Asphalt Jungle

6 minute read
Dick Thompson

Beverly Hills is one of the hottest places to live–for Egyptians. This new Beverly Hills is among the latest suburbs to bloom in the desert outside Cairo, a city growing so fast that newcomers are taking over rooftops and cemeteries. Cairo (pop. 7.7 million) is the epitome of congestion and sprawl. It’s what happens when the human population multiplies and spreads out of control. But the problem of unrestrained growth isn’t confined to developing countries with high birthrates. In England, as much land as there is in all of Wales has been converted since 1960 from “areas of tranquillity,” as the English say, into malls and suburbs. One of the fastest-growing regions in the U.S. is the once wild country around Yellowstone National Park. In fact, perhaps the only place on Earth coming close to containing sprawl is Tokyo, but that’s only because the city has taken up nearly all the surrounding Kanto Plain, and growth has nowhere else to go in this part of sea-locked Japan.

The planet sure seems smaller and smaller these days. The “wide-open spaces” that the Grammy-winning Dixie Chicks sing about are becoming few and far between. In little more than a century, humanity has gone from the agrarian age to the age of megacities. Four decades ago, there were only three cities with more than 8 million people: New York, London and Tokyo. By 2015 there will be 33 such cities, 27 of them–like Cairo–in the developing world.

The urbanization of the globe is more than an aesthetic problem. Human sprawl threatens the habitat of most animal and plant species–except for cockroaches, rats, pigeons, crabgrass and other organisms that thrive with mankind. Relentless human expansion is the main reason the world is fast losing its biodiversity, raising the specter that we will eventually live, in the words of writer David Quammen, on a “planet of weeds.” If that danger doesn’t seem imminent, consider this: sprawl is paving over the land we need to grow our food. Since 1981 the amount of land around the world devoted to raising grain has fallen 7%. Increased agricultural productivity has made up for that loss, but the Green Revolution may be reaching the point of diminishing returns. In 1998 the world grain harvest declined 2% from the previous year, even as there were 1.4% more mouths to feed.

Sprawl is understandable, maybe even unavoidable, in countries where the population is still growing rapidly. But it is more difficult to explain in the U.S. and other rich countries with lower birthrates. In Ohio the amount of land developed around urban areas between 1960 and 1990 grew more than five times as fast as the population.

Maybe it’s just a response to endless complaints about suburban traffic jams, but U.S. politicians are starting to pay attention to the sprawl problem. Presidential candidate Al Gore has raised the subject, and Maryland Governor Parris Glendening sounds downright alarmed. “Every time we cut down one more forest or sell off another acre of farmland, we have permanently lost more of our finite natural resources,” says Glendening. “Sprawl costs taxpayers dollars to support new infrastructure, costs natural resources that we know are not unlimited, and costs us as a society in lost opportunities to invest in our existing communities and neighborhoods.”

No one has an easy way to eliminate sprawl, but there are at least four strategies for containing it:


Borrowing on the idea behind the famed greenbelts surrounding English villages, many state and local governments in the U.S. are trying to concentrate growth in some places while sparing others. Glendening has decreed that roads and sewer lines will be provided only in designated areas. The oldest American experiment along these lines is the growth boundary around Portland, Oregon. Since 1979 development has been forbidden outside an area that covers 24 municipalities and three counties. The plan has kept sprawl in check, but competition for limited space has made the city an expensive place to live. Even if governments have the best intentions, growth boundaries are hard to maintain, as has already been found out in Britain, where greenbelts have come under pressure from developers.


If governments want to protect land, the easiest way is to buy it and take it off the market. New Jersey has issued bonds to raise $1 billion for the preservation of farms and woodlands, and the U.S. Congress mandates the use of $900 million each year to purchase undeveloped land, though it always falls short of allocating the full amount. In Japan activists like Yoshitoshi Era have helped prod local governments to step up land buying. “We have to protect what is left,” he says. Private groups and wealthy individuals can open their pocketbooks too. Preservation-minded Doug Tompkins, founder of the Esprit clothing company, has bought 640,000 acres (259,000 hectares) of forest land in Chile.


If a city has good rail and bus lines, then development can be concentrated around mass-transit stops rather than spread out all over the countryside. Public transport is still a tough sell in the U.S., but rail lines in most of the world have kept sprawl from being even worse than it is. Says Tony Burton, a member of the Council for the Protection of Rural England: “The dilemma is, if you don’t build roads, what do you do? Well, for a start, you prevent sprawl.” Curitiba, Brazil, is an up-and-coming city in which an efficient bus system has helped hold down road building.


In the U.S. especially, development moves out of town while perfectly good urban property is abandoned. Perverse incentives often encourage the trend. Banks deny mortgages in declining neighborhoods, and environmental regulations may make it more expensive for a developer to reclaim an abandoned urban site than to build on virgin land outside the city. But places like Baltimore, Maryland, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, have proved that downtowns can be revived. President Bill Clinton in 1996 signed an Executive Order requiring all new U.S. offices to be placed in urban areas if possible, preferably in historic buildings.

That kind of action makes sense. For decades to come, population growth will put more pressure on our wide-open spaces. So before the human race gobbles up any more land, we could make much better use of what we’ve already taken.

–With reporting by Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi, Helen Gibson/ London, Donald Macintyre/Tokyo and Amany Radwan/Cairo

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