The negative connotations of the term derive from the word, “sprawl,” which means to spread out in an ungainly or untidy, disorganized way.  It refers to development that occurs outside the city center or beyond the edges of the city into the countryside.  One representative definition is:

The physical pattern of low-density expansion of large urban areas under market conditions into the surrounding agricultural areas.  Sprawl … implies little planning control of land subdivision. Development is patchy, scattered and strung out, with a tendency to discontinuity because it leap-frogs over some areas, leaving agricultural enclaves.

The low-density pattern is based on the reliance on single-family houses where there exists more square meter of space per person in the household than is typically found in living spaces in cities.  The urban sprawl community also relies more heavily on cars for getting to work, shopping, play, and schools than in cities, partly because there is little or no public transportation in these communities.  The longer commute to jobs in the cities also eats into the time that entire families have to spend together.  The communities often lack public water or sewer infrastructure, or they increase sharply the stress on existing infrastructure that was originally constructed for a much smaller population.  For these reasons, environmentalists are often very critical of urban sprawl.

As communities develop outside the urban center, or even the city boundaries, the retail market follows and the center of the city loses much of its shopping trade to malls.  There is a counter-development lately where people are moving from these urban sprawl communities back to the city to avoid the long commute and to make use of the cultural, economic and social values of a city environment.

While much of urban planning and environmental criticism roundly condemns the trend toward urban sprawl, and its often monotonous aesthetics, one critic has argued that sprawl is simply the middle class doing what rich people always did earlier in the century and before — moving further out to get more room and, usually, cleaner air and less congestion.  See, Bruegmann, below.

Some further ideas to explore on Urban Sprawl:

What do you think of the argument from Robert Bruegmann that urban sprawl is just the middle class trying to move up in society.  Are there differences in people moving out to bigger spaces with bigger cars from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries and in the early 21st century?

Do you live in an area that is urban sprawl or city?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of your particular urban environment?

What is the difference between an urban sprawl community and a rural community?

Can you identify where the city environment ends and urban sprawl begins in your community or a nearby community.

Is it possible to measure how much land in your area or the country as a whole can be classified as “urban Sprawl”?


Robert Bruegmann, Sprawl: a compact history (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005).

Richard Ingersoll, Sprawltown: Looking for the City on Its Edges (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).

Frank McDonald and James Nix, Chaos at the Crossroads (Kinsale, Ireland: Gandon Books, 2005)

See related topics in ie/encyclopedia on: Sustainable Development and Smart Growth.

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