How to avoid your development becoming an agent of suburban sprawl

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CEO | Chief Innovation Officer

With the ever-growing global population, countries feel the pressure to keep building new housing and commercial spaces. And although it may do wonders for the economy, it isn’t free from disadvantages.

Suburban sprawl—or the unplanned urban extension into rural and suburban areas—may cause large-scale damages to the environment, people, and even the local economy. But, with the right plan (and a good team), you can promote new developments without promoting suburban sprawl.

Negative effects of suburban sprawl:

1. Increased automobile dependency

Suburban sprawl typically segregates based on various land uses, meaning large distances between the residential units and nearby services. Often, streets connecting these areas are unsuitable for walking or cycling because the design or distance (or both) leaves residents dependent on their cars—even for short trips. In addition to actively reducing walking and cycling, the lower density of these developments—and the high car ownership—reduces the likelihood of the development succeeding in supporting public transit in any meaningful capacity.

2. Habitat fragmentation

Sudden expansion or development on open land stretches can divide existing habitats into isolated patches. This fragmentation affects animal habitats, plant communities and natural resources such as water bodies. Moreover, it heavily disrupts the ecosystem, and habitat fragmentation may kill the native flora and fauna in adverse situations.

How to counter suburban sprawl?

1. Focus on smart growth

One of the best ways to successfully combat suburban sprawl is by focusing on “smart growth.” For the unversed, this term refers to the set of policies and strategies that aim at protecting the natural environment while also focusing on making the community physically attractive and economically stable.

Working alongside landscape architects and planners to devise methods will help preserve the land's natural resources and find ways to reuse already developed land. At the same time, they help improve the quality of air and water and protect “critical environmental” areas.

Long story short, smart growth can prevent jeopardizing the natural landscape and habitats without affecting the overall process of urbanization. Additionally, these conservation and planning strategies enhance the social diversity of the community by designing inclusive facilities that can meet the different needs of the residents.

2. Mixed-use developments

Mixed-use development is a type of smart growth strategy, which focuses on blending or combining residential areas with commercial, industrial or cultural areas. This process can be a great way to reduce automobile dependence, as residents may walk or bike their way from one establishment to another.

In this regard, landscapers and architects may choose from two development designs: vertical mixed-use development and horizontal mixed-use development.

As the name may have already suggested, vertical mixed-use development involves two or more facilities meant for different uses in the same building. For example, a building can harbor office or business spaces on the lower floors and private residences or hotel rooms on the upper floors, which will reduce the need for vehicular transportation.

On the other hand, horizontal mixed-use development generally comprises single-use buildings located on a mixed-use zoning plot.
Hence, people can use the same land for multiple uses with less or zero need for vehicles for transportation.

How to plan new developments that limit suburban sprawl?

Proper analysis and planning from the conception stage can help architects and landscape designers devise effective ways to combat suburban sprawl. In the following sections, I have listed some of them.

1. Considering the natural landscape

The inherent features of the natural landscape may provide both opportunities and restrictions for new developments. For example, you wouldn’t want to excavate and regrade an entire site when a designer could have planned the road's layout using natural topography. You should also aspire to have the lots laid out to maximize views of the natural features, enhancing access to local wetlands and other natural areas. Reusing existing developments, structures and working with the natural landscape whenever possible means less construction work and landscape alterations.

2. Including different types of building

Although we mainly have characterized suburban sprawl by single-use buildings, mixed-use developments have changed the situation today. Not only will mixed-use developments lead to more effective land usage, but they will also cut down on problems such as pollution and deforestation.

3. Ditching the “big-box store complex”

Although constructing a large retail store may look like a potentially attractive prospect for potential inhabitants, it will invariably require more land clearing. Instead, architects can go for human-scaled shopping stores, town centers and main streets to accommodate more uses on a single plot.

4. Plan for community areas

Parks, public recreational areas (like community swimming pools), temples, churches, etc., will promote community engagement and social diversity. Other features like sidewalks and biking lanes with trees can serve the dual purpose of encouraging healthy living and protecting the environment.

Summing it up

But before I wrap up, remember that the job of reducing suburban sprawl isn’t limited to architects and landscape designers. Reducing the impact of suburban sprawl is a job for all stages of development. With the right team, your next project could succeed in providing a healthy, vibrant community that supports the positive aspects of suburban growth.

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