An American Tale: The Rise of Sprawl

Post Second World War America was a place of prosperity and rapid economic growth. Government investment, in the form federal incentives—including the G.I. Bill and the Federal Aid Highway Act—allowed Americans to spread out from the city-center farther than ever before. With the environmental and social strife of the 1960s, threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, massive upgrades in suburban infrastructure, low mortgage rates, and affordable automobiles, these new suburbs offered a viable alternative to living in the central city—offering privacy, larger lot size, and the opportunity to own an individual housing unit.

Now termed suburban sprawl, this land-use pattern continues to encroach upon once rural areas at an alarming rate. About three quarters of America’s population now lives in metropolitan areas. Over half of metropolitan inhabitants live in the suburbs. Developers continue to use federal, state, and local money to expand infrastructure into rural areas. Oftentimes having a disastrous effect on the environments, such development replaces greenfields that may have been farmland, parks, or natural habitats with sprawling communities. A study by Edward Glaeser shows that suburban CO2 emissions in New York City are 14,127 pounds greater per average household than their central city counterpart.

As suburbs and exurbs flourish and tax dollars are funneled into these communities, most central cities continue to collapse. Cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia are littered with the effects of urban decay. According to the nonprofit Take Back Vacant Land (TBVL), Philadelphia, for instance, has more than 40,000 parcels of vacant land. These properties cost the city of Philadelphia $70 million in lost taxes, and $20 million is spent by the city, annually, for safety and upkeep.

The Sustainability of Space: A NEO Approach

With federal and state funds drying up rapidly, many communities are now on the verge of collapse. The bankrupt city of Detroit recently turned off water to 3,000 customers and at many times, only a few policemen are patrolling the city of 150 square miles. Detroit joins the likes of Stockton, California and Jefferson County, Alabama in filing for Chapter 9. Closer to home, Chagrin Falls recently reported a shortage of funds and an inability to maintain its roads. The City of East Cleveland has been in and out of ‘fiscal emergency’ since 1988.

These concerns have sparked the debate on regionalism—an approach in which neighboring communities share resources to lessen economic and environmental burdens. In November 2010, Northeast Ohio was awarded a $4.25 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to find the development of a regional sustainability plan. The Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC) was established to create an integrated approach to planning efforts for land use, transportation, economic development, and infrastructure investment for a 12-county region. After years of planning and interaction with local stakeholders, NEOSCC launched Vibrant NEO, a vision, framework, and action plan for Northeast Ohio. Vibrant NEO’s Vision includes nine recommendations, including:

  • “Recommendation 9: increase collaboration among the region’s government agencies to expand information sharing and find more cost-effective means of providing essential services.”1

Putting Words to Action

Recently, civic leaders including former Cleveland City Council President George Forbes have called for Cleveland and its east-side neighbor, East Cleveland to merge. A merger will bring Cleveland’s population back over 400,000 people, allowing it to qualify for a larger pot of federal and state funds. To East Cleveland, it will bring financial stability to a city State Auditor David Yost has said is “‘in a league all its own’ with respect to fiscal management.”2 On July 24, the Civic Commons ideastream, Cleveland Scene, East Cleveland Narrator, and the Cleveland Young Professional Senate (Cleveland YPS) hosted a salon-style discussion on the possible merger. Called “One Cleveland – Pros and Cons,” the salon included through leaders including Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley, Cleveland Councilmen Zack Reed, East Cleveland City Council-members Mansell Baker and Nathaniel Martin, and Cuyahoga County Next Generation Council members Michael Hudecek and Tara Vanta. The Salon was a first step in putting NEOSCC’s recommendations to action.


1 From Vibrant NEO; for more information on Vibrant NEO:
2 Councilman Jeff Johnson Publicly Supports Merger with East Cleveland. Cleveland Scene. March 19, 2014.

Blurban Living is a blog series by Jared Robbins, Analyst