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Sprawl Isn’t Smart Growth: A Brief Overview of a Complex Issue

Urban sprawl. Photo courtesy of Urbanize Hub


By Alice Kaufman, Legislative Advocacy Director, Committee for Green Foothills

What is sprawl?

Most people agree that sprawl development — unchecked or unplanned development out on the fringes of an urban area — is the wrong path for future growth. Sprawl consumes precious open space with low-density development that requires people to drive longer distances and to drive more frequently (if not everywhere they go). This increased traffic makes commutes longer and increases air pollution and greenhouse gases. Studies have shown that sprawl contributes to a whole host of health problems, from asthma to obesity and diabetes to a greater rate of injuries in car accidents. And taxpayers bear much of the cost imposed by sprawl, as public services and infrastructure cost more when development is low-density and sprawling rather than compact and centrally-located.


Smart growth is an alternative.

There is another alternative: smart growth is the opposite of sprawl.

Smart growth calls for compact, walkable, transit-oriented communities with a mix of residential and commercial uses. When people live near both transit hubs and the basic services that residents need — grocery stores and other retail, schools, parks, libraries, fire stations, police, and more — they drive less often. This not only reduces air emissions from vehicles, it results in a more pleasant and desirable neighborhood.

A critical part of smart growth includes concentrating growth in infill areas rather than allowing development to be located on the outer edges of cities. When development is located on the urban edge, it increases driving for those who live or work there, and it puts surrounding open space and farmland at greater risk of development. Even a development that is compact and mixed-use is still not following smart growth principles if it is located on the periphery of an urban area.

Infill planning is a key part of smart growth; today, it’s the planning gold standard that cities aim for. Prioritizing infill development is a complete reversal from the way planning was done in the 1970s and 1980s, when subdivided, suburban residential neighborhoods were the norm — acres of vacant land were turned into planned neighborhoods with artificially created streets and cul-de-sacs. Sometimes these communities were located just off a highway ramp with nothing else nearby, making driving a mandatory prerequisite.


The Protect Coyote Valley campaign is against sprawl and the loss of the open space. We are for addressing the housing issue the region is facing.

Protect Coyote Valley recognizes both the gifts that our irreplaceable open space provides and the urgent need for suitable housing. We are opposed to urban sprawl; it is unnecessary to sprawl to provide additional housing when there are so many opportunities for infill in San Jose. Sprawl results in urban development of significantly poorer quality while sacrificing unique habitats we cannot afford to lose. Development in Coyote Valley will only exacerbate the problems existing sprawl causes:

  • Increased traffic congestion and longer commute times
  • Poorer air quality and water quality
  • Heightened risk of flooding due to pavement that prevents water absorption (this made the impact of Hurricane Harvey even worse)
  • Dooming wildlife to extinction through the elimination of habitat
  • Endangering active farmlands and locally-grown food production

We can do better by embracing the principles of smart growth.


Haze settles over Coyote Valley. Photo credit: Patty Cullen

Once Coyote Valley is developed, there’s no going back.

Let’s protect this regional treasure. Sign-up to Protect Coyote Valley.


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About Protect Coyote Valley

The Protect Coyote Valley campaign is led by the Committee for Green Foothills and supported by Greenbelt Alliance, Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, and SAGE — Sustainable Agriculture Education. It aims to preserve Coyote Valley, San Jose as open space that offers flood-buffering wetlands, an essential wildlife habitat and migratory area, and active farmlands.

Alice Kaufman is the Legislative Advocacy Director at Committee for Green Foothills. She is a founding member of Redwood City Neighbors United, a community group working to oppose the massive Cargill/DMB Saltworks development on the Redwood City salt ponds.