Losing Ground To Urban Sprawl

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Published on: Sep. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

Do you ever think about the incredible changes that have taken place within the last century? In the early 1900s, we didn't have cars, airplanes, television, spacecraft, computers or the Internet. Most homes were modest, roads were better suited for horses than "horsepower," and the majority of the population-only about 1/4 of the number we have in the country today-lived in rural areas.

It would be hard to argue that the changes haven't been good for us. People live longer and are healthier. Despite the larger population, we have, on average, more living space. Certainly, we have much more opportunity for education, personal enrichment and entertainment than ever before. We also work fewer hours and receive more pay. Machines now perform our most laborious tasks.

Good things always come at a cost, however. Some would argue that the price of our technological revolution has been a weakening of family and community ties, a loss of spirituality and a dilution of our moral standards. Nature, too, has had to bear part of the cost, and its share of the bill seems to be getting larger all the time.

As recently as 20 years ago, you may have been growing up on a family farm or living on a nice, 60-acre tract on a quiet county road. Deer, turkey, quail, and songbirds were just some of the abundant wildlife you would see each day.

Today, our countryside is changing. People seeking the same idyllic lifestyle try to buy a little piece of it when a local farmer sells off his property piece by piece. Soon, there is a house on every tract of 10 acres or less. These new rural dwellers are generally nice people, but put them all on the road together, especially in the mornings and evenings as they travel to and from work, and the quiet countryside becomes crowded and hectic.

The dispersion of city dwellers to nearby rural areas is commonly called urban sprawl, but it's not just occurring near the cities. It is also taking place in many "rural" counties, too.

Sprawl can be a gradual process. You don't notice it until you compare the past with the present. How many more houses, people, and cars are now present where there was a forest or an open field of prairie grasses just five or 10 years ago?

By 1998, 36 percent of Missouri's population lived outside city limits, while 64 percent lived in cities. Between 1990 and 1998, growth outside the city limits in Missouri had increased in all but 15 of Missouri's 114 counties. Rural populations accounted for more than 50 percent of the total population in 59 counties, many of which are in the Ozarks.

The human population shift has dramatic effects on wildlife and plant populations. Several things happen to natural resources as development occurs. First, as more houses dot the landscape, natural resources are destroyed. Some forest or grassland is lost for every house that is built. The new homes and mowed yards displace natural habitat.

Sprawl also results in habitat fragmentation. It divides expanses of forests and grasslands into smaller, disconnected pieces. Instead of having large blocks of forest habitat, we now have many small woodlands with grassy openings (yards), usually with a house set square in the middle of each one. Animals can no longer travel safely from one patch of habitat to another. One result of this habitat fragmentation is that our roads end up as killing fields for our deer, opossums, turtles and many other wildlife species.

Loss or fragmentation of their natural habitat directly threatens many species of wildlife. The prothonatory warbler, for example, a neotropical songbird, needs large blocks of forest for protection from competition by cowbirds, another exotic, predatory species. Biologists and ecologists have reported declines in plant and animal diversity and population numbers wherever development occurs.

The increase in development and loss of habitat also leads to more conflict between wildlife and people. In addition to the increase in car-animal collisions, we find more squirrels or raccoons in our attics, more skunks and groundhogs in our crawl spaces and beneath our decks and more snakes in our yards.

One of the more negative aspects of development is an inevitable increase in the amount of impervious surfaces in the form of building roofs, paved roads, driveways and sidewalks. Even short grass lawns on compacted soils can be considered impervious. When it rains, water runs off these surfaces quicker and in greater quantity than it would naturally, and reaches streams much faster than if it traveled through plants and soil, which work both as a sponge and a filter.

Because water is reaching streams faster and in higher volumes, flash floods and destabilized stream banks are greater problems than they used to be. To make matters worse, the runoff from impervious surfaces carries oil, road chemicals, spilled gasoline, misapplied lawn chemicals, and eroded soil directly to streams, instead of first filtering it through forest and grassland.

The water runs off at a fast pace instead of soaking into the soil to be released later. Lacking normal seepage from the soil, these altered streams carry less water at "normal" flow, and may even dry up after the rain stops, making them unable to support aquatic life.

Impervious surfaces, warmed by sunshine, also get hotter and stay hotter for longer periods than natural vegetation. Bricks and concrete used in buildings and streets slowly release heat long after sunset, making the downtown areas of cities such as St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as those of smaller cities like Kirksville and West Plains, routinely five to 15 degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside.

In the summer, storm runoff from these hot surfaces increases the overall temperature of nearby streams, lakes and ponds. Temperatures can rise so high that the water has little oxygen-carrying capacity, which can lead to massive fish kills.

A More Natural Balance

We may not be able to stop urban sprawl, but we can counter some of its negative effects. The key is for developers and modern-age settlers to include nature in development plans.

Trees, prairies, and other natural habitats have benefits and values beyond providing places for our wild species to live. Trees provide important protection from storm water runoff, reduce noise and light pollution and lower heating and cooling costs. Natural areas provide recreational opportunities, help clean the water and the air, and improve the quality of life for people.

The presence of natural features has been shown to increase a property's real estate value. It even increases the value of neighboring properties.

When developers take such values into account, natural features can become an important part of the development infrastructure, just like water and electric lines.

Some developers have already taken this track. They leave trees, natural areas and stream buffers. They construct natural footpaths and provide linear parks that wildlife can use as natural corridors when traveling.

Urban sprawl is not just a city issue; it's a statewide issue. Missouri's natural resources are being affected, and it will take many people working together in different ways to make a difference.

Once our natural resources and habitats are destroyed or fragmented, they are gone forever. With some forethought, development and natural resources can coexist.

What can you do to help?

If you are thinking about moving to the country, consider alternatives. Sometimes the country lifestyle has more charm from a distance than it does up close. Do you really want to leave behind the services and conveniences of urban living? Do you really want to commute to work every day? The commute distance becomes even more important as gas prices soar.

If you are already or will be contributing to urban sprawl, soften your effect on nature by managing your yard or acreage for wildlife. Can you increase natural habitat by having less lawn? Plant native grasses, flowers, trees and shrubs. Encourage your neighbors to cooperate on a community project to establish larger blocks of natural habitat. Free advice is available from the Conservation Department.

Promote development patterns that encourage housing density in some places while leaving larger blocks of open space nearby. It's good conservation to subdivide an area so that houses with smaller yards are grouped together and all the neighbors, as well as wildlife, share large blocks of common space. This "natural commons" approach increases the amount of property available for the enjoyment of residents, while it leaves wildlife habitat intact.

Support efforts to protect key tracts of land in developing areas. Public land ownership, whether through state, city or county efforts, can help protect key blocks of natural resources from development. However, the government is not the only answer. Private efforts, such as land trusts or conservation easements, can effectively protect critical areas.

Get involved. If you have planning and zoning where you live (most cities and more than 20 counties do), pay attention to what's going on. You don't necessarily have to oppose development, but you can advocate for streams, forests and grasslands. Make certain city and county ordinances allow for more environmentally friendly practices such as conservation subdivisions and native landscaping. Good planning and zoning, aided by citizen involvement, can help protect Missouri's natural resources.

Incorporating Nature into Development

Cities, counties, developers, and builders can incorporate nature into the development process in several ways.

Identify and save key natural features on the site.

Save forested stream corridors and blocks of forests and prairies in yards or as part of common areas.

Use wetlands as part of storm water control systems.

Minimize impervious surfaces by reducing road and parking surfaces.

Fit buildings into the landscape to minimize grading and other construction impacts.

Require the planting of trees and re-establishment of native plants.

Make sure the green space forms a connected system that encourages safe wildlife travel.

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