Sunday, August 3, 2008

Urban Sprawl? Just the opposite… But are we ready?

Where’s everybody going? With gas prices so high, I guess you could say “not far”. For a number of years now, urban sprawl has remained a topic of concern in America. Will that trend continue?

Nowadays, just the opposite may occur. Many people are moving from the suburbs back to the inner city. They’re trading their large suburban homes for apartments, condos and busy streets. What used to be noisy, unattractive, cluttered living is now being redeveloped and relabeled as “spacious efficiencies”, lofts, and upscale condos. Developers are turning rundown buildings in the heart of downtown into newly improved multi-unit dwellings. Parking lots are being turned in to multi-level parking garages to accommodate the number of city dwellers that enter the city limits for business, work, or entertainment.

With many cities beginning to realize that the demand to relocate in urban areas is on the rise, what environmental effects should they prepare for? In the past, many people wanted to get away from inner city pollution, noise, and overcrowding. Now the trend is to move back to the city. There are many factors that play a role in encouraging this move, including rising fuel costs, decreased commuting time, and increased leisure time. But what impact does this shift in population have on the environment?

Will there be more inner-city garbage collection, litter, carbon/emissions, run-off from construction, and higher concentrations of health related illnesses? Or will we see fewer transactions costs associated with waste collection and a higher use of substitutes to gas-guzzling cars such as bikes and scooters? Perhaps we’ll witness an increase in the natural environment in the outskirts of the city, including more trees, grass, clean streams and animal life. Perhaps obesity will decline as commuting by vehicle becomes less frequent. In fact, maybe high gas prices aren’t so bad after all.

Here in Knoxville, we have seen a movement for increased bike paths, more efficient land-use, and a downtown facelift that should promote further loft and condo living within walking distance of work, school, shopping, and entertainment.

How will this new transition be handled? Will increased government assistance be necessary to make this transition? Can a “green” society develop in light of increased population density in urban areas?

In my opinion, the “opposite urban-sprawl” (a.k.a. “rural sprawl”) will have a positive impact on the environment. As cities encourage residents to move downtown and high gas prices provide parallel incentives, we may witness a more conscientious society with regards to the environment – one that relies more on environmentally friendly modes of transportation. In addition, with increased community engagement in the city, my hopes are that the political agenda will properly consider this conscientiousness toward a greener society when establishing new policies.

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