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Home arrow Health arrow Best practices for environmental health : environmental pollution, protection, quality and sustainability


(See endnote 13)

Much of urban sprawl started to occur after World War II as the millions of service people came home from war and there was a huge baby boom. The Interstate Highway System was created and there was greater access to rapid means of traveling from outlying areas into the core cities. There was a huge economic expansion to satisfy the suppressed needs of a generation of young people as they started families and sought reasonably priced housing and new jobs. This resulted in a low average density of people in areas and therefore a substantial change in land- use patterns. Considerably lower land prices have fueled this expansion and allowed people to have large houses and large areas of land with relatively few inhabitants. Strip malls with large parking lots were created in place of green areas, affecting the natural environment. There was a new dependency on automobiles and this resulted in sharply increased air pollution. There was a substantial expansion of all types of utilities. The public investment in roads, public buildings, parks and green spaces, water, sewers, and other infrastructure did not meet the demands of the expansion and therefore has created additional problems. There is redundant cost for establishing multiple small municipalities which have a variety of political entities that may not interact easily or communicate well during emergencies and disasters. The various small groupings fragment open space and disrupt natural wildlife habitat while using up productive farmland and forest land. Throughout this process of development, there has been a lack of centralized or coordinated planning which has resulted in a large amount of unnecessary land consumption and disruption of the natural environment. This increases the cost of infrastructure which is underused, and therefore when problems occur, it makes it far more difficult to get adequate maintenance and repair.

Unfortunately, the unsettled problem of race relations caused a massive explosion and in 1967 the worst rioting in any American city ever occurred in Detroit, Michigan. It took the United States Army to quell the riots and resulted in a massive flight of the white population to surrounding counties and corporations with their numerous jobs followed. The city population shrank from almost 2 million to 680,000 people. As the city’s population shrank, the physical structure deteriorated rapidly and the tax base diminished, leading eventually to the city defaulting on its debt. Only in the last couple years have there been the beginnings of a revival of the city and hopefully a reemergence of this once important metropolis. Detroit has been an example of the problems of many of the inner city areas in the country.

Also, with all these individuals moving out to the suburbs, it reduces the tax rolls of the core cities and leaves those who are most disadvantaged, the poor, disabled, and elderly in situations where the cities may have to reduce services to them because of lack of proper funding.

Urban sprawl occurs when communities do not take into consideration appropriate land-use patterns and utilize formally rural areas for housing developments outside of the central cities. Land-use changes include deforestation; road construction; and encroachment on agricultural areas, areas of irrigation, coastal zones, wetlands, etc. The local ecosystems are affected or destroyed and numerous potential environmental protection and environmental health problems are created. Local farmers may sell their farms to developers in order to gain substantial profit for the land and find an easier lifestyle.

The level of emerging infectious diseases is exacerbated by the changes in the ecosystems. It has been shown that urban sprawl and loss of biodiversity are linked to an increase in Lyme disease in the northeastern United States. Nipah virus has emerged in Malaysia, and cryptosporidiosis in Europe and North America, and there has been a sharp increase in food-borne diseases. These diseases may be increasing because of the movement of wild animals into new and different areas. The importing of pets throughout the world is another factor in exposing our society to different microorganisms.

Air quality decreases and respiratory diseases increase primarily because of the increased use of automobiles which are necessary for the homeowners to travel to work, shopping, school, recreational areas, etc. Motor vehicle traffic is the main source of ground-level pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and 40% of the particulate matter (PM10). Ozone and sulfur dioxide are serious respiratory irritants and asthma triggers.

Urban heat islands increase and with it there is an increase in heat-related illnesses and death. When the natural cooling energy of vegetation and trees is removed and the heat-absorbing surfaces such as streets, driveways and roofs are increased, there is an increase of 2-8°F in the area.

Uncontrolled growth reduces green space which drastically affects surface and groundwater quality. Rainwater, which would have percolated slowly through the soil, now washes over asphalt, concrete, rooftops, and other areas which are contaminated with residues from automobiles and from other sources. Large quantities of water go across the surfaces and move quickly to stormwater drains, thereby reducing the amount of water percolating down through the ground to renourish the groundwater supply. Newly created housing developments and golf courses typically have lawns on which fertilizer and pesticides are used. These chemicals wash away with the stormwater runoff, into surface receiving bodies of water and contaminate them.

Septic systems become the mode of choice for disposal of sewage because many of the housing developments are a substantial distance from public sewer systems. Improper operation of these systems and poor soil conditions lead to contamination of the land, groundwater and surface water. From 1955, when the author first started in the environmental health field and inspected on-site sewage systems and wells on pieces of land that ranged from 10,000 square feet to at most 0.5 acre, until the present, some builders have tried to utilize as little land as possible in order to maximize profits. This has resulted in a huge amount of pressure on the groundwater supply to handle the effluent from many inefficient and poorly maintained septic systems. Adding wells to these sites contributes to the problems and to the potential for groundwater contamination.

In order to avoid contamination of the groundwater supply by building houses on too small a lot, Oakland County, Michigan instituted a “Groundwater Protection through Density Control” policy which stipulated that a three-bedroom house had to be built on at least 1 acre of land and a four- bedroom house had to be built on at least 1.25 acres. The health department which was in favor of the rule prevailed, although the rule was challenged in the courts.

Risk of flooding increases because of the destruction of wetlands. Houses are built in areas where wetlands have been drained and also on flood plains. Other barriers to flooding such as trees and grassy areas have been removed for new developments.

Accidental injuries increase sharply because of the increased use of bicycles by the population. The bicycles are used because they are convenient and promote fitness. Also, additional injuries occur because many of the residential areas do not have sidewalks and people have to walk in the street in part because of a lack of proper planning. These areas are particularly difficult to utilize by older people and disabled people.

Best Practices for Improving the Built Environment in Suburban Areas (See endnotes 19, 20)

  • • Conduct a Housing Capacity Study to determine how much land is needed to provide additional projected housing for expansion of the given suburban community for many years into the future. The study should include all potential existing sites such as empty space above stores that can be used for apartments, underused parking garages where areas might be converted into inexpensive housing, development of land that would function best for additional housing, and provide incentives for carrying out these projects.
  • • Provide proper, reasonable cost and frequent public transportation to the higher density areas and natural commercial corridors, and effectively connect all of the suburban communities as well as the urban core.
  • • Develop a plan for better use of the commercial corridors which typically have large underused or low-value land that can be used for new purposes such as commercial, retail and entertainment areas.
  • • Reuse vacant buildings as quickly as possible to avoid deterioration for new purposes rather than demolishing them and building new properties.
  • • Reconfigure land usage on dying or obsolete shopping malls in suburban areas and turn the structure and huge parking lots into compact mixed-use communities including office buildings, college or university extensions, residential buildings, etc. where people will have all the amenities necessary including green spaces and also be close to jobs.
  • • Revamp and enhance suburban town centers including all the stores, restaurants, places of entertainment, and other services that people desire.
  • • Determine the demographics, preference and potential increase in growth of the population and where they would appear to want to live, and establish necessary plans for increased density mixed-use communities in those areas.
  • • Develop energy-efficient plans for existing structures and the use of underused space.
  • • Establish a council of local municipalities who will work together on infrastructure projects as the communities expand into one large group around the urban core city. This will make projects less costly and have the least chance of being repetitive in nature.
  • • Develop bike lanes, pedestrian trails and sidewalks along with green areas to help improve the health and safety of the population and reduce pollutants.
  • • Build a comprehensive approach to the infrastructure and access to reused land as well as new land for projects.
  • • Include in all planning for revitalizing areas adequate amounts of public space for trails, sidewalks, pedestrian walkways, and bicycle lanes where appropriate.
  • • Consider in all planning the necessity for appropriate oversight and management of the areas and adequate financing for programs of continued maintenance of all properties and infrastructure as well as replacement of facilities and equipment as needed.
  • • Develop a variety of financing tools and funding sources for construction of structures and necessary infrastructure. This topic is so vast that it cannot be covered in a book of this nature.
  • • Develop studies in communities to identify, analyze, and help make decisions on how best to improve pedestrian traffic based on pedestrian volume and other environmental aspects at different points along the roads and streets. (See endnote 18.)

Also see Best Practices for Improving the Built Environment in Urban Areas.

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