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Urban Land Development and Suburban Sprawl: Environmental Consequences

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  • 0:01 Urban and Suburban
  • 0:49 Urban Land Development
  • 2:21 Suburban Sprawl
  • 3:44 Environmental Consequences
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Cunningham

Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.

In the past, most people lived in rural areas. There has been a shift in recent years towards urban and suburban living. Not only has this shift changed where more people reside, it has also had many environmental consequences.

Urban and Suburban

If you were to take a road trip across almost any country, you would travel through big cities, large stretches of suburbs, and rural areas. In many countries, especially the United States, there has been a shift in where people live. Over the years, people have moved from rural areas, which are areas with fewer than 2,500 people, to urban and suburban areas.

Urban areas are defined as cities with a population size of more than 2,500 people. Suburban areas are residential areas that are on the outskirts of a city. Suburbs are often within commuting distance of a city, and sometimes the population of a suburban area is included in the urban calculation.

Urban Land Development

For the majority of human history, most people have lived in rural areas and have survived by hunting, gathering, fishing, farming, and other occupations based on natural resources. It wasn't until around 300 years ago, during the Industrial Revolution, that the population began to shift. People began to move to urban areas in search of jobs, food, housing, education, healthcare, and more social activities. Urbanization is the term used to describe the shift from rural to urban living and the increased concentration of the human population in densely populated cities.

Similarly to the global human population, the percentage of people living in urban areas has also increased in the United States. In the early 1900s, around 21% of the United States population lived in urban areas. This number has increased steadily, and in 2011, around 82% of the United States population lived in urban areas.

Due to this population explosion, a new term has been created for very large cities. Megacities is the term used to describe urban areas with human populations over 10 million people. As of 2013, there were 25 megacities across the world, including New York, Los Angeles, London, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Beijing, Cairo, and Mumbai.

Suburban Sprawl

In addition to increased urban land development, in recent years there has also been an increase in suburban sprawl, which is unplanned and widespread growth in the amount of land included in a metropolitan area. This occurs when cities grow and extend outward into the surrounding countryside. Suburban sprawl is referred to as unplanned because in most cases housing developments are built one after another, without a future plan of where the expansion of the city will stop.

Chicago, Illinois, is an example of a city with extensive suburban sprawl. The entire metropolitan area, which includes the city and suburbs, is over 40 times the size of the city alone. Las Vegas, Nevada, has also experienced suburban expansion. It is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, with its population and developed land tripling between 1984 and 2009.

In recent years, there has been an effort to combat suburban sprawl. City planning is a profession that focuses on designing cities in a way that maximizes their efficiency, functionality, and beauty. City planners work with policymakers to create development options that address transportation needs, include quality of life features like public parks, and address other matters that will improve the quality of newly developed areas.

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