography and Opportunity. In America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences, vol. 1, eds. Neil Smelser, William Julius Wilson, and Faith Mitchell. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  8. Rusk, David. 1993. Cities without Suburbs. Washington, DC: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

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