Defining Urban Sprawl

Elizabeth Borneman


We’ve all been in one of those cities that just never seems to end. Whether you’ve been caught up in unfamiliar urban sprawl or navigate it as part of your daily live, any towns are growing further and further away from their traditional downtown centers.

This urban sprawl concept caused researchers to dive into figuring out what city in the world is the biggest based on the size of its urban sprawl. This area around a city can often extend quite a distance and branch off into satellite communities, far removed from the city center they associate with.

When most Americans think of a sprawling city, they think of a place like Los Angeles. LA fits the bill for the quintessential city sprawl, and in many ways it is the largest sprawling city in the world. However, other locations in the United States and elsewhere contribute their own unique spin to urban sprawl and geography dedicated to people, homes, cars, and more.

The term urban sprawl was first used to describe what was happening in London in the 1950s, as downtown areas grew too expensive for people to live. They settled in the outskirts of the city, choosing to commute via car, bus, or train from cheaper locations. Nowadays people associate urban sprawl with suburbs, strip malls, consumerism, and miles upon miles of roadways linking these bits of a city together.

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Urban sprawl in Milton, Ontario, Canada. Photo: SimonP, MediaWiki Commons.
Urban sprawl in Milton, Ontario, Canada. Photo: Suburban developments in Milton, Ontario by SimonP, under license CC BY-SA 3.0, MediaWiki Commons, 2009.

Brisbane, Australia, and Quebec City, Canada both have a lot of urban sprawl to show for themselves, too. The biggest cities with the least amount of urban sprawl include Atlanta, Georgia, Boston, Massachusetts, St Louis, Missouri, and Orlando, Florida.

Defining urban sprawl can be quite difficult. Somehow researchers have to balance the density of population, if that population is located in the city center or suburbs, and if the city has any sprawl outside its boundaries. Some cities fit the criteria for sprawl geographically, but not in terms of their population density. Residents in particular cities may have different ideas when it comes to knowing how much room is enough between their neighbors and themselves, while other cities don’t offer any other options other than to be crammed in very close to one another.

A survey of sprawl studies by the Guardian reviewed three of them:

Although the most sprawling city in the world depends on what criteria you use, there are some things we do know about the effects of urban sprawl. In these types of cities, there are generally higher rates of pollution and carbon monoxide levels in the air. Sprawling cities use more resources as people try to get from one place to another. Los Angeles is one common example of a major sprawling city in the world, one that caters to millions of people driving in and out of it every day.



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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.