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Lucubrate Magazine, Issue 36, August 10th, 2018

Urban sprawl is caused by various demographic, economic, geographic, social and technological factors. These include rising real incomes, individual preferences favoring low-density development, natural bathers to contiguous urban development, and the technological progress in car manufacturing.

Structural change is a key driver of rapid growth: countries diversify into new industries, firms learn new things, people move to new locations. Anything that slows this structural change is also likely to slow growth. Because urbanization is one of the most important enabling parallel processes in rapid growth, making it work well is critical.

What is Urban Sprawl?

There is no common definition of urban sprawl. In this respect, there are clear parallels to the sustainability concept. A common denominator for the majority of the definitions is, however, that urban sprawl is characterized as low-density development and inefficient use of land. A simple definition is excessive spatial growth. Cities must grow to accommodate a growing population but may use more space than is deemed acceptable or reasonable. Land use is therefore often not optimal since it can be more concentrated and compact. [1]

Urban sprawl is a result not only of population growth but also of lifestyles that take up more space. Accordingly, urban sprawl has increased even in regions with a declining human population.

Photo: Pok Rie

Why do we get Urban Sprawl?

Urban sprawl is caused by various demographic, economic, geographic, social and technological factors. These include rising real incomes, individual preferences favoring low-density development, natural bathers to contiguous urban development (e.g. mountains, rivers), and the technological progress in car manufacturing. Certain policies have also implicitly encouraged urban sprawl. We can make a list of drivers towards Urban sprawl:

  • Local and international economic conditions can play a crucial role with regard to urban sprawl.
  • Socioeconomic factors can affect land development. An important driving force behind urban sprawl may be that there is a tendency that people want to move out of the inner city to more rural areas outside of urban areas.
  • Transportation-related factors are prerequisites behind urban sprawl. Train, metro, bus, and car have provided greater freedom and opportunities with regard to localization of individuals, businesses and industry.
  • The policy and regulatory framework play a major role when it comes to driving forces behind urban sprawl. Maximum density (e.g. building height) restrictions, persistent underpricing of the externalities of car use (due to e.g. the absence of road pricing and too low on-street parking prices) and massive investments in road infrastructure are only a few examples of such policies.

Photo: Tom Fisk

Consequences of Urban Sprawl

Urban sprawl has been shown to have significant environmental consequences manifested in higher emissions from road transport and loss of environmental amenities within and at the borders of urban areas. Urban sprawl contributes significantly to the loss of fertile farmland, to soil sealing and to the loss of ecological soil functions. Its effects on biodiversity are very context-specific; discontinuous development patterns may be harmful to biodiversity if they are accompanied by a fragmentation of the natural habitats surrounding urban areas. Sprawl’s economic consequences include significant pressures on local public finance, as it is more expensive to provide public services to more remote, low-density areas, as well as notable time losses due to congestion. Urban sprawl is also associated with social inequality and segregation, as the regulatory mechanisms that maintain low density may severely affect housing affordability. [2]

Photo: Tom Fisk

The increase in built-up areas reduces the size of wildlife habitats and increases landscape fragmentation and the spread of invasive species. Urban sprawl leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions, higher infrastructure costs for transport, water, and electrical power, the loss of open landscapes, and the degradation of various ecosystem services.

Where do we Find Urban Sprawl?

We can find in many different countries. Urban areas in some countries, such as Austria, Canada, Slovenia, and the United States, rank relatively high in multiple dimensions of sprawl. However, in cities in Denmark, France, and several Central European countries, such as Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the Slovak Republic have sprawled along most of the same dimensions.[2]

The Guardian are discussing the Urban sprawl in an article in 2017 called, “Where is the world’s most sprawling city?” where they point at some larger towns: “The  Strip development, and its cousin the shopping mall are symbols of America’s gift to urbanism: sprawl. Los Angeles may be the world’s most famously sprawling city but is it the worst culprit? What about Montreal, or Brisbane, both low-density cities in countries with no shortage of space and a strong love of the car?” [3]

Los Angeles (USA) Photo: Jamie McInall

Cities in a small group of countries consisting of Greece, Japan, Korea and the United Kingdom, are at the bottom of the ranking of multiple indicators of sprawl. This implies a dense and relatively contiguous form of urban development, which entails a more efficient use of land and can contribute to the reduction of emissions from road transport. However, this form of development may also entail a higher exposure of an urban population to air pollution and natural disaster risks. Looking at the evolution of urban sprawl since 1990, it has declined in Australia, Spain, and Switzerland, where urban areas have become much denser and less fragmented. [2]

Urbanization for Development

Urbanization’s contribution to growth comes from two sources: the difference between rural and urban productivity levels and more rapid productivity change in cities. In the early decades of development, when the majority of the population is still rural, the jump from rural to urban employment makes a big contribution to growth. As cities grow larger, the second effect—faster gains in urban productivity—begins to dominate, as it operates on a larger base. For these reasons, making urbanization work well is something that countries that want to grow quickly must learn to do. There are two important parts in making it work. The first challenge is to foster the growth of high-productivity activities that benefit from agglomeration and scale economies in developing country cities. The second involves managing the likely side effects of the economic success of cities—congestion, regional inequality, and high prices of land and housing. Meeting this second challenge is essential for mitigating the divisive impacts of successful economic growth and spreading the benefits of higher economic productivity widely. [4]

Smart Growth

Smart growth initiatives recognize the relationship between development patterns and quality of life. The visual quality of our communities is a basic building block for healthy, vibrant, and beautiful neighborhoods. By applying smart growth strategies, local citizens can fight haphazard sprawl and create communities that reflect their unique character and are a source of pride and inspiration for residents and visitors alike. Scenic America favors growth that is attractive, affordable, accessible, equitable, and good for our environment.

Photo: Daniel Frese

What is Smart growth?

Smart growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement. The 10 principles below are considered the foundation of a smart growth approach [5].

  1. Mix land uses
  2. Take advantage of compact design
  3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
  4. Create walkable neighborhoods
  5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
  6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
  7. Direct development towards existing communities
  8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
  9. Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost-effective
  10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions


Education and Urban Sprawl

Public school quality and composition play, and has historically played, a significant role in determining where families choose to live. Enormous disparities in school funding and racial composition have encouraged large numbers to flee from higher density urban areas to low-density sprawl while at the same time discouraging the middle class from settling in cities in the first place.

Urbanization plays a crucial role in impacting social issues of public schooling in urban environments and contributes to the profound social challenges that urban students endure. Urbanization primarily affects social issues of urban schools by increasing racial inequities.

Photo: Expect Best


Do you have a comment or do you want to give your feedback on this article? Do you want to write letters to the editor? Please use the link https://lucu.nkb.no/feedback/


[1] Petter Christiansen and Tanja Loftsgarden, “Drivers behind urban sprawl in Europe”, TØI Report 1136/2011

[2] Rethinking Urban Sprawl. Moving Towards Sustainable Cities, OECD 2018

[3] The Guardian, 19. April 2017

[4] Urbanization and Growth. Commission on Growth and Development. The World Bank 2009

[5] Smart Growth America (https://smartgrowthamerica.org/)

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Lucubrate Magazine
Lucubrate Magazine

Lucubrate Magazine highlights trends in education and development. Development in this context can be technological, educational, individual, social or global, and everything related to education.
Lucubrate Magazine is a global based on the web magazine with the main office in Norway.

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