, also known as suburban sprawl
, is the spreading of a city and its suburbs
over rural land at the fringe of an urban area. Residents of sprawling neighborhoods tend to live in single-family homes and commute by automobile to work. Low population density
is an indicator of sprawl. Urban planners emphasize the qualitative aspects of sprawl such as the lack of transportation options and pedestrian friendly neighborhoods. Conservationists tend to focus on the actual amount of land that has been urbanized by sprawl.
The term urban sprawl generally has negative connotations due to the health and environmental issues that sprawl creates. Residents of sprawling neighborhoods tend to emit more pollution per person and suffer more traffic fatalities. Sprawl is controversial, with supporters claiming that consumers prefer lower density neighborhoods and that sprawl does not necessarily increase traffic. Sprawl is also linked with increased obesity since walking and bicycling are not viable commuting options. Sprawl negatively impacts land and water quantity and quality and may be linked to a decline in social capital.
Sprawl is characterized by several land use patterns which usually occur in unison:
This refers to a situation where commercial, residential
, 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 is not practical, so all these activities generally require an automobile
(though a bicycle
may also be feasible).
Low-density land use
Sprawl consumes much more land than traditional urban developments because new developments are of low density. The exact definition of "low density" is arguable, but a common example is that of single family homes
, as opposed to apartments. Buildings usually have fewer stories and are spaced farther apart, separated by lawns
or parking lots
. Lot sizes are larger, and 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.
Another kind of low-density development is sometimes called leap-frog development. This term refers to the relationship, or lack thereof, between one subdivision and the next. Such developments are typically separated by large green belts, ie tracts of undeveloped land, resulting in an average density far lower even than the low density described in the previous paragraph. 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 (DeGrove and Turner, 1991). 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.
Areas of urban sprawl are also characterized as highly dependent on automobiles
, a condition known as automobile dependency
. Most activities, such as shopping and commuting
to work, require the use of a car as a result of both the area's isolation from the city and the isolation the area's residential zones have from its industrial and commercial zones. Walking
and other methods of transit are not practical; therefore, many of these areas have few or no sidewalks. In many suburban communities, even stores and activities that are close by are contrived to be much further, by separating uses with fences, walls, and drainage ditches.
Developments characteristic of sprawl
Housing subdivisions are large tracts of land consisting entirely of newly-built 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.” Although in most cases they are referred to as developments.
Subdivisions often incorporate curved roads and culs-de-sac. Such 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. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 5, 34)
are locations consisting of retail space. In the U.S. and Canada, suburban context these vary from strip malls
which refer to collections of buildings sharing a common parking lot, usually built on a high-capacity roadway with commercial functions (i.e., a "strip"). Similar developments in the UK are called Retail Parks. Strip malls/retail parks contain a wide variety of retail and non-retail functions that also cater to daily use (e.g. video rental, takeout food, laundry services, hairdresser). Strip malls consisting mostly of big box stores
or category killers
are sometimes called "power centers" (USA). These developments tend to be low-density; the buildings are single-story and there is ample space for parking and access for delivery vehicles. This character is reflected in the spacious landscaping of the parking lots and walkways and clear signage of the retail establishments. Some strip malls are undergoing a transformation into Lifestyle centers
; entailing investments in common areas and facilities (plazas, cafes) and shifting tenancy from daily goods to recreational shopping. European countries such as France, Belgium and Germany have implemented size restrictions for superstores found in strip malls in an effort to limit sprawl (Davies 1995).
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 which 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). Until recently, the largest shopping mall in the world was the West Edmonton Mall
, while the largest in the United States is the Mall of America
. Now, several larger ones have been built and/or are planned in China. Shopping malls are often detrimental to downtown shopping centers of nearby cities since the shopping malls acts as a surrogate for the city center
(Crawford 1992). Some downtowns have responded to this challenge by building shopping centers of their own (Frieden and Sagelyn 1989; consider also Toronto Eaton Centre
's Rideau Centre
, Boston's Shops at Prudential Center
, and Providence's Providence Place
In the 1970s, the Ontario government created the Ontario Downtown Renewal Programme, which helped finance the building of several downtown malls across Ontario (such as Eaton Centre). The program was created to reverse the tide of small business leaving downtowns for larger sites surrounding the city.
Fast food chains
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 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 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).
According to the National Resources Inventory (NRI), about 8,900 square kilometers (2.2 million acres) of land in the United States was developed between 1992 and 2002. Presently, the NRI classifies approximately 100,000 more square kilometers (40,000 square miles) (an area approximately the size of Kentucky
) as developed than 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 U.S. land area is urban.Approximately 0.8 percent of the nation's land is in the 37 urbanized areas with more than 1,000,000 population. In 2002, these 37 urbanized areas supported around 40% of the total American population.
Nonetheless, some urban areas have expanded geographically even while losing population. 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, albeit without the wholesale dismantling of public transit systems that occurred in the United States.
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. This trend has slowed somewhat in recent years, as more people have regained an interest in urban living.
The term Los Angelization is also sometimes used for urban sprawl, though this may be misleading. Los Angeles was one of the world's first low density urbanized areas, as a result of wide automobile ownership. However, Los Angeles has become more dense over the past half-century, principally due to small lot zoning and a high demand for housing due to population growth. Los Angeles increased its density to 2240/km² (5,801 per square mile) in 1990. Land consumption per resident in 1990 was 0.11 acre, which made Los Angeles the most densely populated urbanized area in America.
The first urban growth boundary in the U.S. was in Fayette County, Kentucky in 1958. Fifteen years later, 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) USA Urbanized Areas 1950-1990 USA Urbanized Areas 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. Many of these were adopted with the support and advocacy of Greenbelt Alliance, a non-profit land conservation and urban planning organization.
In other areas, the design principles of District Regionalism and New Urbanism have been employed to combat urban sprawl.
While cities such as Calgary are well known for sprawling suburbs, policies and public opinion are changing. Transit-oriented development is also helping to reduce urban sprawl, mainly in cities which have light and heavy rail transit systems.
Criticism and response
Arguments opposing urban sprawl run the gamut from the more concrete effects such as health and environmental issues to more abstract consequences involving neighborhood vitality.
Health and environmental impact
Urban sprawl is associated with a number of negative environmental and public health
outcomes. The primary cause of these negative outcomes is that sprawl leads to people having to depend on the automobile because it will be a greater distance to travel and people will not be able to walk or ride their bicycles to their destinations.
However, this is mitigated significantly with nearby development of shopping and recreation areas. Also, many people prefer to live close to their place of business which is increasingly centered less around urban areas.
Increased pollution and reliance on fossil fuel
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. However, air in modern suburbs is not necessarily cleaner than air in urban neighborhoods. In fact, the most polluted air is on crowded highways, where people in suburbs tend to spend more time. On average, suburban residents generate more pollution and carbon emissions
than their urban counterparts because of their increased driving.
Increase in traffic and traffic-related fatalities
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 at greater risk of dying in a car crash.
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
. Presumably, living in a car centered culture forces inhabitants to drive everywhere, thus walking far less than their urban (and generally healthier) counterparts.
Decrease in social capital
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 low-density sprawl creates barriers to interaction. Sprawl tends to replace public spaces such as parks with private spaces such as fenced-in backyards. Residents of sprawling neighborhoods rarely walk for transportation, which reduces opportunities for face-to-face contact with neighbors.
Decrease in land and water quantity and quality
Due to the larger area consumed by sprawling suburbs compared to urban neighborhoods, more farmland and wildlife habitats are displaced per resident. As forest cover is cleared and covered with concrete in the suburbs, rainfall is less effectively absorbed into the ground water aquifers. This threatens both the quality and quantity of water supplies. Sprawl increases water pollution
as rain water picks up gasoline and oil runoff from parking lots and roads. Sprawl fragments the land which increases the risk of invasive species
spreading into the remaining forest.
Increased infrastructure costs
Living in a larger, more spread out space makes public services more expensive. Since car
usage often becomes endemic and public transport
often becomes significantly more expensive, city planners are forced 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.
Increased personal transportation costs
Residents of low density areas spend a higher proportion of their income on transportation than residents of high density areas. The RAC
estimates that the average cost
of operating a car in the UK is £5,000 a year. In comparison, a yearly underground
ticket for a suburban commuter in London (where wages are higher than the national average) costs £1,000-1,500.
Quality of life has been argued to be eroded by lifestyles sprawl promotes. 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. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6, 28). James Howard Kunstler
has argued that the poor aesthetics
of suburban environments make them "places not worth caring about", and that they lack a sense of history and identity.
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 1960s with the financial industries' then-legal process of redlining
neighborhoods to prevent certain people from entering and residing in affluent districts. Sprawl may have a negative impact on public schools as finances have been pulled out of city cores and diverted to wealthier suburbs. They argue that the residential and social segregation of whites from blacks in the United States creates a socialization process that limits whites' chances for developing meaningful relationships with blacks and other minorities, and that the segregation experienced by whites from blacks fosters segregated lifestyles and can lead to positive views about themselves and negative views about blacks.
Groups that oppose sprawl
The American Institute of Architects
recommends 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
, and other environmental organizations oppose sprawl and support investment in existing communities.
Consumer preference for sprawl
Peter Gordon, a professor of planning and economics at the University of Southern California's School of Urban Planning and Development, argues that many households in the United States, Canada, and Australia, especially middle and upper class
families, have shown a preference for the suburban lifestyle. Reasons cited include a preference towards lower-density development (for lower ambient noise and increased privacy), better schools, less crime, and a generally slower lifestyle than the urban one. Those in favor of a "free housing market" also argue that this sort of living situation is an issue of personal choice and economic means. One suburban Detroit
politician defends low-density development as the preferred lifestyle choice of his constituents, calling it "...the American Dream unfolding before your eyes. However, a number of studies have suggested that many affluent "empty nesters" are heading back towards the inner city areas to "downsize" their housing and take advantage of the increased cultural offerings that such areas often have to offer. In many other cities across the Western world, evidence of this trend can be found in geographic patterns of property values, where the highest prices are increasingly commanded in higher-density, inner-urban areas, reflecting their desirability as places to live for people with the finances to make a free choice.
Debate over traffic and commute times
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 the 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. More recent data suggests that this trend has reversed, with the 2000 U.S. Census showing commute times increased over all previous periods.
Risk of increased housing prices
There is also some concern that Portland-style anti-sprawl policies will increase housing prices. Some research suggests Oregon has had the largest housing affordability loss in the nation, but other research shows that Portland's price increases are comparable to other Western cities. Another report suggests that zoning and other land use controls play the dominant role in making housing expensive.
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 was being debated between the major political parties in the lead up to the Australian federal election.
There are some sociologists such as Durkheim who suggest there is a link between population density and the number of rules that must be imposed. The theory goes that as people are moved closer together geographically their actions are more likely to noticeably impact others around them. This potential impact requires the creation of additional social or legal rules to prevent conflict. A simple example would be as houses become closer together the acceptable maximum volume of music decreases, as it becomes intrusive to other residents.
Crowding and increased aggression
There have been numerous studies that link increased population density with increased aggression. Some people believe that increased population density encourages crime and anti-social behavior. It is argued that human beings, while a social animal, need significant amounts of social space or they become agitated and aggressive.
Urban sprawl in popular culture
- In William Gibson's fictional Sprawl trilogy, "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 Axis.
- In the cyberpunk fantasy universe of Shadowrun, sprawl or the sprawl is a term used to mean a large city.
- Patrick Nelson's 2006 novel Sprawlism comedically explores the world of a music business executive as his life collides with a suburban sprawl activist.
- The 2006 CGI film Over the Hedge is plotted around the effect of sprawl on a group of animals living in the wild.
- Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates examines the alienation of a couple who move from Manhattan to New York's suburbs.
- In 1983 The Pretenders performed their hit single My City Was Gone where vocalist Chrissie Hynde recounts visiting her hometown of Akron, Ohio. song lyrics
- The Warren Zevon album Transverse City features references to the effects of urban sprawl on such tracks as "Gridlock", "Run Straight Down", and "Down in the Mall".
- The Talking Heads song "Nothing But Flowers" mockingly bemoans the disappearance of sprawl-manifestations such as shopping malls, billboards, fast food chains, etc.
- The Japanese animated film Pom Poko is a fictional story about Tanuki, or raccoon-dogs trying to fight off developers in the outskirts of Tokyo.
- The 1989 film The 'Burbs takes place in the suburbs.
- An episode of The Simpsons punned Wal-Mart as "Sprawl Mart".
Urban sprawl in nonfiction
- Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States by Kenneth T. Jackson
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
- Edge City: Life on the New Frontier by Garreau, Joel, Anchor Books/Doubleday New York.
- Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
- 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
- The Old Neighborhood: What we lost in the great suburban migration: 1966-1999 by Ray Suarez
- A Field Guide to Sprawl by Dolores Hayden and Jim Wark, ISBN 0-393-73125-1, W. W. Norton & Company.
- Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann, University of Chicago Press, hardcover, 301 pages, ISBN 0-226-07690-3
- "Sprawl Kills - How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money," by Joel S. Hirschhorn
- 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
Bibliography of works cited
- Baudrillard, Jean (1983). Simulacra and Simulation.
- Duany, Andrés; Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth (2000). Suburban Nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point Press.
- Jameson, Fredric (1990). Postmodernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism.
- Koolhaas, Rem (2003). Junkspace, Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping. Harvard Press.
- Schlosser, Eric (2002). Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Houghton Mifflin Company.
- DeGrove, John and Robyne Turner (1991) "Local Government in Florida: Coping with Massive and Sustained Growth" in Huckshorn, R. (ed.) Government and Politics in Florida, University of Florida Press, Gainesville.
- Hirschhorn, Joel S. (2005), Sprawl Kills - How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health, and Money. New York: Sterling & Ross. ISBN 0-9766372-0-0
- Crawford, Margaret (1992) "The World in a Shopping Mall" in Sorkin, Michael (ed.), Variations on a Theme Park, The new American city and the end of public space, Hill and Wang, New York, pp. 3-30.
- Frieden, Bernard J. and Sagalyn, Lynne B. (1989) Downtown Inc.: How America Rebuilds Cities, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Davies, Ross (1960). ''Retail Planning Policies in Western Europe. Routledge.
- Gruen, Victor and Larry Smith (1960) Shopping towns USA: the planning of shopping centers, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York.
- Stein, Jay (1993). Growth Management: The planning challenge of the 1990’s. Sage Publications.
- Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
- Bruegmann, Robert. Sprawl: A Compact History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
- Garreau, Joel, "Edge City: life on the new frontier". New York, Anchor Books, 1991.
- Gielen, Tristan. Coping with compaction; the demon of sprawl. Auckland, Random House New Zealand, 2006.
- Hayden, Dolores. "A Field Guide to Sprawl". New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 2004.
- Rybczynski, Witold (Nov. 7, 2005). "Suburban Despair" Slate.
- Vicino, Thomas, J. Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
- Winkler, Robert. Going Wild: Adventures with Birds in the Suburban Wilderness. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2003.