Urban Sprawl

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Urban Sprawl


Urban sprawl may be defined as the low-density, haphazard housing development that spreads out around modern towns and cities. The terms sprawl and suburbia are often used interchangeably and pejoratively to describe inferior forms of development, compared, presumably, with the ideal model of the compact urban form of the historical European city. Urban sprawl is typified as bad, physically because it is so spread out with a lack of local facilities; socially because of boredom among residents and a lack of community identity; economically because of residents dependency on the motorcar and thus upon politically sensitive international oil supplies; and environmentally because of the impact on agriculture and native habitats and the increased generation of pollution and urban waste.

Until the nineteenth century, towns and cities were generally limited in extent because local facilities and employment had to be within walking distance of home, while longer journeys utilizing horse transport were time-consuming and often dangerous. The coming of the railways enabled people to escape the city and live further from their workplace. But residential density and expansion were still constrained by accessibility to the nearest train station. The development of the motorcar, and the growth of public transport omnibus routes, meant that transport was no longer limited to fixed-track systems. Potentially, people could live anywhere. Factors that hastened suburban sprawl included cheap vehicle fuel and mass production of motorcars, mass commercial house-building, cheap mortgages, weak urban-planning control, a cultural desire to have a home of ones own, and the trend for aspiring households to abandon the inner city and move up and out.

While suburban development was rapid, extensive, and encouraged in North America, Western European governments were anxious to control expansion because their countries are so much smaller and there is simply not the space to expand or to give the motorcar and road-building projects unfettered freedom. For example, the land area of the British Isles fits into Texas alone six times, and France fits four times. By the 1930s, regulations were being introduced to control urban sprawl, to protect farmland, and to prevent the tentacles of ribbon development house-building alongside intercity highways, invading the countryside. Retaining enough agricultural land to be self-sufficient in food was recognized as vital following World War II (19391945) shipping blockades of the British Isles. In the postwar period, strict spatial-planning legislation was introduced to prevent the town from engulfing the countryside. For example, green belts were designated around major cities to act as cordons to prevent further outward development.

Recognition of urban sprawl as a problem is relative, depending on the size of a countrys population and its land area. Some countries have maintained a laissezfaire approach toward urban sprawl. In New Zealand, a country of comparable size to Britain but with only four million inhabitants (in contrast to Britains fifty-nine million), large tracts of low-density, single-story bungalow development surround the major cities, and new subdivided residential developments have mushroomed with little apparent planning control within scenic rural areas. Although there may be lots of space to expand, environmental considerations now have to be taken into account under resource-management planning legislation. Likewise, in Australia there are increasing demands to protect koala bear habitats from encroachment by house builders. Houses built on the edges of cities alongside wilderness areas are in danger of being destroyed by forest fires, which can take hold rapidly during the dry season, as has been witnessed in recent years on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia; San Diego, California; and also in southern France and Portugal.

The low-density, spread-out nature of suburban sprawl, creates many practical problems too. Residents are completely dependent upon the motorcar to get from one land-use and amenity to another. Distances are often too great to contemplate walking to school or work. Retail provision is likely to be in an out-of-town shopping mall (Kunstler 1994), rather than along a Main Street (as fondly re-created by the Disney Company in the town of Celebration, Florida). Some North American housing developments are designed with no footpaths or sidewalks alongside the roads, making it impossible for residents to walk around their area. Land-use zoning regulations, introduced to protect the quality of an area, often result in miles and miles of nothing but housing with no other uses allowed. Socially, such areas are just dormitory suburbs, which people leave each day to commute downtown to work. Many sociological studies, including feminist research (Hayden 2002), have shown that housewives, mothers, children, young teenagers, and the elderly may feel trapped in the suburbs, with little chance of accessing the outside world. There is little room for social diversity and minority considerations (Reeves 2005). Environmentally, urban sprawl is not sustainable either. Major infrastructural investment is required to provide roads, water, sewerage, drainage, garbage disposal, power, and other utilities and services to dispersed housing developments. Water shortages and power outages, exacerbated by climate change as a result of global warming, have become a common feature of some such residential areas (Lees 2004).

Urbanization and suburbanization are major global trends (Greed 2002). The rate of growth is far greater in the developing world, where a less affluent but pervasive form of urban sprawl is taking place: namely, the shanty town, as found, for example, in Latin America, where both Mexico City and São Paolo, Brazil, have populations of over twenty million. Unregulated development may cover a larger land area than the existing city, as people move in from the countryside to seek jobs in the town. Unlike affluent Western urbanization, third-world sprawl is generally high-density, socially deprived, lacking infrastructure, and relatively carless. But, unlike Western suburbanites, barrio dwellers may have a strong sense of community and local neighborhood identity, albeit brought about by shared adversity.

What are the alternatives to urban sprawl? There is a need to create cities that are more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. European planners have suggested the ideal of the city of everyday life, which would be based on higher densities, multiple functional local centers, walking distances, and public transport (Greed 2002). Likewise, the postmodern new urbanism in North America promotes a greater sense of community and a more human scale of design (Ellin 1999). Meanwhile planners stress the importance of urban renewal, infill, and higher densities. But the Anglo-American urban cultural tradition still favors low-rise, low-density housing solutions, in contrast to the European tradition of high-density apartment living and Asian high-rise solutions. The majority of the populations of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand live in the suburbs. The reality is that ordinary people with families want to live in the suburbs, and are willing to put up with long congested commutes to work to do so. But suburban sprawl is not a sustainable option. The challenge for the future is to create more compact cities, which are nevertheless pleasant and acceptable places to live, work, and relax.


Ellin, Nan. 1999. Postmodern Urbanism. Rev. ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Greed, Clara. 2002. Introducing Planning. London and New Brunswick, NJ: Athlone.

Hayden, Dolores. 2002. Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life Rev. ed. New York: Norton.

Kunstler, James Howard. 1994. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of Americas Man-Made Landscape. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Lees, Loretta, ed. 2004. The Emancipatory City? Paradoxes and Possibilities. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Reeves, Dory. 2005. Planning for Diversity: Policy and Planning in a World of Difference. London and New York: Routledge.

Clara Greed

Urban Sprawl

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Urban sprawl

Today, most American cities are characterized by decaying central downtowns from which residents and businesses have fled to low-density suburbs spreading out around a network of increasingly congested freeways. This development pattern consumes open space, wastes resources, and leaves historic central cities with a reduced tax base and fewer civic leaders living or working in downtown neighborhoods. Streets, parks, schools, and civic buildings fall into disrepair at the same time that these facilities are being duplicated at great expense in new suburbs. The poor who are left behind when the upper and middle classes abandon the city center often can't find jobs where they live and have no way to commute to the suburbs where jobs are now located. The low-density development of suburbs is racially and economically exclusionary because it provides no affordable housing and makes it impractical to design a viable public transit system.

At the same time that inner cities are hollowing out, the amenities that people have moved to the outskirts in search of prove to be fleeting. Hoping to find a open space, opportunities for outdoor recreation , access to wild nature , scenic views, and a rural ambience, they find, instead, sprawling developments based on only a few housing styles. The checkerboard layout of nearly identical lots with little public space is permittedor even requiredby local zoning and ordinances, consumes agricultural land and fragments wildlife habitat . To make house construction more efficient, land in large housing developments generally is bulldozed, removing vegetation or other landmarks that might make a neighborhood recognizable.

Traffic becomes increasingly congested as more and more cars clog streets and freeways, driving the much longer distances to jobs and shopping required by dispersed living patterns. In Los Angeles, for example, which has the worst congestion in the United States, the average speed in 1982 was 58 mph (93 km/hr) and the average driver spent less than four hours per year in traffic jams. In 2000, the average speed in Los Angeles was only 35.6 mph (57.3 km/hr) and the average driver spent 82 hours per year waiting for traffic. Although new automobiles are much more efficient and cleaner operating than those of a few decades ago, the fact that we drive so much further today and spend so much more time idling in stalled traffic means that we burn more fuel and produce more pollution than ever before. Thus, the poor urban air quality people fled to the country to escape follows them and is made worse by the greater distances they drive every day.

Altogether, traffic congestion is estimated to cost the United States $78 billion per year in wasted time and fuel. Some people argue that the existence of traffic jams in cities shows that more freeways are needed. Often, however, building more traffic lanes simply encourages more people to drive further than they did before. Rather than ease congestion and save fuel, more freeways can exacerbate the problem.

As Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening said: "In its path, sprawl consumes thousands of acres of forests and farmland, woodlands and wetlands .It requires government to spend millions extra to build new schools, streets and water and sewer lines." Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey Governor and Head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has said, "Sprawl eats up our open space. It creates traffic jams that boggle the mind and pollute the air. Sprawl can make one feel downright claustrophobic about our future." While there is no universally accepted definition of urban sprawl, it generally includes the characteristics:

  • unlimited outward urban expansion
  • low-density residential and commercial development
  • leapfrog growth that consumes farmland and natural areas
  • fragmentation of power among many small units of government
  • dominance of freeways and private automobiles
  • no centralized planning or control of land-uses
  • widespread strip-malls and "big-box" shopping centers
  • great fiscal disparities among localities
  • reliance on deteriorating older neighborhoods for low-in-come housing
  • decaying city centers as new developments occurs in previously rural areas

Among the alternatives to unplanned sprawl and wasteful resource use proposed by urban planners are smart growth and conservation design. These new approaches make efficient and effective use of land resources and existing infrastructure by encouraging development that avoids costly duplication of services and inefficient land use . They aim to provide a mix of land uses to create a variety of affordable housing choices and opportunities. They also attempt to provide a variety of transportation choices including pedestrian friendly neighborhoods. This approach to planning also seeks to maintain a unique sense of place by respecting local cultural and natural features.

By making land use planning open and democratic, smart growth and conservation design strive to make urban expansion fair, predictable, and cost-effective. All stakeholders are encouraged to participate in creating a vision for the city and to collaborate rather than confront each other. Goals are established for staged and managed growth in urban transition areas with compact development patterns. This approach is not opposed to growth. It recognizes that the goal is not to block growth but to channel it to areas where it can be sustained over the long term. It tries to enhance access to equitable public and private resources for everyone and to promote the safety, livability, and revitalization of existing urban and rural communities.

Rather than abandon the cultural history and infrastructure investment in existing cities a group of architects and urban planners is attempting to redesign metropolitan areas to make them more appealing, efficient, and livable. European cities such as Stockholm, Sweden, Helsinki, Finland, Leichester, England, and Neerlands, the Netherlands, have a long history of innovative urban planning. In the United States, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Peter Calthorpe, and Sym Van Der Ryn have been leaders in what is sometimes called the new urbanist movement or neotraditionalist approach. These designers attempt to recapture some of the best features of small towns and the best cities of the past. They are designing urban neighborhoods that integrate houses, offices, shops, and civic buildings. Ideally, no house should be more than a five-minute walk from a neighborhood center with a convenience store, a coffee shop, a bus stop, and other amenities. A mix of apartments, townhouses, and detached houses in a variety of price ranges insures that neighborhoods will include a diversity of ages and income levels.

Where building new neighborhoods in rural areas is necessary, conservation design, cluster housing, or open space-zoning preserves at least half of a subdivision as natural areas, farmland, or other forms of open space. Among the leaders in this design movement are landscape architects Ian McHarg, Frederick Steiner, and Randall Arendt. They have shown that people who move to the country don't necessarily want to own a vast acreage or to live miles from the nearest neighbor; what they most desire is long views across an interesting landscape, an opportunity to see wildlife, and access to walking paths through woods or across wildflower meadows.

By carefully clustering houses on smaller lots, a conservation subdivision can provide the same number of buildable lots as a conventional subdivision and still preserve 5070% of the land as open space. This not only reduces development costs (less distance to build roads, lay telephone lines, sewers, power cables, etc.) but also helps foster a greater sense of community among new residents. Walking paths and recreation areas get people out of their houses to meet their neighbors. Homeowners have smaller lots to care for and yet everyone has an attractive vista and a feeling of spaciousness.

Some good examples of this approach are Farmview near Yardley, Pennsylvania, and Hawknest in Delafield Township, Wisconsin. In Farmview, 332 homes are clustered in six small villages set in a 414 acre (160 ha) rural landscape, more than half of which is dedicated as permanent farmland. House lots and villages were strategically placed to maximize views, helping the development to lead its county in sales for upscale developments. Hawksnest is situated in dairy-farming country outside of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Seventy homes are situated amid 180 acres (70 ha) of meadows, ponds, and woodlands. Restored prairie , neighborhood recreational facilities, and connections to a national scenic trail have proved to be valuable marketing assets for this subdivision.

[William P. Cunningham Ph.D. ]



Arendt, Randall G. Conservation Design for Subdivisions: A Practical Guide to Creating Open Space Networks. Covelo, CA: Island Press, 1996.

Beatly, T. Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities. Covelo, CA: Island Press, 2000.

Benfield, F. Kaid, Donald D. T. Chen, and Matthew D. Raimi, eds. Once There Were Greenfields: How Urban Sprawl Is Undermining Americas's Environment, Economy, and Social Fabric. New York: Natural Resources Defense Council, 1999.

Calthorpe, Pete, and William Fulton. The Regional City: Planning for the end of Sprawl. Covelo, CA: Island Press, 2000.

Duany, Andres, Jeff Speck, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Smart Growth Manual. New York: McGraw-Hill Co., 2002.

McHarg, Ian. Design with Nature. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995.

Urban Sprawl

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Land use choices strongly affect public health. More or less direct effects on air and water pollution are well recognized, but other less direct but important impacts have only recently begun to reach public attention. "Urban sprawl" may be defined as development of low-population-density settlements around high-density cities, either by emigration from the core cities or by influx of new residents from elsewhere.

Sprawl results from thousands of personal decisions and from policies and subsidies that are outcomes of the electoral process. Special interests such as the highway and automobile lobbies spend vast sums to exert pressure; developers often state sincerely that they will build whatever the market demands. The fact that sprawl is in part subsidized by government policiesfor example, building roads and sewers and supporting low gas prices partly at the expense of non-users, in effect providing greater subsidies for suburban than for low-income core-city housingfurther emphasizing that the "choice" of living in sprawl development is not a simple free-market or quality of life option. In addition, in choosing sprawl over core city redevelopment, we are in effect incurring public health burdens.


Air Pollution. Life in sprawl developments demands up to three times as much driving as in high-density urban areas. Since high levels of the monitored pollutants can trigger loss of federal highway funds, affected metropolitan regions such as Atlanta are changing their development policies. Light rail and other forms of mass transit can reduce auto pollution in suitable situations but, in the absence of special planning, may not decrease sprawl.

Water Pollution. In 1998 the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) reported that 35 percent of the nation's rivers and 45 percent of its lakes were polluted and not clean enough for swimming or fishing. Although some of the pollutants were from agricultural and industrial sources and landfills, many resulted indirectly from sprawl. For instance, increased bacteria come from overextended and overloaded sewer systems, overflows of "combined sewers," and leaking home septic systems. Road "runoff" of automobile oils and battery metals and road salt also contribute to water pollution and may affect public health.

Other Impacts of Increased Auto Usage. With increased mileage, higher speeds, and fewer sidewalks, pedestrian accidents have increased, especially among children and elderly, comprising some 13 percent of traffic accident fatalities in 1997 and 1998. Remarkably, 59 percent of pedestrian deaths occurred where there was no access to crosswalks, that is, in typical sprawl roadways. A related factor was the higher speeds prevalent in suburban (vs. urban) roads, since speed and fatality are highly correlated. If states were willing to spend highway funds on pedestrian safety, there are many shortterm measures (e.g., "traffic calming," more crosswalks) that could be taken, but at some point, slowing of traffic will encounter public resistance. Another impact in typical sprawl development is the loss of easy access of the elderly to medical care, social services, and shopping once they stop driving; since mass transit is not generally available. This problem is bound to become more severe as the elderly begin to comprise some 20 to 25 percent of our population by 2050.


A few examples illustrate that there are also some indirect impacts of urban sprawl on public health.

Duplication of Medical Infrastructure. As hospitals expand to meet the needs of the more affluent and growing population, they often cannot afford to maintain medical centers both in a population-depleted or relatively poor inner city and in the suburbs.

Quality of Life and Health. The stress of commuting and congestion decreases time and energy for quality parenting and relaxation. The conversion of open space to roads and developments creates an environment without ready access to parks and nature. Abandonment of traditional neighborhoods results in a loss of sense of community, which in turn may lead to less community-based caring for children, the elderly, the ill, and the disabled. Finally, abandonment of and disinvestment in urban core cities leads to concentration of poverty and both racial and economic resegregation.

There are strong and often compelling social reasons or perceptions why many Americans prefer low-density suburban to urban living, beyond the known or hidden subsidies that promote this population shift. However, to the greatest extent possible, the public health impacts need to be consciously factored into the public costs of sprawl so that provisions are made to minimize these costs to those (especially inner-city residents) who are negatively affected and to offer everyone more balanced choices of places to live and work. The so-called "Smart Growth" movement offers a variety of land use choices that minimize the negative public health impacts discussed here.

Norman Robbins


Jacobs, J. (1993). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books.

Surface Transportation Policy Project (2000). Mean Streets 2000: Pedestrian, Health, and Federal Transportation Spending. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (1995). The Technological Reshaping of Metropolitan America (OTAH ETIH 643). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

urban sprawl

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ur·ban sprawl • n. the uncontrolled expansion of urban areas.