Chapter 1 | Some Overarching Issues: Sustainability, Sprawl, and Human Health


Some issues arise frequently in contemporary discussions of planning issues. “Sprawl” as a concept often gets more media attention than does the type of planning that we hope to use to manage it.   Issues of sustainability and conservation of important resources are of increasing concern in many communities, as we realize that even our supplies of land and water are not infinite. In the last decade, a number of studies have verified what common sense has long suggested – that the design of neighborhoods and communities directly affects the daily exercise routines and long-range health of people who live there. This chapter introduces these subjects and places them in the context of modern planning practice; extensive references in the chapter lead to more information for those who want to explore these topics further.

Weblinks from Chapter


  1. Is your community sprawling?  Use census data to see if it has increased the amount of land per capita as it has expanded.
  2. Is your neighborhood walkable?  If you live in an older (more than 10 years old) neighborhood, go to some new neighborhoods in your community and see if they are walkable?
  3. Find out what percentage of elementary students are bused to school. If possible, find out what percentage of the rest walk or ride their bikes (some are undoubtedly driven by parents).  Do these numbers seem reasonable?
  4. Are there any LEED certified or other “green” buildings in your community?  If open to the public, visit one and learn about it.
  5. Does the local (or regional) economic development program include a sustainability element?

Discussion Questions

  1. What steps could be taken to reduce automobile dependence in your community over the next ten years?
  2. What are some economic development opportunities for your community that would build on available local resources and workforce?
  3. Pick two or three neighborhoods and identify some simple steps that would make them more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.


  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration makes available a variety of satellite photos that show the effects of sprawl. In one on-line article, it has graphically reproduced the effects of sprawl around Baltimore, Maryland.
  • The Sierra Club has taken a long-term interest in sprawl and has published a great deal of data and a number of examples about sprawl. It also provides healthy growth calculator that you can use to see how your decisions relate to issues of sprawl and sustainability.
  • The City of San Francisco has adopted a sustainability plan under the title Sustainable City; the website for that plan provides extensive information about the plan and its implications.
  • Klamath Sustainable Communities is an organization promoting sustainable practices throughout the Klamath Valley, in the area around Klamath Falls, Oregon.
  • The Sustainable Communities Network provides resources on making communities sustainable and links to activities in several communities with sustainability initiatives.
  • The City of Austin, Texas, is one of a number of communities that has adopted its own Climate Protection Plan.

Supplemental Resources

  • The Centers for Disease Control provides extensive resources on Designing and Building Healthy Places; this video, prepared by CDC and narrated by Dr. Howard Frumkin, provides an excellent overview of the issues – see here.
  • For an additional discussion of sprawl and public health, see here.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides extensive resources on growth, development and sustainability.
  • California-based Public Health Law and Policy provides resources and links on “Planning for Healthy Places”.
  • Health by Design, a non-profit organization based in Indianapolis, provides extensive resources on the relationship between physical design and public health; the projects list is particularly interesting.
  • For information on climate change, see the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which operates as part of the United Nations Environment Programme.
  • In 2009, the U.S. Green Building Council was actively developing LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for planning neighborhoods, to supplement the its LEED standards for buildings.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides an accessible, user-friendly website providing information about global warming and climate change.
  • The Nature Conservancy, an international nonprofit organization long involved in land preservation, has tackled the issue of climate change and provides a number of related resources.
  • For a somewhat different perspective on climate change – and what we ought to do about it – see the video of the lecture of James Lovelock to the Royal Society in 2007. James Lovelock is perhaps best known for proposing the “Gaia hypothesis,” that the earth is a complex set of systems that, over the long-run, is self-regulating and can itself address issues like global cooling (an issue when he proposed the hypothesis) and warming. In this taped lecture, he expresses great concern about the rate of human impact on the environment but argues that some of the proposed solutions could make things worse rather than better. He has his own website, which includes citations to his books and articles.
  • For a discussion of the effects of sprawl on wildlife, see resources provided by the Natural Resources Defense Council.