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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 one’s 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 (1939-1945) 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 country’s population and its land area. Some countries have maintained a laissez-faire approach toward urban sprawl. In New Zealand, a country of comparable size to Britain but with only four million inhabitants (in contrast to Britain’s 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 Sao 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 America’s 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.
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