Urban sprawl has growing impact on parks

The extent to which humans affect the environment is largely underestimated.

To help conserve the environment, the United States government has designated 59 areas as national parks and has assigned an agency to protect these areas. Although these areas are supposed to be safe from the negative influences of humans, inevitably, these areas also face environmental problems.

Biscayne National Park, the park encompassing the Biscayne Bay in South Florida, is a national park that has historically faced a series of problems. Unlike most national parks, 95 percent of this park is water making it a difficult environment to maintain.

Click on the video at the right to view multimedia about the impact of urban sprawl on South Florida national parks prepared by writer Orianna Cirigiiano.

Likewise, Everglades National Park, located just a few miles to the west of Biscayne Bay, represents difficulties as it contains a very unique ecosystem. As delicate as these two areas are, South Florida has grown alongside these parks threatening and slowly compromising the integrity of the surrounding environment.

Urban sprawl is at the base of all the problems affecting Biscayne and Everglades National Park. Urban sprawl is the technical term given to the rise of suburban neighborhoods as a city expands outwards with low-density development. While this may seem more optimal than a very densely packed city, this is not the case as the large expanse of suburban development has a larger negative impact on the environment. Unfortunately, this is precisely how Miami and much of South Florida has grow.

At right, the extent of urban development of South Florida is best seen from the air. Below, additional photos displaying the urban growth of the Miami-Dade County area (Photos by Orianna Cirigliano). urbansprawl1

“We don’t really have a central city anymore,” commented Dr. Donald B. Olson, professor of Physical Oceanography and the associate director of the Marine Science Undergraduate Program at the University of Miami. “We are constrained on both sides. We have built to the edge of Everglades National Park and spread to Biscayne Bay. As a result, the sprawl is nonlinear because we are bound between these two areas.”

Although urban sprawl in South Florida has not spread into either of the two actual national parks, it has still had a negative effect on these due to their close proximity.

urbansprawl2“Ultimately, the areas just back from the shoreline are most affected. The shorelines are mostly unaffected because of the presence of mangroves and other protected species. It is the area just a bit higher ground that is most impacted,” explained Dr. William Drennan, associate dean of Undergraduate Education and director of the Undergraduate Program in Ecosystem Science Policy at the University of Miami.

On a superficial level, urban sprawl takes land away from nature but deeper analysis of this issue reveals much more serious problems which can have serious implications for people as well as the environment.

Biscayne National Park is a protected area however, it is a popular recreational area for water sports.

Boaters, divers, fisherman and tourists constantly use the national park and many times they aren’t even aware of its status as a protected area. The constant presence of people lends itself to pollution and other forms of environmental disruption.

Development close to the shoreline is also very detrimental to the coast. Beach erosion is one environmental problem which is exacerbated by this growth as is the spread of pollution to the sea.

While Biscayne National Park borders South Florida to the east, similar problems are faced by the national park which borders this suburban sprawl to the west.

urbansprawl3“Building up to the Everglades and so close to the border of this national park means that water is taken from the Everglades,” said Jacqueline Crucet, director of Program Development for the Sun Coast Region of the National Parks Conservation Association. “This is especially detrimental because the water that flows through the Everglades shapes and provides nutrients to the land and vegetation and helps to sustain animal life. Us humans depend on that water supply as well.”

Concerns about water quality and water supply are the biggest argument against urban sprawl in South Florida.

“As the city has expanded to the south we have taken over more and more Pine rock land area,” explained Drennan, who commented that pine rockland is necessary for the proper drainage of water from Everglades National Park.

urbansprawl4In addition to the takeover of pine rockland, urban sprawl is synonymous with concrete. When concrete is used to cover soil and natural ground, rainfall isn’t absorbed into aquifers and it runs off into streams and canals. This decreases both the quantity and quality of water supply in the area.

While none of the damage which has been caused by the past decades of urban sprawl is reversible, stopping the spread of development will significantly help the environment.

“Fortunately, Miami is improving a lot that way,” acknowledged Drennan. “Traffic is so bad that people are less interested in living in the city so some of the pressure is already coming off.”

Like Drennan, many other experts expect that the hassles of living in an urban sprawl will eventually cause areas like this to be less popular and less desirable. This will likely stop the development in the South Florida area and represent a big relief to the environments in Biscayne and Everglades National Park. Until then, it is necessary to continue to monitor these areas and address any new or pressing environmental concerns.

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