Urban sprawl or suburban sprawl mainly refers to the unrestricted growth in many urban areas of housing, commercial development, and roads over large expanses of land, with little concern for urban planning. In addition to describing a particular form of urbanization, the term also relates to the social and environmental consequences associated with this development. In Continental Europe the term "peri-urbanisation" is often used to denote similar dynamics and phenomena, although the term urban sprawl is currently being used by the European Environment Agency. There is widespread disagreement about what constitutes sprawl and how to quantify it. For example, some commentators measure sprawl only with the average number of residential units per acre in a given area. But others associate it with decentralization (spread of population without a well-defined centre), discontinuity (leapfrog development, as defined below), segregation of uses, and so forth.
The term urban sprawl is highly politicized, and almost always has negative connotations.
The term "urban sprawl" was first used in an article in The Times in 1955 as a negative comment on the state of London's outskirts. Definitions of sprawl vary; researchers in the field acknowledge that the term lacks precision. Batty et al. defined sprawl as "uncoordinated growth: the expansion of community without concern for its consequences, in short, unplanned, incremental urban growth which is often regarded unsustainable." Bhatta et al. wrote in 2010 that despite a dispute over the precise definition of sprawl there is a "general consensus that urban sprawl is characterized by [an] unplanned and uneven pattern of growth, driven by multitude of processes and leading to inefficient resource utilization."
Reid Ewing has shown that sprawl has typically been characterized as urban developments exhibiting at least one of the following characteristics: low-density or single-use development, strip development, scattered development, and/or leapfrog development (areas of development interspersed with vacant land). He argued that a better way to identify sprawl was to use indicators rather than characteristics because this was a more flexible and less arbitrary method. He proposed using "accessibility" and "functional open space" as indicators. Ewing's approach has been criticized for assuming that sprawl is defined by negative characteristics.
What constitutes sprawl may be considered a matter of degree and will always be somewhat subjective under many definitions of the term. Ewing has also argued that suburban development does not, per se constitute sprawl depending on the form it takes, although Gordon & Richardson have argued that the term is sometimes used synonymously with suburbanization in a pejorative way.
Metropolitan Los Angeles for example, despite popular notions of being a sprawling city, is the densest major urban area (over 1,000,000 population) in the US, being denser than the New York urban area and the San Francisco urban area. Essentially, most of metropolitan Los Angeles is built at more uniform low to moderate density, leading to a much higher overall density for the entire region. This is in contrast to cities such as New York, San Francisco or Chicago which have extremely compact, high-density cores but are surrounded by large areas of extremely low density.
The international cases of sprawl often draw into question the definition of the term and what conditions are necessary for urban growth to be considered sprawl.
According to the National Resources Inventory (NRI), about 8,900 square kilometres (2.2 million acres) of land in the United States was developed between 1992 and 2002.
Nonetheless, some urban areas like Detroit have expanded geographically even while losing population. But it was not just urbanized areas in the U.S. that lost population and sprawled substantially. According to data in "Cities and Automobile Dependence" by Kenworthy and Laube (1999), urbanized area population losses occurred while there was an expansion of sprawl between 1970 and 1990 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Brussels, Belgium; Copenhagen, Denmark; Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich, Germany; and Zurich, Switzerland, albeit without the dismantling of infrastructure that occurred in the United States.
Despite the lack of a clear agreed upon description of what defines sprawl most definitions often associate the following characteristics with sprawl.
This refers to a situation where commercial, residential, institutional and industrial areas are separated from one another. Consequently, large tracts of land are devoted to a single use and are segregated from one another by open space, infrastructure, or other barriers. As a result, the places where people live, work, shop, and recreate are far from one another, usually to the extent that walking, transit use and bicycling are impractical, so all these activities generally require a car. The degree to which different land uses are mixed together is often used as an indicator of sprawl in studies of the subject.
Job sprawl is another land use symptom of urban sprawl and car-dependent communities. It is defined as low-density, geographically spread-out patterns of employment, where the majority of jobs in a given metropolitan area are located outside of the main city's central business district (CBD), and increasingly in the suburban periphery. It is often the result of urban disinvestment, the geographic freedom of employment location allowed by predominantly car-dependent commuting patterns of many American suburbs, and many companies' desire to locate in low-density areas that are often more affordable and offer potential for expansion. Spatial mismatch is related to job sprawl and economic environmental justice. Spatial mismatch is defined as the situation where poor urban, predominantly minority citizens are left without easy access to entry-level jobs, as a result of increasing job sprawl and limited transportation options to facilitate a reverse commute to the suburbs.
Job sprawl has been documented and measured in various ways.
Sprawl is often characterized as consisting of low-density development. The exact definition of "low density" is arguable, but a common example is that of single family homes on large lots. Buildings usually have fewer stories and are spaced farther apart, separated by lawns, landscaping, roads or parking lots. Specific measurements of what constitutes low-density is culturally relative; for example, in the United States 2–4 houses per acre might be considered low-density while in the UK 8–12 would still be considered low-density. Because more automobiles are used much more land is designated for parking. The impact of low density development in many communities is that developed or "urbanized" land is increasing at a faster rate than the population is growing.
Overall density is often lowered by "leapfrog development". This term refers to the relationship, or lack thereof, between subdivisions. Such developments are typically separated by large green belts, i.e. tracts of undeveloped land, resulting in an average density far lower even than the low density indicated by localized per-acre measurements. This is a 20th and 21st century phenomenon generated by the current custom of requiring a developer to provide subdivision infrastructure as a condition of development. Usually, the developer is required to set aside a certain percentage of the developed land for public use, including roads, parks and schools. In the past, when a local government built all the streets in a given location, the town could expand without interruption and with a coherent circulation system, because it had condemnation power. Private developers generally do not have such power (although they can sometimes find local governments willing to help), and often choose to develop on the tracts that happen to be for sale at the time they want to build, rather than pay extra or wait for a more appropriate location.
Land for sprawl is often taken from fertile agricultural lands, which are often located immediately surrounding cities; the extent of modern sprawl has consumed a large amount of the most productive agricultural land, as well as forest, desert and other wilderness areas. In the United States the seller may avoid tax on profit by using a tax break exempting like-kind exchanges from capital gains tax; proceeds from the sale are used to purchase agricultural land elsewhere and the transaction is treated as a "swap" or trade of like assets and no tax is due. Thus urban sprawl is subsidized by the tax code. In China, land has been converted from rural to urban use in advance of demand, leading to vacant rural land intended for future development, and eventual urban sprawl.
Housing subdivisions are large tracts of land consisting entirely of newly built residences. New Urbanist architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company claim that housing subdivisions "are sometimes called villages, towns, and neighbourhoods by their developers, which is misleading since those terms denote places that are not exclusively residential." They are also referred to as developments.
Subdivisions often incorporate curved roads and cul-de-sacs. These subdivisions may offer only a few places to enter and exit the development, causing traffic to use high volume collector streets. All trips, no matter how short, must enter the collector road in a suburban system.
Because the advent of sprawl meant more land for lower costs, home owners had more land at their disposal, and the development of the residential lawn after the Second World War became commonplace in suburbs, notably, but not exclusively in North America.American%20Green%3A%20The%20Obsess]]he creation in the early 20th century of country clubs and golf courses completed the rise of lawn culture in the United States.
In areas of sprawl, commercial use is generally segregated from other uses.
Another prominent form of retail development in areas characterized by sprawl is the shopping mall. Unlike the strip mall, this is usually composed of a single building surrounded by a parking lot that contains multiple shops, usually "anchored" by one or more department stores (Gruen and Smith 1960). The function and size is also distinct from the strip mall. The focus is almost exclusively on recreational shopping rather than daily goods. Shopping malls also tend to serve a wider (regional) public and require higher-order infrastructure such as highway access and can have floorspaces in excess of a million square feet (ca. 100,000 m²). Shopping malls are often detrimental to downtown shopping centres of nearby cities since the shopping malls act as a surrogate for the city centre (Crawford 1992). Some downtowns have responded to this challenge by building shopping centres of their own (Frieden and Sagelyn 1989).
Fast food chains are often built early in areas with low property values where the population is expected to boom and where large traffic is predicted, and set a precedent for future development. Eric Schlosser, in his book Fast Food Nation, argues that fast food chains accelerate suburban sprawl and help set its tone with their expansive parking lots, flashy signs, and plastic architecture (65). Duany Plater Zyberk & Company believe that this reinforces a destructive pattern of growth in an endless quest to move away from the sprawl that only results in creating more of it.
Urban sprawl is associated with a number of negative environmental outcomes.
One of the major environmental problems associated with sprawl is land loss, habitat loss and subsequent reduction in biodiversity. A review by Czech and colleagues finds that urbanization endangers more species and is more geographically ubiquitous in the mainland United States than any other human activity. Urban sprawl is disruptive to native flora & fauna and introduces invasive plants into their environments. Although the effects can be mitigated through careful maintenance of native vegetation, the process of ecological succession and public education, sprawl represents one of the primary threats to biodiversity.
Regions with high birth rates and immigration are therefore faced with environmental problems due to unplanned urban growth and emerging megacities such as Kolkata.
Other problems include:
- flooding, which results from increased impervious surfaces for roads and parking (see urban runoff)
- increased temperatures from heat islands, which leads to a significantly increased risk of mortality in elderly populations.
At the same time, the urban cores of these and nearly all other major cities in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan that did not annex new territory experienced the related phenomena of falling household size and, particularly in the U.S., "white flight", sustaining population losses. This trend has slowed somewhat in recent years, as more people have regained an interest in urban living.
Due to the larger area consumed by sprawling suburbs compared to urban neighborhoods, more farmland and wildlife habitats are displaced per resident.
Gordon & Richardson have argued that the conversion of agricultural land to urban use is not a problem due to the increasing efficiency of agricultural production; they argue that aggregate agricultural production is still more than sufficient to meet global food needs despite the expansion of urban land use.
Sprawl leads to increased driving, and increased driving leads to vehicle emissions that contribute to air pollution and its attendant negative impacts on human health. In addition, the reduced physical activity implied by increased automobile use has negative health consequences. Sprawl significantly predicts chronic medical conditions and health-related quality of life, but not mental health disorders. The American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion, have both stated that there is a significant connection between sprawl, obesity, and hypertension.
In the years following World War II, when vehicle ownership was becoming widespread, public health officials recommended the health benefits of suburbs due to soot and industrial fumes in the city center.
A heavy reliance on automobiles increases traffic throughout the city as well as automobile crashes, pedestrian injuries, and air pollution. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of five and twenty-four and is the leading accident-related cause for all age groups. Residents of more sprawling areas are generally at greater risk of dying in a car crash due to increased exposure to driving. Evidence indicates that pedestrians in sprawling areas are at higher risk than those in denser areas, although the relationship is less clear than for drivers and passengers in vehicles.
Research covered in the Journal of Economic Issues and State and Local Government Review shows a link between sprawl and emergency medical services response and fire department response delays.
Living in larger, more spread out spaces generally makes public services more expensive.
Residents of low-density areas spend a higher proportion of their income on transportation than residents of high density areas. The unplanned nature of outward urban development is commonly linked to increased dependency on cars.
Urban sprawl may be partly responsible for the decline in social capital in the United States. Compact neighborhoods can foster casual social interactions among neighbors, while sprawl creates barriers. Sprawl tends to replace public spaces with private spaces such as fenced-in backyards.
Critics of sprawl maintain that sprawl erodes quality of life. Duany and Plater-Zyberk believe that in traditional neighborhoods the nearness of the workplace to retail and restaurant space that provides cafes and convenience stores with daytime customers is an essential component to the successful balance of urban life. Furthermore, they state that the closeness of the workplace to homes also gives people the option of walking or riding a bicycle to work or school and that without this kind of interaction between the different components of life the urban pattern quickly falls apart. James Howard Kunstler has argued that poor aesthetics in suburban environments make them "places not worth caring about", and that they lack a sense of history and identity.
Urban sprawl has class and racial implications in many parts of the world; the relative homogeneity of many sprawl developments may reinforce class and racial divides through residential segregation.
Numerous studies link increased population density with increased aggression. Some people believe that increased population density encourages crime and anti-social behavior.
According to Nancy Chin, a large number of effects of sprawl have been discussed in the academic literature in some detail; however, the most contentious issues can be reduced "to an older set of arguments, between those advocating a planning approach and those advocating the efficiency of the market." Those who criticize sprawl tend to argue that sprawl creates more problems than it solves and should be more heavily regulated, while proponents argue that markets are producing the economically most efficient settlements possible in most situations, even if problems may exist. However, some market oriented commentators believe that the current patterns of sprawl are in fact the result of distortions of the free market. Chin cautions that there is a lack of "reliable empirical evidence to support the arguments made either for or against sprawl." She mentions that the lack of a common definition, the need for more quantitative measures "a broader view both in time and space, and greater comparison with alternative urban forms" would be necessary to draw firmer conclusions and conduct more fruitful debates.
Arguments opposing urban sprawl include concrete effects such as health and environmental issues as well as abstract consequences including neighborhood vitality.
The American Institute of Architects and the American Planning Association recommend against sprawl and instead endorses smart, mixed-use development, including buildings in close proximity to one another that cut down on automobile use, save energy, and promote walkable, healthy, well-designed neighborhoods. The Sierra Club, the San Francisco Bay Area's Greenbelt Alliance, 1000 Friends of Oregon and counterpart organizations nationwide, and other environmental organizations oppose sprawl and support investment in existing communities. NumbersUSA, a national organization advocating immigration reduction, also opposes urban sprawl, and its executive director, Roy Beck, specializes in the study of this issue.
One of the primary debates around suburban sprawl is the extent to which sprawl is the result of consumer preference.
Whether urban sprawl does increase problems of automobile dependency and whether conversely, policies of smart growth can reduce them have been fiercely contested issues over several decades. An influential study in 1989 by Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy compared 32 cities across North America, Australia, Europe and Asia. The study has been criticised for its methodology but the main finding that denser cities, particularly in Asia, have lower car use than sprawling cities, particularly in North America, has been largely accepted although the relationship is clearer at the extremes across continents than it is within countries where conditions are more similar.
Within cities, studies from across many countries (mainly in the developed world) have shown that denser urban areas with greater mixture of land use and better public transport tend to have lower car use than less dense suburban and ex-urban residential areas.
Those not opposed to low density development argue that traffic intensities tend to be less, traffic speeds faster and, as a result, ambient air pollution is lower. (See demographia's  report.) Kansas City, Missouri is often cited as an example of ideal low-density development, with congestion below the mean and home prices below comparable Midwestern cities. Wendell Cox and Randal O'Toole are leading figures supporting lower density development.
Longitudinal (time-lapse) studies of commute times in major metropolitan areas in the United States have shown that commute times decreased for the period 1969 to 1995 even though the geographic size of the city increased. Other studies suggest, however, that possible personal benefits from commute time savings have been at the expense of environmental costs in the form of longer average commute distances, rising vehicles-miles-traveled (VMT) per worker, and despite road expansions, worsening traffic congestion.
Reviewing the evidence on urban intensification, smart growth and their effects on travel behaviour Melia et al. (2011) found support for the arguments of both supporters and opponents of smart growth measures to counteract urban sprawl. Planning policies that increase population densities in urban areas do tend to reduce car use, but the effect is a weak one, so doubling the population density of a particular area will not halve the frequency or distance of car use.
These findings led them to propose the paradox of intensification, which states:
There is also some concern that anti-sprawl policies will increase housing prices.
In Australia, it is claimed by some that housing affordability has hit "crisis levels" due to "urban consolidation" policies implemented by state governments. In Sydney, the ratio of the price of a house relative to income is 9:1. The issue has at times been debated between the major political parties.
Many critics concede that sprawl produces some negative externalities; however there is some dispute about the most effective way to reduce these negative effects.
Alternative development styles
Starting in the early 20th century, environmentalist opposition to urban sprawl began to coalesce, with roots in the garden city movement, as well as pressure from campaign groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).
Under Herbert Morrison's 1934 leadership of the London County Council, the first formal proposal was made by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee "to provide a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space". It was again included in an advisory Greater London Plan prepared by Patrick Abercrombie in 1944. The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 expressly incorporated green belts into all further national urban developments.
New provisions for compensation in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act allowed local authorities around the country to incorporate green belt proposals in their first development plans. The codification of Green Belt policy and its extension to areas other than London came with the historic Circular 42/55 inviting local planning authorities to consider the establishment of Green Belts. The first urban growth boundary in the U.S. was in Fayette County, Kentucky in 1958.
The term 'smart growth' has been particularly used in North America.
The state of Oregon enacted a law in 1973 limiting the area urban areas could occupy, through urban growth boundaries. As a result, Portland, the state's largest urban area, has become a leader in smart growth policies that seek to make urban areas more compact (they are called urban consolidation policies). After the creation of this boundary, the population density of the urbanized area increased somewhat (from 1,135 in 1970 to 1,290 per km² in 2000). While the growth boundary has not been tight enough to vastly increase density, the consensus is that the growth boundaries have protected great amounts of wild areas and farmland around the metro area.
Many parts of the San Francisco Bay Area have also adopted urban growth boundaries; 25 of its cities and 5 of its counties have urban growth boundaries.
In other areas, the design principles of District Regionalism and New Urbanism have been employed to combat urban sprawl. The concept of Circular flow land use management has been developed in Europe to reduce land take by urban sprawl through promoting inner-city and brownfield development.
While cities such as Los Angeles are well known for sprawling suburbs, policies and public opinion are changing. Transit-oriented development, in which higher-density mixed-use areas are permitted or encouraged near transit stops is encouraging more compact development in certain areas-particularly those with light and heavy rail transit systems.
Bicycles are the preferred means of travel in many countries. Also, bicycles are permitted in public transit. Businesses in areas of some towns where bicycle use is high are thriving. Bicycles and transit are contributing in two important ways toward the success of businesses:
- First, is that on average the people living the closest to these business districts have more money to spend locally because they don't spend as much on their cars.
- Second, because these people rely more on bicycling, walking and transit than on driving, they tend to focus more of their commerce on locally owned neighborhood businesses that are convenient for them to reach.
Walkability is a measure of how friendly an area is to walking. Walkability has many health, environmental, and economic benefits. However, evaluating walkability is challenging because it requires the consideration of many subjective factors. Factors influencing walkability include the presence or absence and quality of footpaths, sidewalks or other pedestrian right-of-ways, traffic and road conditions, land use patterns, building accessibility, and safety, among others. Walkability is an important concept in sustainable urban design.
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