Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Decomposing Urban Sprawl

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Decomposing Urban Sprawl

Article excerpt

Urban sprawl has become the catch phrase for everything that is bad about urban growth today-congestion, blight, monotony, endless development and ecological destruction. Beneath the hoopla, however, is a serious debate about how to manage urban growth effectively. The serious issues are often lost in the rhetoric. Counterproductive measures become laws that create worse sprawl than before, such as Florida's concurrency requirements in the mid1980s. The Concurrency Laws attempted to reduce sprawl by requiring infrastructure to be built in advance of development. This seemingly benign law resulted in development being pushed to rural areas where roads were less congested.

The biggest problem with urban sprawl is that the term has different meanings to different people. Many attempts to control urban sprawl are misguided because policy makers do not understand how the land market operates. Some aspects of sprawl, such as discontinuous growth, serve a beneficial purpose. Other aspects, such as ubiquitous, monotonous development and unusable open space, are indeed 'bad'. However, policy makers do not understand that many regulations designed to improve the landscape may in fact make sprawl worse.

The main purpose of this paper is to distinguish the truly objectionable aspects of sprawl from those aspects which are misunderstood.1 The paper provides a framework for decomposing sprawl into its component parts. It attempts to dispel the myths about sprawl and to join together the critical pieces that must be considered if the problems associated with sprawl are to be reduced-buyers' preferences for low-density single-family houses, infrastructure finance, lack of regional governance, growth control, environmental protection and escape from inner-city problems.

Sprawl is a world-wide phenomenon. Most industrialised countries have antiquated zoning laws which continue to segregate homes from jobs, shops and other activities, long after the need to protect them for public health reasons has disappeared. Many developing countries have imported these compartmentalised zoning laws.

The paper begins with a discussion of the current debate in the popular press, a literature review, and a summary of definitions and causes of sprawl. The second section presents the methodology and framework for analysis. The third section presents 14 outcomes that are associated with and often blamed on sprawl. This section decomposes the various outcomes into two main groups- those that are part of the process of development and those that are the end result of development. A fourth section examines where the market works and where it does not in connection with two core criticisms of sprawl. The penultimate section discusses three popular solutions for reducing sprawl- urban growth boundaries, regional governance and comprehensive state planning, and the final section presents conclusions.


An article in the Los Angeles Times in January 1995 on a report entitled Beyond Sprawl (Fulton, 1995) ignited a debate in California about how the state has grown since the Second World War. The report, which was written by planning commentator William Fulton, was significant primarily because of who sponsored it-Bank of America, California Resources Agency, Greenbelt Alliance and The Low-Income Housing Fund. The report was roundly criticised because it was presented as a serious research study about the effects of sprawl rather than the opinion piece that it was. Nevertheless, the resulting debate indicated that it had struck a timely nerve.

Beyond Sprawl stated,

We can no longer afford the luxury of sprawl. Our demographics are shifting in dramatic ways. Our economy is restructuring. Our environment is under increasing stress. We cannot shape California's future successfully unless we move beyond sprawl. (Fulton, 1995, 1)

The report enumerated the forces that promote sprawl in California including:

* the perception that new suburbs are safer, more desirable and cheaper than urban alternatives;

* that suburbs are more friendly and flexible for businesses; and

* that fiscal incentives in the wake of Proposition 13 encourage local governments to 'cherry-pick' land uses based on tax considerations, especially retail uses which generate sales taxes-one of the few sources of additional income to municipalities. …

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