The Slow Violence of Sprawl — Part I

By: Marshall B. Distel

For decades, residential subdivisions have been expanding rapidly across the landscape of the United States. The population density of entire metropolitan areas has also been decreasing (Lucy & Phillips, 2006). In the early 1920s, the average population density within American metropolitan areas was about 6,160 persons per square mile; however, by the 1990s, density had significantly decreased to 1,469 persons per square mile (Benfield et al., 1999). “Suburbanization” and “sprawl” are the terms that are often used to describe this pattern of low-density growth that has occurred on the periphery of urbanized areas (Squires, 2002).

This exurban growth profoundly impacts the natural environment, increases global carbon emissions, and exacerbates injustices related to socio-economic status. Throughout the following digital case study, published in three segments, I’ll evaluate how the socio-environmental impacts of sprawl should be viewed as a form of slow violence by gradually contributing to an increase in global greenhouse gas emissions, threatening natural ecosystems, impacting public health, and hindering those who do not have access to an automobile.

Defining Sprawl and Slow Violence

In order to effectively convey how sprawl can be considered as a form of slow violence, it is first necessary to define both of these terms. Sprawl is the rapid geographic expansion of a low-density land use pattern that can often be characterized by the consumption of environmentally sensitive agricultural lands, spatial segregation of land uses, and high dependency on automobile use (Duany, Plater-Zybek, & Speck. 2000).

Slow violence is a threat that is fueled by a gradual and often invisible source that slowly degrades some aspect of the environment or society itself. It’s a form of delayed destruction that’s frequently ignored by capitalist societies (Nixon, 2011). While the notion of violence is customarily thought of as something instantaneous, the concept of slow violence is based on the recognition of a threat that’s incremental in nature. The calamitous consequences of this type of violence can fuel long-term ecological and societal disasters that often go unnoticed until long after the damage has started (Nixon, 2011).

The Temporal Complexity of Sprawl

The temporal complexity of sprawl is unique because it has both an immediate impact on a landscape, as well as a pervasive impact that gradually impacts many socio-environmental issues. The immediate impact of sprawl can be observed as rapid development transforms large amounts of open space. The loss of farmland, wildlife habitat and other natural landscapes are the most noticeable effects of sprawl.

Replacing open space or undeveloped land with large expanses of low-density development would not be considered slow violence because the repercussions are highly visible. However, the lasting impact of this type of scattered development initiates a form of elusive violence that continually unfolds for years, even after the bulldozers and other Earth-moving machines have left the subdivision.

As with other forms of slow violence, the delayed effects of sprawl can go unnoticed. As post-World War II residential subdivisions first started to expand across the American landscape, developers and planners unknowingly initiated a slowly unfolding socio-environmental catastrophe. The suburbs were first viewed, in part, as an opportunity to escape the crime, congestion, and noise of densely urbanized areas (Hanlon et al, 2010). Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the popularity of these developments continued to surge because they typically offered quiet and safe neighborhoods with minimal through traffic and large backyards deemed suitable for raising families (Southworth & Ben-Joseph, 2003). However, for decades, the gradually compounding problems that are now associated with sprawl were overlooked.

Visible Violence

The physical development of land is the most visible and immediate form of violence that sprawl inflicts on a landscape. Over the past few decades, sprawl has had a particularly visible impact on agricultural lands. The American Farmland Trust reports that over 400,000 acres of “prime” agricultural land was lost to suburban sprawl from 1982 to 1992  (Benfield et al., 1999).

As arable land is consumed, open space and the ability to produce local food is also lost. On average, the American Farmland Trust says the United States loses two acres of farmland to sprawl every minute  (Becker, 2002). Conserving undeveloped arable land helps to protect urban watersheds, offers the visual benefit of open space, and gives small-scale farmers the opportunity to grow produce for local and regional food systems.

Making the Connection

In order to fully understand how sprawl is a form of slow violence, it’s necessary to employ an ecosystem thinking framework and identify all of the socio-environmental systems affected. The unchecked outward expansion of low-density development has threatened to undermine the environmental progress made in recent decades with the enactment of national environmental legislation that includes the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the National Energy Policy Act, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and the Endangered Species Act (Benfield et al., 1999).

Decades of sprawl has led to an increase in energy consumption, exacerbated climate change, contributed to a rise in air and water pollution, led to a loss of natural ecosystems, and to a decline in biodiversity (Squires, 2002). Sprawl has also adversely impacted human quality of life. Car dependency, social isolation, greater levels of inequality, loss of a sense of place, and a rise in rates of obesity have all been linked to sprawl (Duany, Plater-Zybek, & Speck. 2000). In addition to the socio-environmental impacts, the fiscal stress from inefficient growth has led to inner-city disinvestment, a rise in municipal capital costs per dwelling unit and a less robust tax base (Glaeser, 2011).

[Marshall Distel is a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program. Learn about the impact of sprawl and mass motorization on air pollution and climate change in Part II of The Slow Violence of Sprawl — watch for it September 21!]

Literature Cited

  • Becker, Elizabeth. (2002). “2 Farm Acres Lost per Minute, Study Says.” The New York Times.
  • Benfield et al. (1999). “Once there were Greenfields: How Urban Sprawl is Undermining America’s Environment, Economy and Social Fabric.” New York, New York: Natural Resources Defense Council
  • Ben-Joseph, E. (1995). “Changing the Residential Street Scene,” Journal of the American Planning Association, 504-515.
  • Duany, A., Plater-Zybek, E., & Speck, J. (2000). “Suburban nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American dream.” New York: West Point Press
  • Glaeser, E. (2011). “Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.” New York, NY: Penguin
  • Hanlon et al. (2010). “Cities and Suburbs: New Metropolitan Realities in the US.” New York, NY: Routledge
  • Lucy, W., Phillips, D. (2006). “Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs.” Chicago, IL: Planners Press
  • Nixon, Rob. (2011). “Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor.” Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
  • Squires, Gregory. (2002). “Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences & Policy Responses.” Washington, DC: The Urban Institute Press

[Creative Commons License photos from Flickr courtesy of: Jan Buchholtz, crabchick, Ryan Lμdwig]