How Urban Sprawl is Destroying the Planet

Sprawling from Grace

Directed by David Edwards (2008)

Film Review

Sprawling From Grace relates how the American dream led the US to become the only country in the world in which city planning is based around the automobile. As of 2008 when the documentary was made, the US was the only country in the world without a viable public transportation system.

Americans pay an enormous price for urban sprawl, which includes decaying urban infrastructure (cities ceased to maintain bridges, tunnels, highways, roads and public water systems long before Minnesota’s I-35 bridge collapse in 2007), air pollution, the most expensive transportation system in the world, growing climate disruption (cars are responsible for 30% of carbon emissions), depletion of scarce fossil fuel resources, growing involvement in resource-based wars in the Middle East and worsening income inequality.

The filmmakers demonstrate how a minimum level of population density is essential to make public transportation cost effective (ie a train or bus route is only cost effective is you have enough users traveling from a given location at the same time). Urban development policies that allow unlimited development along freeways lead to extremely low density, as well as higher per capita costs for other services, such as water, sewer, police and fire service, schools and hospitals.

This documentary gave me a new understanding of the role of urban sprawl in increasing inequality in the US. The absence of reliable public transportation forces low income workers to buy and maintain cars to get to work – an expense which in some cases can consume 40% of their income.

I was also really impressed by the number of US mayors who in 2008 were already working to reverse urban sprawl by establishing urban growth boundaries, investing in public and active transport and engaging in urban planning that prioritizes human beings over cars.

I particularly like the emphasis on “urban villages” in which people can access services such as banks, schools, medical services and libraries without using their cars.