Urban sprawl

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Urban sprawl (also called suburban sprawl and occasionally Los Angelization) describes the growth of a metropolitan area, particularly the suburbs, over a large area. In examples of this phenomenon, such as Los Angeles, California and Houston, Texas, new development is often low-density, where the metropolis grows outward instead of 'upward' as with higher densities. Environmentalists and an increasing number of urban planners disapprove of urban sprawl for several reasons.


Some examples

A number of metropolitan areas may lay claim to the title "most sprawling urban area." The New York City urbanized area covers more land area than any other, at approximately 8,684 square kilometres (3,353 sq miles). The lowest density large urbanized area in the world is Atlanta, which covers 5,084 square kilometres (1,963 sq miles), with a population of 3,500,000 for a density of 688 people per square kilometre (1,783 people per square mile). This is approximately one-third the density of the New York urbanized area. The world's most dense major urbanized area is Hong Kong, with approximately 3,400,000 people in 70 square kilometres (27 sq miles), for a population density of 48,571 per square kilometre (128,000 per sq mile).

The term "Los Angelization" is also sometimes used for urban sprawl, though some believe it is an inaccurate term. Los Angeles was one of the world's first low density urbanized areas, as a result of achieving wide automobile ownership long before others, but, currently is more dense (as per 2000 US Census) than any other urbanized area in either the United States or Canada.

Urban sprawl and growth

Urban sprawl is a synonym for suburbanization --- the geographical expansion of urban areas at or beyond their fringes. More than 90 percent of urban growth in the United States, UK, Japan, Canada and Australia has been in suburbs in recent decades. Suburbs have captured nearly 115 percent of urban growth in major Western European urban areas, due to central city population losses (Metropolitan Urban & Suburban Trends (http://www.demographia.com/dbx-highmetro.htm)).

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Los Angeles' large urban sprawl: About 16 million people live in the imaged area.

One view of urban sprawl

Separation of land used for different purposes

One property that many detractors consider characteristic of sprawl is the physical separation of space used for different activities: housing subdivisions, shopping centers, office parks, civic institutions, and roadways. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 5)

Housing Subdivisions

Housing subdivisions are large tracts of land consisting entirely of residences. Duany and Plater-Zyberk claim that housing subdivisions “are sometimes called villages, towns, and neighborhoods by their developers, which is misleading since those terms denote places which are not exclusively residential and which provide an experiential richness not available in a housing tract.” Subdivisions often incorporate curved roads and cul-de-sacs, which some find inherently disorienting. Such subdivisions may offer only a few places to enter and exit the development, causing traffic to use collector streets and potentially causing or exacerbating traffic congestion. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 5, 34)

Another complaint is that suburban homes are often very similar, and sometimes even indistinguishable within a development.

Shopping Centers

Shopping centers are locations consisting of retail space such as strip malls, shopping malls, and big box stores. They vary in size from small convenience stores to the Mall of America. Many suburban shopping centers are only one story tall and are often designed to be reached almost exclusively by car. It is rare to find a shopping center near a surburban residential area as many suburban residents would prefer not to live next to one. Duany and Plater-Zyberk contrast the shoppping center with the corner store, the traditional main street counterpart to the convenience store, and consider the latter compatible with the residential buildings in the neighborhood. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6, 26)

Fast food chains are common in suburban areas. They are often built early in areas with low property values where the population is about to boom and where huge amounts of traffic is predicted and set the precedent for future development. Schlosser says that fast food chains accelerate suburban sprawl and help set its tone with their trashy parking lots, flashy signs, and plastic architecture (Schlosser 65). Duany and Plater-Zyberk believe that this only reinforces a destructive pattern of growth in an endless quest to move away from the sprawl that only results in creating more of it. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 26)

Office Parks

Office parks are places set aside exclusively for companies to build work locations, usually offices. The contemporary office park was born from the modernist vision of skyscrapers surrounded by a utopian park-like environment to preserve open space, although many office parks today contain little greenspace and are accessible only by the automobile, which is also used to leave the office park to find food.

By comparison, 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 and that without this kind of interaction between the different components of life the urban pattern quickly falls apart. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6, 28)

Civic Institutions

The fourth component of sprawl named by some opponents is civic institutions. This is space zoned for public life, such as town halls, libraries, schools, churches and theaters. Some urban planners claim that in traditional neighborhoods these buildings were given places of importance in the community, accessible to everyone, and often creating the focal point of an entire city, perhaps at the end of a scenic boulevard, but that this scheme is radically different in suburban areas. They claim that schools and churches, for instance, are becoming more like shopping malls, located near the edges of communities and surrounded by parking lots. Many fewer children walk to school than did a generation ago, partly due to the increased average distance from home to school. Many school districts bus children in, resulting in a greater expense to the taxpayers. Some claim that this phenomenon also inflates class sizes, marginalizing the educations of students. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6)


The last component of sprawl listed by some detractors is roadways, which connect the above listed locations. Partly because many communities are now planned with the assumption that all their members own cars, the average suburban household generates 13 car trips per day. Many consider this property to be socially isolating and bad for the environment.

Bibliography of Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, 1983

Duany, Andrés and Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth, Suburban Nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American Dream, North Point Press, New York, 2000

Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism, 1990

Koolhaas, Rem, Junkspace, Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Harvard Press, 2003

Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002

Arguments for and against

By many measures, real estate development is taken as a measure of progress. When a city grows laterally, new homes are built, transport projects are undertaken, and property values often are higher in the new areas of the metropolitan area. In addition, many households in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia --- especially middle and upper class families--have shown preferences for the suburban lifestyle. Reasons cited include a preference towards lower-density development (since it often features lower ambient noise and increased privacy), better schools, and lower crime rates (even though car-related fatalities often make it more dangerous to live in the suburbs than in the city). Recent studies have also suggested that people living in areas dominated by sprawl are less healthy than their urban counterparts. The major reason cited for this observation is the tendency for suburbanized areas to be dependant on automobiles, whereas city dwellers more often must walk or take public transit to their destinations, increasing the amount of exercise they receive.

After an explosion of sprawl in the later half of the 20th century in the United States, some financial drawbacks were also recognized with this growth pattern. When citizens live in a larger space, often at a lower density, car usage often becomes endemic and public transport often becomes significantly more expensive, forcing city planners to build large highway and parking infrastructure, which in turn decreases taxable land and revenue, and decreases the desirability of the area adjacent to such structures. Providing services such as water, sewers, and electricity is also more expensive per household in less dense areas.

However, lower density development also has its advantages. For example, traffic intensities tend to be less, traffic speeds faster and, as a result, air pollution emissions tend to be less intense per square mile. (See demographia's (http://www.demographia.com/dbx-intlair.htm) report.) As a result, commuters in the United States, with the most sprawling urban areas in the world, tend to have considerably shorter one-way commute times than those who chose to commute by car Western Europe or Japan, where densities are higher.

In addition, urban sprawl often consumes land that would otherwise be used for "natural" purposes, such as wildlife reserves, forests, and agriculture. Detractors of sprawl often espouse smart growth and/or New Urbanism. Urban sprawl isn't the only way to increase real estate development; many of the urban areas of cities in Japan, Hong Kong, and Europe which have urban growth plans show higher property values than do their suburbs.

Finally, some blame suburbs for what they see as a homogeneity of society and culture, leading to sprawling suburban developments of people with similar race, background and socioeconomic status. They claim that segregated and stratified development was institutionalized in the early 1950s and 60s with the financial industries' illegal process of redlining neighborhoods to prevent certain people from entering and residing in a district. This is often referred to as a form of institutionalized racism, and one term for the resulting separation of races is White Flight. While overt racist policies in housing are usually considered not as overt today, the similar price characteristics for many developments in suburbs can limit those who would choose to live there to only a certain segment of society. Some, including former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich have argued that current price discriminatory housing trends caused in part by sprawl has had negative ramifications on public schools as finances have been pulled out of city cores and diverted to wealthier suburbs.

Examples in the United States

According to the National Resources Inventory (NRI), about 8,900 square kilometres (2.2 million acres) of land was developed between 1992 and 2002. Presently, the NRI classifies approximately 100,000 more square kilometres (40,000 sq miles) (an area approximately the size of Kentucky) as developed as the Census Bureau classifies as urban. The difference in the NRI classification is that it includes rural development, which by definition cannot be considered to be "urban" sprawl. Currently, according to the 2000 Census, approximately 2.6 percent of the US land area is urban. Approximately 0.8 percent of the nation's land is in the 37 urbanized ares with more than 1,000,000 population.

Nonetheless, some urbanized areas have expanded geographically even while losing population. For example, between 1970 to 2000, the population of the Detroit, Michigan urbanized area declined 2% while its land area increased 45%. Similar situations occurred in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Buffalo, New York and Rochester, New York. But it was not just US urbanized areas 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 Brussels, Belgium, Copenhagen, Denmark, Frankfurt, Germany, Hamburg, Germany, Munich, Germany and Zurich, Switzerland.

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 "white flight", sustaining population losses [High-Income World Central City Population Losses (http://www.demographia.com/db-worldcore400.htm)].

On the other hand, the state of Oregon enacted a law in 1973 limiting the area urban areas could occupy, through urban growth boundaries. In response, Portland, the state's largest urban area, has become a world 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 8,000 in 1970 to 8,650 per km² in 2000) [USA Urbanized Areas 1950-1990 (http://www.demographia.com/dm-uad.htm)] [USA Urbanized Areas 2000 (http://www.demographia.com/db-ua2000pop.htm)] . However, the urbanized area still sprawled an additional 222 square kilometres (86 sq miles) through the next decade, witnessing a population growth of 411,000. In July of 2004 the Portland area increased its urban growth boundary to beyond the boundary previously planned for 2040. Even so, the Portland urbanized area remains considerably less dense than the Los Angeles urbanized area. If Los Angeles sprawled at the same density as Portland, it would cover 2.2 times as much land.

There is also a concern that Portland-style policies that limit the amount of land that can be developed will increase housing prices. Over the past 30 years, Oregon has had the largest housing affordability loss in the nation [Housing Affordability Trends: USA States (http://www.demographia.com/db-usafford1970inc.htm)]. Research by [Glaeser and Gyourko (http://post.economics.harvard.edu/hier/2002papers/HIER1948.pdf)] suggests that most of the affordability differential between major US housing markets is the result of land use policy. In short, scarcity raises prices and critics of smart growth policies believe that housing affordabiliy losses are now apparent in the California urban areas and places like Sydney, Melbourne, Southeastern England, Auckland and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Urban sprawl in fiction

In William Gibson's fiction, "the Sprawl" is a slang term referring to the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States. In Gibson's future, New York's City's urban area is contiguous with that of other eastern cities, from Massachusetts to Florida; the entire area is formally known as the BAMA, or the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Area. The following three books are sometimes referred to as Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy:

Urban Sprawl in nonfiction

  • The Future of Success : Working and Living in the New Economy by Robert Reich
  • The Geography of Nowhere: The rise and decline of America's man-made landscape (ISBN 0-671-70774-4) by J.H. Kunstler
  • Suburban Nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American Dream (ISBN 0-86547-606-3) by A. Duany, E. Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck

See also


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