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Urban Sprawl in the Great Lakes

4 | What are the effects of urban sprawl? (Part II)

Why is sprawl bad?Urban sprawl is also destroying our farmlands at an alarming rate. Between 1981 and 1992 the Great Lakes basin lost more than 4.5 million acres of farmland, an area nearly the size of Lake Ontario. This loss of farmland decreases our access to an affordable food supply and sacrifices open lands to development and, eventually, more pollution. According the the American Farmland Trust, of the top 20 threatened farmland regions in the U.S., five of them are in the Great Lakes region -- Southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois Drift Plain, the Eastern Ohio Till Plain, the Ontario Plain and Finger Lakes region, the Southwestern Michigan Fruit and Truck Belt, and the Western Michigan Fruit and Truck Belt.

Michigan farmland for sale. Click for larger imageSprawl inevitably raises taxes. New urban infrastructure such as roads and sewer and water lines is expensive, and taxes help pay for the expense of establishing suburban communities. But as is often the case, taxpayers from a broader geographic area help pay for new development, so people who do not live in these suburban communities are often burdened with higher taxes as well. One hidden cost of sprawl is the construction of new schools. As communities spread out, new suburban schools must be constructed, often leaving urban schools under-utilized and poorly funded. Between 1970 and 1990, Minneapolis-St. Paul spent tax dollars building 78 new suburban schools, while closing over 150 schools in fine condition within the city limits.

Many cities in the Great Lakes region, such as Detroit, are suffering from the abandonment of businesses and residents, and their downtown areas have fallen into a state of decay. The sense of community afforded by urban areas is lost, and suburban communities often don't provide a substitute, because they are isolated from one another and from community gathering places, such as the town square, grocery store, shopping, and work areas. Citizens remaining in the city are often too poor to move elsewhere, and jobs are scarce because many businesses have moved to the suburbs. These indirect costs are important because they affect the environment, the economy, and the quality of life for both the urban and suburban residents of a city.

Detroit brownfields site. Click to see larger image.Another problem of deserted downtown areas is brownfields -- potentially contaminated areas on which a deserted building, such as an old industrial facility, still stands. Whatever business or operation polluted the land has now moved on, and no one wants to claim responsibility for the cleanup; the area remains deserted, continuing to pollute the soil and, potentially, the water supply. An indirect cost of brownfields is the development of greenfields. Instead of cleaning up land that has already been developed, developers target undeveloped open space for new development, resulting in more sprawl.

Graphic: Michigan farmland for sale. Copyright Michigan Land Use Institute, photography by Patrick Owen; Detroit brownfields site.

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