The American Dream: Destroying American cities?

Jeffrey Tangney | Copy Editor

We have all seen the clips from the 1950s and ‘60s demonstrating that every U.S. family could own a house in the suburbs complete with a large yard and multiple cars. The mass production of residential housing and increasingly affordable cars made the life we know today possible. However, most people are either unaware or don’t care that this has accelerated the degradation of the central cities in America and creates many problems that are not easily fixed.
The problem of people desiring a life in the suburbs is a problem called “urban sprawl.” Urban sprawl is the development of areas outside of metropolitan areas, usually via low-density residential housing communities that create many problems for central cities. Central cities are not the same as inner cities as central city is simply the defined area of a metropolitan area whereas inner cities are usually the poorest sections of central cities.

Photo illustration by: Madison Dennis

Photo illustration by: Madison Dennis


The central city is responsible for providing infrastructure, such as roads, water, electricity, sewers, emergency services and many more amenities people demand. The businesses that develop these areas have traditionally received huge subsidies from local governments to create attractive locations for development and the taxpayers and businesses that move there are responsible for less than 10 percent of the cost.
To put this in perspective, businesses don’t pay for sprawl. Residents in the sprawl areas do not pay for it, either. So who is paying for it? The answer is central cities and more specifically, taxpayers in the central city. Not only does the central city lose jobs and residents to provide tax money, they face an increasingly taxed infrastructure because the money they receive is spent creating the new, sprawl-oriented infrastructure instead of maintaining the existing systems. The residents who remain in the central city have to pay more taxes. Since higher-paying jobs leave the city, they are forced to take low-paying jobs and become increasingly poor. Many of those who stay want to leave but cannot afford to and because of historical biases, they are also disproportionately composed of minorities.

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Sprawl not only creates problems in the central cities, it increases the destruction of farmland and affects the environment more than renovating the central city. More than 4 million acres of farmland were lost to urban development between 2002 and 2007. Farmland, once converted to pavement, cannot be used for agriculture again. The problems for the environment created by sprawl include increased air pollution, wetland destruction and chemical runoff. Sprawl creates air pollution by increasing the dependence on cars for transportation. Though there are subsidies for development, very few communities offer subsidies to increase public transportation. Therefore, more people need cars to travel to their destinations and with the sprawl areas farther from the central city they are forced to travel farther than before.
I have shown that urban sprawl has created many problems for the central city but there are a few options to minimize the damage. One way to do this is redeveloping the central city, specifically areas that are no longer used, or underused. If you redevelop the city, there would be less desire to move out. Creating green spaces (parks) within the central city and in residential areas specifically, would make neighborhoods more attractive to families and allow for a more aesthetic city in general. Halting the subsidies to businesses that develop the sprawl areas would limit their desire to develop and focus their attention on cheaper areas in the city. Using the tax money to maintain existing areas in the central city would keep the quality of the city high, decreasing residents’ desire to flee to the suburbs.
These are only a few suggestions for fighting urban sprawl and it would take many years of dedicated efforts for any headway to be made in reviving the central cities that the “American Dream” has brought to its knees.

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