Urban Sprawl; Urban Nightmare

by Hannah on October 1, 2017 - 10:17pm

The Merriam-Webster defines urban sprawl as “the spreading of urban developments (such as houses and shopping centers) on undeveloped land near a city.” But it’s more than that: Urban sprawl has defined how where many us of live is planned out, and therefore, how we move and live within that space. The sources used in this text (The Economist, Concordia News and The Guardian) each explain either a problem or solution relating to urban sprawl.

Urban sprawl is an underlying necessity to the american suburban dream: if everyone wants their white picket fence, someone has to build enough to go around. While there are many factors to urban sprawl in America, there is one that is particularly interesting: free parking. While no one likes to think about parking, it’s a surprisingly important part in how a lot of American cities are laid out, as reports The Economist on April 8, 2017 in the publication of the same name. In order to accommodate cars, which are stationary 95% of the time, many American cities, such as Las Vegas and Miami, among many others, enforce what are called parking minimums. These municipal codes state how many free parking spaces must be built depending on what a building will be used for, and the owner must be able to provide at least that many spaces in order for their plans to be approved.

Seeing as each parking space is approximately 12 to 15 square meters, and that number doubles when you consider the necessary space for access lanes, these required spaces can seriously contribute to the vast cities we so often see in America, making urban sprawl take up even more space.

Free parking also encourages people to use their cars. Firstly, if parking’s free, might as well drive instead of taking public transport. This preference is shown in the 3% increase between 1990 and 2014 of Americans who only use cars to drive to work, moving from 73% to 76% despite the many improvements to public transportation. In addition, huge parking lots create enormous distances in between shops or other businesses, making it difficult or impossible to walk or bike to work or to the stores. By making the freedom of movement associated with cars essentially mandatory, this system contributes to urban sprawl in that people feel more at ease moving further and further away from city centers, forcing the creation of outlying neighbourhoods.

Another problem with parking minimums are that they make converting a building’s purpose into something new extremely difficult. Seeing as a now abandoned office building would have only the number of parking spaces necessary for a business and not for a residence, it would be nearly impossible to convert it into apartments.

Unfortunately, this makes one of the measures proposed by Jochen Jaeger and Naghmeh Nazarnia, authors of a report by the European Environment Agency and Federal Office for the Environment covered by Cléa Desjardins for Concordia News on July 6, 2016, extremely difficult to implement. Their proposition includes brownfield recycling, or repurposing previously industrial land. This would be hugely beneficial to historically industrial places like Montreal, especially considering that its degree of urban sprawl was multiplied by twenty six between 1971 and 2011.

Another proposed solution is improved communication between cities and transport ministries that would focus on transit-oriented development. This idea has been implemented in Zurich and resulted in more use of public transportation and less traffic than in Montreal.

And while a construction project in a Montreal suburb was recently stopped by the Canadian government in the interest of protecting chorus frogs, Montreal has a long way to go in efficiently avoiding urban sprawl.

However, Montreal may be only be slowly moving forward, China is going in the entirely wrong direction, as the government is the deliberately creating urban sprawl in order to depopulate highly dense urban areas.

This is exemplified in the plans for Xiongan, a huge city 60 miles south of Beijing, one of the most rapidly urbanising cities in the world, as is reported on by Helen Roxburgh on May 5, 2017 for The Guardian. Covering the counties of Xiongxian, Rongcheng and Anxin, and the Baiyangdian wetlands, this city within the Jing-Jin-Ji megaregion is supposed become three times the size of New York.

This development comes as part of the Chinese government’s plan to cap the size of their biggest cities’ populations by 2020, with Beijing at 23 million and Shanghai at 25 million. However, this type of plan disregards the UN’s condemnation of “endless cities” and their social and environmental impacts. Questions are also being asked in regards to the green credentials of this project, seeing as how denser cities are more environmentally friendly and this plan expects to create huge, less dense areas.

Urban sprawl definitely isn’t an issue that we encounter in our day to day lives. However, we certainly encounter its effects, whether by hour-long commutes or the slow degradation of our environment. And while it’s certainly not something we can take to the streets to protest, it’s something that we can keep in mind when looking for a place to live or when we decide how we’ll get to work. Because while the American dream may be restrained to America, urban sprawl certainly isn’t, and it’s a nightmare we need to face sooner rather than later.

Works Cited

Desjardins, Cléa. “How can we slow down urban sprawl?” Concordia University, 6 July 2016, http://www.concordia.ca/cunews/main/stories/2016/07/06/urban-sprawl-western-world-research-jochen-jaeger.html.

“How not to create traffic jams, pollution and urban sprawl.” The Economist, 8 April 2017, https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21720269-dont-let-people-park-free-how-not-create-traffic-jams-pollution-and-urban-sprawl.

Roxburgh, Helen. “Endless cities: will China's new urbanisation just mean more sprawl?” The Guardian, 5 May 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/may/05/megaregions-endless-china-urbanisation-sprawl-xiongan-jingjinji.


“Urban Sprawl.” Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/urban%20sprawl. Accessed 1 October 2017.


About the author

Hi, my name is Hannah. First off, I'm very interested in the arts, music and filmmaking, and my skills include speaking 3 languages (English, French and intermediary Spanish), playing the cello and painting.