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Urban Sprawl in the Great Lakes

2 | What are the causes of urban sprawl?

What causes sprawl?After World War II, people started moving from the cities into the countryside. The GI Bill, road building projects, and increased car manufacturing all contributed greatly to this shift, and living in "suburbia" signified a better quality of life. Land was cheap and there was plenty of it, and government incentives and subsidies helped families realize their dream. Today, subsidies from the federal and state governments, such as for highway construction and commercial development, continue to promote sprawl and its effects.

The lack of effective land use planning allowed this move to the countryside to occur virtually uncontrolled. All Great Lakes states allow local governments to create comprehesnsive plans to guide growth and to create local laws (called zoning ordinances) to decide what types of development can happen where. However, none of the Great Lakes states actually require local land use planning.

In all of the Great Lakes states, land use planning happens at the smallest level of government (e.g., town, township, city), so the state has very little say in how land gets developed, except when it involves spending state tax dollars, such as for major highway projects. When local land use plans are developed, often they are inconsistent with the zoning ordinances and do not consider the impacts on surrounding areas and nearby communities. In practice, zoning ordinances and building codes, not land use plans, govern most land development decisions. The problem with this is that zoning tells "where" and "what type" of development can take place, but it does not consider questions of "how" and "when" development should take place. Most zoning ordinances separate different types of land uses, establish minimum distances between houses, minimum setbacks from roads, minimum parking space requirements, minimum road widths, and so on so that the only type of development that can occur is sprawl. In this way, the lack of land use planning and the reliance on zoning ordinances has promoted sprawl.

With little or no land use planning to protect greenfields, farm fields and rural countrysides and ecologically important habitats such as wetlands have been carved up. More roads were needed to connect the new development to downtown, which invited more development on the outskirts and the cycle continues today. As more people and businesses move out to former greenfields, fewer taxpayers are supporting older towns and cities, leaving them to deteriorate.

See also: Land Use in the Great Lakes Region

Graphic: New housing subvision

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