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A city that spreads chaotically using more and more land: we can thus summarise in brief the urban sprawl phenomenon, also known as suburban sprawl.

This peculiar urban phenomenon occurs on the outskirts of a city and this uncontrolled urban expansion is linked to a low population density in the same areas.

urban sprawl

An example of urban sprawl in Le Beausset, France


More and more outskirts of major European cities are undergoing the urban sprawl phenomenon.

Also because of the land’s lower cost, the growing trend is to move away from the city, while remaining within the so-called hinterland, which becomes littered with scattered built up areas that don’t seem to have any planning.

The consequences of urban sprawl (or suburban sprawl)

The main negative effects of urban sprawl are, apart from the lack of planning for the city expansion, the high land use corresponding to a low population density.

It goes without saying that these elements are not positive for the environment nor for the reduction of energy consumption, which is fundamental for preserving our planet.

In the past, a city consisted in a settlement around a touchstone, which was usually a strategic point for commerce or defence. Around it, the city developed and grew, but with a very high population density. From insulae romane (“Roman islands”, similar to council houses) to modern multi-storey buildings.

The desire and individual search for a more “isolated” dwelling resulted in the city expanding throughout the surrounding land by building new houses in a disorganized way.

Apart from the high land use, that can no longer be allowed nowadays, this spreading also leads to the creation of the so-called dormitory suburbs, those parts of the city that don’t have access to any kind of services and usually consist in dwellings near the road and nothing more.

It’s easy to understand that this has nothing to do with the definition of city.

sprawl survival guide

Urban sprawl and a compact city in the distance (Ankara)

At this point, it’s necessary to make an important distinction: urban sprawl does not mean growth. It’s rather the passage, as we were saying before, from the past compact city to the modern sprawling city.

An “exploded” city, sprawling, the term that best describes this phenomenon.

Apart from the phenomenon of land use, that might be already sufficient to classify this sprawling expansion as not environmentally sustainable, this city explosion forces the inhabitants of low-density areas to travel on a daily basis. As a consequence, they often use private cars to reach working places and services, deployed in the compact city, and thus fine dust pollution tends to rise

The social challenges caused by urban sprawl

The consequences of all of this are obvious. On the one hand, as already highlighted more than once, the problems regarding environmental sustainability. But we must also consider the social challenges that the sprawling city has caused.

The new lifestyles shaped or determined by urban sprawl are often characterised by the loss of a sense of belonging and identification with a place. The new districts created by urban sprawl might in fact isolate their inhabitants from the rest of the city and become “cities in the city”. As a consequence, the inhabitants will no longer feel connected with a place.

consequence of urban sprawl new jersey

A view of New Jersey from above. A clear example of American urban sprawl


Sprawl survival guide: possible countermeasures

An accurate implementation of urban planning policies is necessary for ending this phenomenon, and in a way for fixing it, and for pushing the cities towards an organised development that preserves green areas and spaces for agricultural purposes. Moreover, short-term remedies can also be adopted in order to try and contain the negative consequences of the already ongoing urban sprawl.

One of these solutions tries to end the phenomenon of mass migration from the sprawling city to the compact city by private car.

Hence the various possible means of transport, of which the most used are:

carsharing, that is sharing one’s car to go to work every day, which would reduce the number of cars entering the city;

bikesharing, that allows to rent a bicycle to reach places of interest and avoids having to enter the city by car.

It’s almost impossible to cancel the phenomenon, but what can be done is reduce its effects and prevent the sprawl from propagating even further. This can only be done through accurate urban planning policies that bring the trend back to a compact city and a higher population density, which has been “demonised” for years.

It’s no coincidence that the city, throughout the centuries, has succeeded in evolving and adapting to the times, without losing its identity. This proves that the compact city is a functional settlement pattern unlike the sprawling city.

The compact city is a concentrated city, as the definition suggests, with complex yet few connections that allow an easier mobility management, resulting in a decrease in energy waste and a drop in consumption. Moreover, as already said, unlike the sprawling city, this city model doesn’t rely exclusively on private means of transport in order to function, but rather it promotes and implements public transportation.

This city model, that is nothing more than the evolution of the historical model, includes all of the features integrating urbanity and infrastructures that have disappeared in the sprawling city.

For this reason, urban sprawl leads to a residential built up area without any rules or planning.

The negative effects of urban sprawl: publications

Great awareness of the negative effects of urban sprawl is shown in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management ,an academic journal on environmental economics published by Elsevier. The journal is managed by Roger H. von Haefen, Agricultural Economics professor at the University of North Carolina) and by Till Requate (New Institutional Economics professor at the CAU, the University of Kiel), international experts on economy and environment, and it publishes theoretical and empirical articles about natural resources and environmental issues.

Another publication that is quite relevant in this field is “Land Use Policy”, an on-line interdisciplinary periodical that covers every aspect of urban and rural land use. They both aim at giving directions and useful information to governments and institutions that deal with architecture and the environment.

Urban sprawl in Switzerland and Italy

The urban sprawl phenomenon, born in America in the early 1960s, has unfortunately spread throughout Italy and in a large area in the Canton of Ticino in the last few years, involving thus Northern Switzerland.

Only the natural features (the surrounding valleys, such as the Gotthard Pass) can mitigate this event.

Urban sprawl has reached noteworthy dimensions. From the 1950s until today, almost 8 million hectares of agricultural surface were lost. To give an example, that corresponds to Lombardy, Sicily and Sardinia put together.

Moreover, until the 1990s land consumption went parallel to demographic growth and industrialisation development. But around 1995 the population stopped increasing and economic growth began experiencing the first warnings of its decline. Nevertheless, land consumption had a remarkable acceleration.

Leche Park Residence, an example against urban sprawl

leche park residence versus urban sprawl

Leche Park Residence

In the Swiss and Italian urban sprawl context, the studio Mino Caggiula Architects concluded in 2017 the housing complex Leche Park Residence, in Bellinzona, Canton of Ticino. This project aimed to go against urban sprawl and the small and medium volumes that cover the Ticino landscape to the detriment of green areas and drawn aggregative spaces.

Leche Park Residence: find out more

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