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Addressing Urban Sprawl

Big Picture

In the U.S., urban sprawl has taken the form of suburbs and imposed heavy costs on Americans through pollution, maintenance costs, health drawbacks and unsustainability. In order to build better communities for Americans, a mix of deregulation and incentive programs should be used to channel demand for new homes into existing areas.

Graphic From: “The Costs of Sprawl.” The Costs of Sprawl - Sprawl - Sierra Club, The Sierra Club,

This graphic illustrates how much more costs urban sprawl requires relative to urban and currently existing areas. 


Operative Definitions

  1. Urban sprawl: A phenomenon in which cities grow at a rapid pace outside of their normal boundaries. This new growth often takes the form of low-density, single-family housing and predominantly relies on cars for transportation.

  2. Medium-density housing: A category of residential development that falls between detached suburban housing and large multi-story buildings.

  3. Zoning codes: Local regulations controlling what kind of buildings are allowed to be built in any given area of a locality. 

  4. Mixed-use development: Development that is as pedestrian-friendly that and has two or more residential, commercial, cultural, institutional or industrial uses.

Important Facts and Statistics

  1. The London School of Economics estimates that urban sprawl costs the U.S. more than a trillion dollars annually. 

  2. Single-family homes completed in 2021 measured 970,000 units.

  3. Multi-family homes completed in 2021 measured 371,000 units.

  4. Multi-family buildings completed in 2021 measured 12,000 buildings. 

Three-Point Plan

(1) Relax zoning regulations to allow for more medium-density housing. 

Localities across the country currently have zoning regulations that prohibit the construction of any housing besides single-family homes. Allowing medium-density housing to be built would enable more residential construction in existing areas, therefore decreasing pressure to build outward while still maintaining the low-density feeling that makes suburbs desirable. 

(2) Connect existing suburbs to public transportation. 

By connecting suburbs to light rails, subways and even bus routes that feed into cities, two important goals are accomplished. First, the need to own a car is eliminated in suburban spaces, making them more accessible, affordable and desirable. Second, as cars become more obsolete, housing can be built in existing suburbs that don’t need space reserved for cars. Spaces that are already reserved for cars — parking lots, parking structures, lanes on roads, etc. — can be repurposed, freeing up more space for housing or businesses and allowing for more space-efficient housing to be built. 

(3) Relax zoning regulations to allow for more mixed-use development. 

Many suburban areas and cities use zoning to prohibit commercial spaces and residential areas from being built in the same zone or near each other, meaning that a lot of space is simply unused and areas that mix commercial and residential spaces, which have been shown to be a hotbed of cultural activity and community life, cannot be built. By relaxing this regulation, communities will allow for more housing to be built in urban and suburban areas while also allowing suburban areas to build walkable and exciting new areas for their communities. This will ease the demand for housing to be built outward and draw those looking to buy homes to existing areas rather than new, outward developments. 

Why This Initiative Is Important

The layout of our communities and what is permitted in them has a tremendous impact on the well-being of all Americans. Currently, our communities are built in expensive, isolated and unsustainable ways. By following this initiative, communities can become more connected, inexpensive and full of amenities that make them better places to live. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Litman, Todd. “Urban Sprawl Costs the American Economy More than $1 Trillion Annually. Smart Growth Policies May Be the Answer.” USAPP, London School of Economics, 4 June 2015,

“Mixed-Use Development.” Planning for Complete Communities in Delaware, Complete Communities,

“The Costs of Sprawl.” The Costs of Sprawl - Sprawl - Sierra Club, The Sierra Club,

U.S. Census Bureau (MCD): Cheryl Cornish, Stephen Cooper. “Characteristics of New Housing.” United States Census Bureau, 23 Aug. 2011,

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