The Environmental Impacts of Urban Sprawl

The Environmental Impacts of Urban Sprawl: Integrating New Evidence
and Emergent Issues
Bev Wilson, Assistant Professor*
Arnab Chakraborty, Assistant Professor
Department of Urban and Regional Planning
Department of Urban and Regional Planning
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
111 Temple Buell Hall, MC-619
111 Temple Buell Hall, MC-619
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Champaign, IL 61820 USA
Champaign, IL 61820 USA
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EMAIL: [email protected]
EMAIL: [email protected]
* Corresponding Author
In this article, we review articles published in planning journals since 2001 that focus on
the environmental impacts of sprawl and assess the extent to which this research addresses
what we see as two of the most important meta-challenges for environmental planning and
management in the coming decade—resilience and justice. Our review organizes the
sprawl’s impacts by four elements – earth, air, water and fire – and by developed and
developing country contexts. Our assessment looks for reference to meta-challenges and
consideration of multiple issues, elements or contexts. We find evidence that the sprawlrelated research from last decade often engages the meta-challenges of resilience and
justice, the array of environmental outcomes being considered within individual sprawl
studies is expanding, and distinctions between studies from developed and developing
countries are increasingly difficult to detect.
Keywords: sprawl, environmental planning, resilience, justice
1. Introduction
In this article, we review articles published in planning journals since 2001 that
focus on the environmental impacts of sprawl and assess the extent to which this research
addresses what we see as two of the most important meta-challenges for environmental
planning and management in the coming decade—resilience and justice. For our purposes,
resilience is understood as the overall ability of a system “…to absorb change and
disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state
variables” (Holling, 1973, p. 14) and justice refers to conditions where responsibility and
opportunity is fairly distributed across groups and individuals. Several considerations
prompted and informed this review and synthesis. In the past, sprawl research been
characterized by a relatively narrow and fragmented approach, both in terms of the
outcomes considered as well as in the geographic areas studied. This approach is reflected
in prior review articles summarizing the empirical work on one of the many dimensions of
urban sprawl, like Ewing and Dumbaugh’s 2009 review linking the built environment
characteristics with traffic safety. While useful, these highly focused empirical studies and
the specialized literature reviews they engendered, provide a limited understanding of
issues that transcend disciplinary and geographical foci such as the challenges of climate
change or the equity impacts of globalization.
Deepening inequality and climate change impacts are two specific issues that have
gained increasing attention from both policymakers and the public, and the way that
development takes place in and around urban areas figures prominently in these debates.
Therefore, it is useful to understand whether and how the broader meta-challenges of
resilience and justice are reflected in the way sprawl research is designed, conducted, and
presented over the last decade. Further, a variety of policy measures are being tested that
call upon planners to identify and implement solutions for these and other emerging issues.
For example, one of the key policy priorities of U.S. Housing and Urban Development
Authority’s recent Sustainable Communities Initiative is to foster regional coordination
and enable programs that are resilient in difficult economic times and promote policies that
overcome discrimination and exclusion (Been et al., 2010). In order to successfully
respond to the twin meta-challenges of resilience and justice, it is important to recognize
the connections between research findings, encourage work that bridges disciplinary silos,
and moves beyond the familiar developing-developed country dichotomy. We focus on
sprawl because it is a critical and widely studied aspect of urban development and also
because the recent sprawl literature demonstrates progress towards this goal.
The remainder of this article proceeds as follows. We begin by situating this review
within the context of the broader sprawl literature. We then organize the recent literature
according to four elements or areas of environmental impact, and for each element we
provide a summary of important themes that emerged during the review process. Given the
variation in study areas, we separate studies that focus on developed and developing
countries within each element and contrast findings both within and between contexts.
Next, we analyze these studies to determine the extent to which the meta-challenges of
resilience and justice are reflected in the evolving sprawl discourse. We conclude by
identifying the lessons learned, critical gaps, and key questions for future research.
2. Moving Past the Conventional Sprawl Debate
The Winter 1997 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association
highlighted a pair of articles (Ewing, 1997; Gordon and Richardson, 1997) that distilled
prior discussion of urban sprawl and helped to frame subsequent debate surrounding the
issue. In addition to the fundamental question of whether sprawling development was
harmful or largely benign, three additional questions dominated much of the sprawl debate
during the 1990s: (1) how to best define and measure sprawl, (2) what are the fundamental
causes of sprawl, and (3) which policies are most effective for combating sprawl. In a
frequently-cited article, Johnson (2001) provided an overview of the most salient
environmental impacts of sprawl at the time but in the intervening decade, much has
changed. For example, climate change and inequality have emerged as some of the most
critical and commonly discussed challenges for both environmental planning and
management. In order to facilitate a systematic and balanced review of the literature
published over the past decade, we adopt a simple typology consisting of the four basic
elements. These elements—earth, air, water, and fire—serve as an organizing principle for
the substantive focus of the literature reviewed. This typology is complemented by the two
meta-challenges of resilience and justice that are used as lenses for further evaluating shifts
in the way that sprawl research is designed, conducted, and presented.
For the earth element, we focus on empirical studies that primarily examine the
impacts of sprawl on farmland, sensitive areas, and open space (Kline and Austin, 2004;
Lichtenberg and Ding, 2008), but also connect with broader questions of vulnerability,
food security, and rural character. In the air element, we consider research linking
development patterns to local air quality outcomes (Atash, 2007; Stone Jr., 2008; Wilby,
2008; Schweitzer and Zhou, 2010) as well as greenhouse gas emissions (Andrews, 2008a)
as a related, but farther-reaching issue. Articles highlighted under the water element are
primarily concerned with drinking water supplies (Page, 2001; Khatri and
Vairavamoorthy, 2008; Lee and Schwab, 2005) both as a critical resource for sustaining
human settlements and as a strategic concern in planning for resilience in an alteredclimate future, but more familiar issues like runoff and flooding are also addressed.
Finally, in the fire element, we focus largely on the research linking urban form and energy
consumption. This strand of literature generally proceeds from the compact city debate
(Neuman, 2005; Ewing and Rong, 2008; Randolph, 2008), and in most cases has been
localized in scope from the broader discussions of energy security and climate change
impacts (Andrews, 2008b; Brown and Southworth, 2008; Dhakal 2009; Permana et al.,
2008; Zahran et al., 2008). Figure 1 provides a frequency distribution of the articles
reviewed across the environmental elements and geographical contexts.
[Insert Figure 1 About Here]
3. An Elemental Look at the Recent Sprawl Literature
3.1 The Earth Element
The conventional sprawl debate focused heavily on the consumption and
fragmentation of farmland, open space, and land resources in general. Our review of the
recent sprawl literature identified 14 articles from the developed countries versus 5 from
developing countries that align with the earth element of the typology. The research from
the former focuses heavily on the European Union (van der Valk, 2002; Garcia and Riera,
2003; Paül and Tonts, 2005; Dumas et al., 2009; Zasada et al., 2010; Vimal et al., 2012)
and relies primarily on remote sensing and statistical analysis to document and analyze the
impact of sprawling development on farmland, open space, and habitat (Robinson et al.,
2005; Dumas et al., 2009). Although most articles conclude with a call for more proactive
growth management policies, Pauleit et al. (2005) question the assumption that the
negative environmental consequences of sprawl are worse than the impacts of compact
development. The authors use remotely sensed imagery coupled with quantitative models
to test this assertion in England and conclude that urban infill results in a decline in
environmental performance measures such as increased surface temperatures and run-off,
and decreased biodiversity.
van der Valk (2002) focuses on the use of dwindling and increasingly fragmented
land resources in The Netherlands. He suggests that solving the land use challenges will
involve thinking more broadly and implementing a new planning paradigm that
simultaneously increases bio-diversity and preserves open space, while allowing for water
retention and energy production. The question of how to use scarce land more efficiently is
echoed in Frenkel’s (2004) study of growth management policies in Israel. Using a
combination of scenario planning and quantitative models Frenkel demonstrates that
focused growth management policies can be more effective than current policies in
preserving open space and farmlands. Maruani and Amit-Cohen (2010) focus specifically
on Tel Aviv and also argue that large amount of public land ownership in Israel (93
percent) is ideally suited for strong environmental protection policies through land
management regulations.
We were able to identify relatively fewer articles relevant to the earth element from
developing country contexts. Two articles (Xu, 2004; Xi et al., 2012) focus on outward
growth from established cities as a threat to farmland along the fringe and both pinpoint a
lack of planning in the rural areas of China as a key contributor to this issue and obstacle to
overcoming the problem. Fazal (2001) argues that a lack of planning has contributed to
similar patterns of prime farmland loss around Saharanpur City in northern India. But
rather than simply calling for tighter growth controls, the author argues that inventories
and maps of land productivity should be made and used to strategically channel outward
expansion of cities onto less fertile parcels. Sarvestani et al. (2011) use remotely sensed
imagery and GIS to quantify and map the spatial dispersion of Shiraz, Iran from 1976 to
2005. Overall, the earth element literature from both developed and developing countries
are comparable in their methodologies with remote sensing and GIS tending to play a
prominent role (Paül and Tonts, 2005; Robinson et al., 2005; Pauleit et al., 2005; Huang et
al., 2009; Dumas et al., 2008; Vimal et al., 2012; Fazal, 2001; Sarvestani et al., 2011; Xi et
al., 2012).
3.2 The Air Element
Many of the studies from developed countries that address the air element focus on
the relationship between transportation and greenhouse gas emissions within the broader
context of global climate change. In addition, these studies are typically conducted in
either the United States (Stone Jr. et al. 2007; Lee and French, 2009; Barbour and Deakin,
2012) or the European Union (De Ridder et al., 2008; Bart, 2010; Lehmann, 2012). These
articles focus heavily on the role of public policy as both a contributor and possible
solution to air quality and greenhouse gas emissions issues. For example, Barbour and
Deakin (2012) evaluate the effectiveness of California’s Senate Bill 375, which takes a
demand-side approach to reducing vehicle miles traveled. The authors find that the
legislation has no teeth, the reduction targets do not account for anticipated population
growth, and are widely viewed as politically, economically, and socially costly at the local
level. Power (2001) concludes that in order to truly curb sprawl in England and Wales its
true costs must be recognized and felt by everyone and public investment must be shifted
to recovery in urban areas. Similarly, Bart (2010) holds that the EU can best curb sprawl
and control emissions from transport by focusing on land use rather than transport policy.
Their findings support requiring access to transit, higher density developments, urban
growth boundaries, and supporting climate change action plans and emissions trading.
Tiwari et al. (2011) examine the relationship between land use, transportation, and
greenhouse gas emissions in Perth, Australia and like Stone Jr. et al. (2007), rely on
scenario analysis. Specifically, the authors develop three scenarios–business as usual, busbased, and light-rail based–to argue for a “carrots and sticks” implementation approach for
achieving a more sustainable outcome not only in Bentley Technology Precinct, where the
study was focused, but also in Perth and beyond. De Ridder et al. (2008) considers these
issues in a predominantly industrial context by investigating urban sprawl’s effect on air
quality in the Ruhr area of Germany, which is an urban agglomeration composed of several
interconnected cities. The authors conclude that while urban sprawl has a relatively minor
impact on the overall exposure of residents in a region like the Ruhr to air pollution, those
living in more suburban areas are far less impacted than those living in denser, central city
locations. This supports the view that sprawl is an environmental justice issue in some
instances where those who have the ability to move out of the city are exposed to less
health hazards.
Several articles use the urban heat island effect as a critical link between transport,
emissions, density, air quality and climate change. Song (2005) examines the urban heat
island effect in Bundang, South Korea which is one of several new towns in the greater
Seoul region. The study specifically focuses on comparing relative changes in surface
temperature over Bundang’s development (1989–1996) as well as understanding
temperature distribution throughout the surrounding region. By analyzing a time series of
satellite imagery and modeling surface temperatures with regression techniques, the author
concludes that the area is indeed experiencing a heat island effect that exacerbates air
pollution and climate change concerns. Lee and French (2009) estimate growth rates for
the Atlanta region from 2000 to 2030 and discuss the implications of these calculations for
air quality (ground ozone) and energy consumption (demand for interior cooling) in the
context of the urban heat island effect. Stone et al. (2010) find a positive correlation
between sprawl and extreme heat events between 1956 and 2005, which suggests yet
another important connection linking urban form and environmental outcomes.
In the developing country context China is particularly well-represented (Pucher et
al., 2007; Zhao et al., 2010; Zhao and Lu, 2011; Lehmann, 2012) with climate change
dominating as a motivating factor and framing principle for many of the studies addressing
the air element. Pucher et al. (2007) focus on trends in transportation policies and their
implications of greenhouse gas emissions in China and India as two of the most populous
developing countries. Sprawling areas in China are generally characterized by higher
densities than typical North American suburbs and the planning of these areas is closely
coordinated with the provision of basic public infrastructure. In India, sprawl is attributed
in large part to government policies aimed at decongesting city centers, yet the overall
result is unplanned, poorly connected residential areas. Household travel surveys reveal a
higher non-motorized trip share in China than in India, greater public transport shares in
cities with rapid population growth, and a significant increases in private motorized vehicle
travel in both countries. Transport-related air pollution is a major concern the larger cities
such as Beijing and Delhi and sprawl contributes to the problem by increasing average
travel time and traffic congestion. The urban poor are disproportionately affected by the
social and environmental impacts of the transport system’s weaknesses because they are
forced to live on the urban periphery where rising motor vehicle use triggers greater traffic
dangers, noise, and air pollution and is clearly relevant to the justice meta-challenge. The
authors recommend that both China and India implement policies that remove current
incentives encouraging automobile dependence in order to mitigate its social and
environmental consequences. Roy (2009) argues that national climate change policies tend
to focus on adaptation, but neglecting mitigation is a potentially costly oversight. While
Roy (2009) considers several rapidly growing regions in East Asia, the primary focus is
Dhaka, Bangladesh where a built-out urban core and increasing population has forced new
development into adjacent floodplains. The author argues that developing cities are clearly
among the most vulnerable to climate change, and therefore must consider land
conservation and hazard prone areas when planning for future development, which is
another example of how the recent sprawl research is engaging the justice meta-challenge.
The African continent is also represented in this set of articles with Barredo and
Demicheli (2003) simulating the growth of Lagos, Nigeria from 2000 to 2020 using a
dynamic spatial model and Sietchiping et al. (2012) comparing trends in transportation
across Sub-Saharan African cities. Both articles identify important factors that differentiate
planning practice in developing and developed countries. In the former article, the authors
note that planning for sustainability in a developing country differs from the
environmentally-centered efforts most commonly seen in developed countries with the
survival of the urban poor often taking precedence. This observation perhaps suggests that
the justice meta-challenge is more central to planning efforts in cities of the developing
world. The authors also argue that since cities are complex, complicated places where
unforeseeable events often occur, simulations such as those performed for Lagos should be
treated as hypotheses and tools that can guide planners to urban and regional strategies to
mitigate the effects of rapid population growth.
Sietchiping et al. (2012) contend that unlike planners in most developed cities,
planning authorities in sub-Saharan cities do not recognize cycling as a legitimate activity
in transportation discussions. They draw upon prior studies that show the role of cycling
and pedestrian transport in reducing urban emissions and carbon footprints, and suggest
that sub-Saharan cities should adopt policies that integrate multiple modes through
upgrading infrastructure and advocating for and enforcing progressive legislation. They
also stress the need to provide adequate transport for the urban poor and vulnerable groups
such as women, another example of a clear connection to the justice meta-challenge.
Although the context for the sprawl research conducted in developing countries for
the air element is heavily influenced by climate change concerns, the recommendations
offered draw heavily upon the Smart Growth canon of encouraging more compact
development (Lehmann; 2012), investing in transit (Zhao and Lu, 2011; Sietchiping et al.,
2012), balancing jobs with housing (Zhao et al., 2010), and ensuring that the true costs of
development are passed on to the direct consumers (Pucher et al., 2007). This pattern of
similarity in responses to sprawl is evidence of convergence across geographic contexts
that transcends the familiar developed-developing country dichotomy.
3.3 The Water Element
Articles from developed countries that address the water element are
overwhelmingly drawn from the United States (Berke et al., 2003; Tang et al., 2005; Davis
et al., 2010; House-Peters and Chang, 2011; Rayne and Bradbury, 2011; Brody et al.,
2011) and European Union (Domene and Saurí, 2006; Hasse and Nuissl, 2007; Poelmans
et al., 2010), but exhibit greater diversity of substance than the air or earth elements.
Several studies are more general and consider watershed health (Berke et al., 2003) or the
urban water balance (Hasse and Nuissl, 2007; Poelmans et al., 2010), while others focus
specifically on stormwater runoff (Pauleit et al., 2005; Tang et al., 2005; Davis et al.,
2010), potable water supply (Rayne and Bradbury, 2011), flooding (Brody et al., 2011), or
household consumption patterns (House-Peters and Chang, 2011). The hydrologic impacts
of sprawl are well-documented with impervious surface coverage as the critical link
between this development pattern and the familiar consequences of increased volume, rate,
and pollutant content of storm water leaving a site. Beyond these established relationships,
several insights from the recent sprawl literature warrant mention here.
Rayne and Bradbury (2011) examine the effects of residential subdivision
development on groundwater resources in southeastern Wisconsin where suburban
developments often rely on domestic wells. The study provides ways to estimate impacts
and identify mitigation strategies using groundwater flow modeling. It found that
development lot size, spread of subdivisions and soil type, all play significant roles. For
example, when larger lots (commonly, 1.2 hectares) are built over an entire township with
clayey soils, recharge rates tend to be lower causing greater impact of withdrawing water.
In another study, using linear extrapolation of changes in satellite imagery in the FlandersBrussels region of Belgium, Poelmans et al. (2010) forecast future development patterns
and then apply a hydrologic model. The authors found that the spatial extent of urban
expansion has a much higher negative hydrological impact that the type of urban
expansion, and impacts are much greater on surface runoff than on evapotranspiration and
groundwater recharge.
In the developing country context, the research most relevant to the water element
frames the issues in a slightly different way. The loss of wetlands and the ecological
services they provide is a prominent theme in three of the six publications reviewed
(Kamini et al., 2006; Taylor, 2008; Zhou et al., 2011), while water quality (Bosselmann et
al., 2010), water supply (Küçükmehmetoğlu and Geymen, 2009), and general watershed
health (Wang et al., 2011) are also represented. China and India again dominate, with five
of the six articles focusing on study areas from these countries. The lone exception focuses
on Istanbul, Turkey which ranks among the most dense cities in the world and whose
geography and size make water accessibility particularly challenging.
Küçükmehmetoğlu and Geymen (2009) document the water resource basins
available to meet the Istanbul’s demand, noting that with an average population growth
rate of 4.5 percent and intense growth pressure to expand outward from the crowded core,
water resources are severely constrained. Using satellite imagery and GIS to document and
monitor land use changes, the authors found that leap-frog, low-density development has
increased in recent decades due in large part to capital improvement projects designed to
improve accessibility to the city core. In order to prevent further encroachment and loss of
the city’s water resources, the authors advocate more focused zoning, public education and
awareness campaigns, more diligent enforcement of existing regulations, building the
technical capacity of government and public officials to monitor growth changes, and
enacting further preventative measures through the legal system.
The impact of urban development on the physical characteristics of river networks
is a recurring theme among the developing country articles. Wang et al. (2011) use GIS to
examine the relationship between urbanization and watershed health near the city of
Lijiang in southwest China. The density and length of the river system decreased
significantly between 1995 and 2009 due to branch reduction1 and alterations that
accompanied rapid development. The authors anticipate that the rate of urbanization in the
watershed will lessen in the coming years, but also expect some degree of urban expansion
to continue and offer specific recommendations like constructing natural rainwater
collection fields and embankments to maintain a basic level of ecosystem functions and
ecological services. Similarly, Zhou et al. (2011) focus on Shenzhen in China’s
Guangdong Province, which is located near the coast and has experienced rapid
urbanization since the mid-1980s due to market reforms and globalization. The authors
explore the temporal and spatial urban land change through remote sensing and GIS and
detect river network alterations using hydrologic modeling, topographic maps, field
surveys, and aeromagnetic and aerial photography. In order to restore river ecological
services, the authors suggest that local and provincial governments pay close attention to
both technical (e.g., stream restoration, floodplain mapping) and institutional innovations
(e.g., land use controls) in river system restoration. Kamini et al. (2006) use GIS and
remotely sensed imagery to study the relationship between land use/land cover change,
wetlands loss, and flooding in the Mithi River catchment near Mumbai, India. Although
the authors never use the term “sprawl” their focus on impervious surface coverage has
clear relevance for this section. They find that rapid urbanization has decreased the overall
length of the river, constricted the river course, and combined drainage and sewerage
systems while increasing impervious surface cover, which contributes directly to flooding
in Mumbai.
3.4 The Fire Element
The air and fire elements are closely linked in many of the articles considered as a
result of the emergence of climate change as a key challenge for cities, and by extension
environmental planners. The relevant sprawl literature from developed countries
approaches energy consumption, whether for transport or residential purposes, as a
phenomenon to be better understood through surveys and analysis or as a nuisance to be
curbed in order to mitigate climate change. A few of the studies highlight the conflicts in
meeting adaptation and mitigation goals. For example, Hamin and Gurran (2009) use case
studies to examine the relationship between energy consumption, public policy, and
climate change mitigation and adaptation, and determine whether the two classes of
climate change responses could complement one another. Byron Shire and Port Stephens
in Australia’s New South Wales are offered as two examples where the implementation of
adaptation and mitigation strategies can potentially conflict. They argue that this is because
mitigation strategies typically advocate heightened densities and adaptation strategies often
recommend open spaces for better stormwater management. To avoid such conflicts
planners are urged to think more critically about such conflicts using, for example, a ‘green
infrastructure corridor’ approach to open space planning integrated into compact urban
form as opposed to creating large, disconnected parks. Saavedra and Budd (2009) come to
a different conclusion using King County, Washington as a case study and argue that
climate adaptation and mitigation strategies do not conflict, but rather are complementary.
The plan mandates county departments to show progress in a variety of areas including the
reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and leverages growth management tactics to rein in
sprawling development. We, however, find King County unique in that its primary source
of electricity is hydropower (eliminating the need for rethinking electricity generation) and
because the majority of its greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation and methane
gas released by landfills and wastewater treatment plants.
While a full accounting2 is beyond the scope of this article, several studies (Mindali
et al. 2004; Shim et al., 2006; van de Coevering and Schwanen, 2006) have provided
additional evidence to support Newman and Kenworthy’s (1989) findings that more
compact urban form is also more energy efficient from a transportation perspective.
Holden and Norland (2005) conduct a household survey of eight regions of Oslo, Norway
and model residential energy use for heating and travel. The authors find significant
relationships whereby larger and older residences consume more energy. There was also
evidence of a density effect with lower consumption observed in more densely developed
areas. Based on these findings, the authors then argue for more compact urban form as a
means of improving energy efficiency and moving toward more sustainable patterns of
development. Behan et al. (2008) use an integrated land use and transportation model to
simulate the effect of increased density and other Smart Growth techniques on reducing
energy consumption and vehicle-generated emissions in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Many of these studies also reflect a new trend that considers not just transportationrelated but also residential energy consumption. According to Ewing and Rong (2008)
there are three primary mechanisms through which urban form influence residential energy
consumption. The first centers on distribution losses that occur as a result of transmitting
energy from generation sites to residences. These losses should be higher when the
development pattern is more decentralized, but the magnitude of this effect is “likely to be
small, because electric transmission and distribution losses account for less than 7 percent
of the total electricity generated in the United States” (p. 7). The remaining two
mechanisms represent indirect relationships and center on: (1) the urban heat island effect
contributing to higher temperatures and stimulating greater energy demand and (2) the
size (i.e., increased area to heat and cool) and type of housing stock (i.e., compact urban
form implies smaller housing units). The authors conclude that facilitating compact urban
form and encouraging smaller, attached housing types will reduce energy consumption in
both the transportation and residential sectors. This reasoning has drawn criticism and
Randolph (2008) argues that land use is not an appropriate lever to influence energy
consumption and the focus should instead be on improving the energy efficiency of
residences. Brown and Southworth (2008) offer a more centrist perspective and
recommend a variety of strategies to be used in tandem that emphasize compact urban
form, energy efficient building practices, financial incentives for energy producers and
consumers, and public outreach.
Perhaps more than any of the other elements, the fire element articles from the
developed and developing countries are similar in terms of both substantive focus and
methods. Zhao and Lu (2011) examine development patterns and implications of
demographic and energy consumption trends for greenhouse gas emissions in Beijing,
China. The city itself is largely built-out, so its growing population has little choice but to
move further out. The authors see increased vehicle miles traveled and rising petroleum
usage in China’s transport sector as key challenges facing the city in the coming decades.
Household interviews used to collect information on commuting practices and preferences
echo patterns from the west—namely that households with the financial means or
opportunity to drive are much more likely to do so than to take transit. While investing in
high-quality public transportation systems benefits the low-income and female populations
who are more likely to take transit, the market forces, decentralization of government, and
globalization factors that have led to sprawling development continue to dominate.
Using data collected from four central municipalities as well as 26 provincial
capitals, Liu et al. (2012) measured indicators of urban form (form ratio, compactness
ratio, elongation ratio, and urban population density) and indicators of urban eco-efficiency
(total water consumption, total electricity consumption, total food consumption, and total
cultivated land) in the different locations. Their statistical analysis suggests that city
compactness may contribute to eco and resource efficiency while outward urbanized
expansion undermines eco-efficiency. However, the authors also note that pollution
concentrations also tend to increase with density and therefore caution urban planners to
balance city compactness with limits to population density.
In summary, the research reviewed here focuses more heavily on study areas within
developed country contexts. Of the 56 studies reviewed, 24 (43 percent) were conducted at
the local level, 24 (43 percent) at the regional level, and the remaining 8 at the state,
national, or global levels. The distribution across elements is relatively balanced with
approximately 20 articles reviewed for each, with the exception of the fire element where a
total of 13 articles were identified. This discrepancy could be due to the recent resurgence
of interest in energy consumption by urban planning researchers, while the relative parity
of fire element articles from developed and developing countries attests to the intensity of
that interest.
4. Meta-Challenges and the Recent Sprawl Literature
In this section, we analyze the literature presented above to determine whether and
how the evolution of sprawl research is transcending barriers and addressing the metachallenges of resilience and justice. We first characterize each of these meta-challenges to
establish its connection with the impacts of sprawl, then explore trends in the articles
discussed above within that context. For evidence of convergence across geographies or a
wider approach to studying environmental outcomes, we discuss articles that compare
across developed and developing contexts or address multiple elements. We also consider
whether the authors explicitly situate their research within the broader framework of one
the meta-challenges as further evidence of new directions in the sprawl literature. Table 1
provides a summary of our findings.
[Insert Table 1 About Here]
4.1 Resilience
Resilience, as commonly used today, has its origins in ecology and was defined
nearly four decades ago as “the persistence of systems and of their ability to absorb change
and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships3 between populations or state
variables” (Holling, 1973, p. 14). Within an urban planning context, the term resilience
was closely associated with natural hazards mitigation for many years (Olshansky and
Kartez, 1998; Mileti, 1999) and a community’s ability to function and recover following a
disaster. This focus has now expanded to include responses to climate change impacts and
the broader shifts in conditions (economic, energy prices, etc.) that are critical to the
functioning of urban systems. The application of the notion of resilience can also be seen
more generally in scenario planning or other techniques that explicitly acknowledge the
uncertainty inherent in planning for the future (robust decision making).
Pickett et al. (2004) argue that resilient cities is an “integrative metaphor” that helps
to galvanize thinking much in the same way City Beautiful or Garden City visions shaped
and guided planning practice in the past. Resilient physical, social, economic, and
environmental systems are characterized by redundancy, diversity, efficiency, autonomy,
strength, interdependence, adaptability, and collaboration (Godschalk, 2003). We take this
idea of resilience as an “integrative metaphor” for understanding how environmental
outcomes are treated in the recent sprawl literature.
Eleven of the 56 papers we reviewed address resilience directly or indirectly and to
varying degrees. Seven of those articles are from the developed country context, while the
other four are from the developing country context. We also find some of them referring to
the traditional meaning of the term resilience, while others are using it as more broadly. In
the developed country context, Saavedra and Budd (2009) is firmly situated within the
climate change conversation and specifically mentions “building resilient communities” (p.
250) as well as equity issues surrounding global climate change (p. 251). This article is a
good example of the emerging narrative of addressing meta-challenges in relation to
sprawl impacts. Stone Jr. et al (2010) also talk about vulnerability to climate change
impacts and the focus on extreme heat events provides a connection to health outcomes.
This article is one of a relative few that use the term “resilience” (p. 1427) and is also
broader than their previous work (Stone Jr. et al., 2007) which focuses only on the air
element and is not situated within the context of climate change. This is most likely
because the pollutants modeled are indirect greenhouse gases (VOCs, NOx, carbon
monoxide). House-Peters and Chang (2011) is another example of how recent sprawl
research uses connections with global climate change to approach the resilience metachallenge. Their article considers two of the four elements with respect to sprawling
development patterns, linking land use change to water and energy consumption outcomes
under different climate change scenarios for the city of Hillsboro, Oregon.
For the other developed country articles, connections to the resilience metachallenge tend to be less direct. For example, Poelmans et al. (2010) is potentially relevant
to resilience if maintaining adequate water supply falls under its umbrella, but the authors
are vague as to how their work is connected to shortages and planning for sustainable
water supply. Similarly, Domene and Saurí (2006) is relevant if we expand the
understanding of the resilience meta-challenge to include water availability more generally
and the same is true for Zasada et al. (2010) and Küçükmehmetoğlu and Geymen (2009).
In the case of developing country studies, these connections are less common.
Fazal (2001) focuses on the loss of farmland in India and talks about the long-term
implications for maintaining agricultural productivity and by extension food supply, but
never uses the terms “sustainability” or “resilience”. Xu (2004) focuses on food security in
China in the wake of development of the countryside and the general lack of rural
planning. However, this article fits well with an expanded understanding of resilience that
includes food security in much the same way that the water supply studies mentioned
above could be interpreted.
4.2 Justice
The justice meta-challenge is rooted in the movements of the past that sought to
demonstrate the negative and inequitable distribution of resources, opportunities and
power, and higher vulnerability to future uncertainties (Bullard, 2007). These articulations
are consistent with the postmodernist, post-colonial and feminist critiques of planning that
seek to undo past harms (Lindblom, 1959; Jacobs, 1961; Friedman, 1987), as well as the
principles embodied in the advocacy planning framework (Davidoff, 1965). More recently,
Fainstein (2010) identifies democracy (participatory governance), diversity (physical and
social heterogeneity), and equity (appropriately redistributive public policy) as the three
fundamental dimensions of justice and argues that a key challenge for planners is to
navigate the inherent tensions between these imperatives. We view justice as an equally
relevant and compelling lens with which to view the recent sprawl literature and as a way
to identify patterns and new directions in this strand of the literature.
Ten of the articles we reviewed address justice directly or indirectly and unlike the
resilience meta-challenge, a greater share of these articles focus on developing countries.
For example, Xi et al. (2012) is related to justice in that it assesses the potential conflicts
between China’s Building a New Countryside initiative with farmland protection and the
impacts on the ability of poor farmers to support themselves. Similarly, Küçükmehmetoğlu
and Geymen (2009) focus on water resources for Istanbul and present an ongoing issue
with illegal squatting on land near the city’s surface water reservoirs. They argue that the
government has failed to enforce existing regulations to protect water supply basins and
also to “direct the transition from an agrarian rural society to an industrialized one” which
has driven the growth of illegal settlements within the city. Sietchiping et al. (2012) is also
relevant to the justice meta-challenge because it explicitly talks about income and gender
as important factors in understanding travel behavior and as a legitimate compass for
transportation investment and policy. Bosselmann et al. (2010) could be useful as an
example of a more participatory process in that the local village committee had some voice
in the planning process that was going to impact their community. This case study is also
interesting because intergovernmental relationships figure prominently with the city of
Foshan essentially annexing the village of Dadun.
In addition to these direct references, a number of other developing country studies
warrant mention for their less obvious ties to the justice meta-challenge. For example. Xu
(2004), referred to earlier in the resilience section, notes the hypocrisy of “protectionist
regulations and policies” designed to protect prime farmland and the reality that these
resources are “often sacrificed to capital accumulation by the state” (p. 1613), which
speaks to the participatory governance aspect of Fainstein’s notion of justice. Similarly,
Pucher et al. (2007) briefly considers the implications for the poor and segues from that
discussion into policy recommendations (p. 396). Taylor (2008) is a master’s thesis that
focuses on wetlands that are important from a climate change impacts perspective (e.g.,
flood control,) but at the same time could be linked to the justice meta-challenge because
they “support tens of thousands of local poor populations.” Finally, Zerah (2007) is not an
empirical study, but is clearly relevant to the justice meta-challenge. It discusses that the
efforts in Mumbai to protect greenspaces within the city have been linked to sprawl along
the periphery. For example, the city is attempting to preserve Sanjay Gandhi National
Park, but illegal settlements have led to the relocation of squatters to the periphery that
reduces the access the poor have to city amenities and services. While not an argument to
develop a national park, the article can be taken as a lack of consideration of the needs of
the poor in the planning process.
As for developed country studies, Pauleit et al. (2005) calculate an index of
multiple deprivation and consider how the loss of open space varies across more and less
affluent areas, concluding that the environmental costs of development are not uniformly
distributed. This work clearly fits with the justice meta-challenge. Vallianatos et al. (2004)
is related to the justice meta-challenge in that it speaks to Fainstein’s third dimension of
justice (“appropriately redistributive public policy”). Namely, the article focuses on local
food production as a sprawl mitigation strategy but also as a way of “improving the health
and nutrition of school-age children, particularly low-income youth (p. 415)”. Power
(2001) is more descriptive than explanatory in its approach, but nevertheless makes the
connection between sprawl and social exclusion in England and Wales. Lastly, De Ridder
et al. (2008) is a clear example of how sprawl can be understood as an equity issue and the
central finding is that more affluent suburban residents have lower exposure to potentially
harmful air pollution than those who reside in central cities (p. 7077).
5. Discussion
While 21 of the 56 (37.5 percent) articles we reviewed refer to the meta-challenges
of resilience and justice, limiting our discussion to these articles may underestimate the
degree of silo-busting or convergence in the recent literature. In order to capture other
important trends, we also identified articles that draw contrasts across the developing-
developed country divide, that consider multiple elements, or that situate themselves
within larger, but related conversations.
Surprisingly few studies were found that are comparative in nature and work across
national boundaries. Lehmann (2012) compares Berlin with Shanghai and demonstrates
that many of the consequences of sprawl and conversations around the meta-challenges
transcend the familiar developed-developing dichotomy. Hamin and Gurran (2009) also
provide a comparative case study, albeit between developed country contexts (U.S. and
Australia) and like Lehmann (2012), clearly focuses on the climate change issue. We also
found a few studies that, though not comparative, draw references or implications for other
contexts. For example, Zhao and Liu (2011) mention the developed-developing world
dichotomy in the first sentence of their article and focuses specifically on transportation
policies to limit carbon emissions in Beijing. Similarly, Paül and Tonts (2005) mention the
developed-developing world dichotomy and discuss at length the loss of rural character
and agrarian lifestyle in the wake of sprawling development (p. 11; p. 21) in the Barcelona
region. These studies offer some evidence that the developed-developing world dichotomy
is becoming less relevant for sprawl research.
As shown in Table 1, ten of the studies reviewed discuss more than one element
and several others make clear connections with broader scholarly discourses. Among those
that fit the latter criterion, McEldowney et al. (2005) specifically mention the convergence
of land use and transportation policy initiatives in Belfast, Northern Ireland “as a means of
delivering more sustainable patterns of development in terms of reducing car dependency
and urban sprawl (p. 508)”. Hasse and Nuissl (2007) focus primarily on the water element,
but also conclude that “the environmental dimension of urban sprawl is connected to the
societal sphere” (p. 11) and that opposition to sprawl in Leipzig is driven by a variety of
concerns (e.g., NIMBY, social exclusion) that extend beyond its environmental
consequences. Huang et al. (2009) mention both globalization and “global environmental
change ” as key drivers of the sprawling development that has threatened agricultural land
and ecological functions in the northern region of Taiwan. Finally, Garcia and Riera
(2003), Bart (2010), Barbour and Deakin (2012), Tiwari et al. (2011) and Greca et al.
(2011) are all examples of articles that situate themselves firmly within the climate change
In summary, we find evidence that the sprawl-related research from last decade
often attempts to connect with the emerging meta-challenges of resilience and justice. We
also conclude that the array of environmental outcomes being considered within individual
sprawl studies is expanding and distinctions between studies from developed and
developing countries are increasingly difficult to detect.
6. Conclusions: A Research Agenda for the Next Decade
This article documented and synthesized sprawl literature from the past decade
across four environmental elements, developed and developing country contexts, and
through the lens of resilience and justice as key meta-challenges for environmental
planning and management. Our findings suggest that sprawl research has evolved and the
key questions that defined the sprawl debate in previous decades have largely been
resolved. Emerging issues like climate change and the inequality associated with
globalization are increasingly used to frame and inform urban planning research in general
and evaluate sprawl’s impacts. We believe that this trend is motivated by several key
factors. First, while past work on developing specific measures of sprawl enabled this new
research, the inability of past work in addressing the emerging challenges from climate
change and globalization have also necessitated researchers to adopt less narrow and more
interdisciplinary approaches. Second, the interconnectedness of human and natural systems
demands greater consideration in planning decisions. For example, the dependence of
sprawling development patterns on cheap and abundant energy is threatened by
fluctuations in prices. Finally, government and large funding agencies are increasingly
emphasizing the need for interdisciplinary and comprehensive proposals. It is therefore not
surprising to see researchers responding to these signals.
We should also note a number of limitations with our review and synthesis. First,
while we find that a large subset of our reviewed studies situate themselves in the literature
on meta-challenges, some continue to be narrowly focused. This could be attributed to our
approach of looking at journal articles only, given that this publication format may require
researchers to present their work in certain ways. Next, we only reviewed English language
planning journals that are overwhelmingly published in developed countries. These kinds
of institutional factors may help to explain why we find more examples of articles from
developed contexts and, to some extent, the convergence of research topics published in
these journals.
Our review indicates several encouraging trends in the recent sprawl-related
research, but it is too soon to characterize this as a complete paradigm shift. In fact, we see
several areas where more research is needed. For example, we would like to see more
comparative studies across developed and developing countries. While at first glance this
may seem to perpetuate the dichotomy between these contexts, these types of studies have
the potential to be particularly instructive as we seek to provide useful guidance for
planning practitioners. Next, while we find evidence of convergence in studies from
developed and developing countries, this does not imply that context no longer matters, but
rather that similar issues are gaining visibility around the globe. This trend could signal
that conditions are ripe for more ambitious research and planning efforts that cross
boundaries and address meta-challenges. Future research that is more nuanced in its
treatment of scale would fill key gaps in the literature as perhaps help to coordinate work at
the local, regional, national, and global levels. Finally, we find that justice has received
less attention than resilience in the sprawl literature in the developed country context and
vice versa. We hope to see more research that engages with and balances the two metachallenges identified here across all geographic contexts in order to better guide policy and
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95. Zasada, I., S. Alves, F.C. Muller, A. Piorr, R. Berges, and S. Bell. 2010. International
retirement migration in the Alicante region, Spain: Process, spatial pattern and
environmental impacts. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 53 (1):
96. Zerah, M.H. 2007. Conflict between green space preservation and housing needs: The
case of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. Cities 24 (2): 122–132.
97. Zhao, P., and B. Lu. 2011. Managing urban growth to reduce motorised travel in
Beijing: One method of creating a low-carbon city. Journal of Environmental Planning
and Management 54 (7): 959-977.
98. Zhao, P., B. Lu, and G. de Roo. 2010. Urban expansion and transportation: the impact
of urban form on commuting patterns on the city fringe in Beijing. Environment and
Planning A 42 (10): 2467–2486.
99. Zhou, H., P. Shi, J. Wang, D. Yu, and L. Gao, L. 2011. Rapid urbanization and
implications for river ecological services restoration: Case study in Shenzhen, China.
Journal of Urban Planning and Development 137 (2): 121–132.
Table 1: Characteristics of journal articles.
Abelairas-Etxebarria and Astorkiza (2012)
Barbour and Deakin (2012)
Barredo and Demicheli (2003)
Berke et al. (2003)
Bosselmann et al. (2010)
Brody et al. (2011)
Davis et al. (2010)
De Ridder et al. (2008)
Domene and Saurí (2006)
Dumas et al (2008)
Fazal (2001)
Bart (2010)
Frenkel (2004)
Garcia and Riera (2003)
Greca et al. (2011)
Hamin and Gurran (2009)
Hasse and Nuissl (2007)
Holden and Norland (2005)
House-Peters and Chang (2011)
Huang et al. (2009)
Kamini et al. (2006)
Küçükmehmetoğlu and Geymen (2009)
Lee and French (2009)
Lehmann (2012)
Liu et al. (2012)
Maruani and Amit-Cohen (2010)
McEldowney et al. (2005)
Nuissl et al (2009)
Paül and Tonts (2005)
Pauleit et al. (2005)
Poelmans et al. (2010)
Power (2001)
Rayne and Bradbury (2011)
Pucher et al. (2007)
Robinson et al. (2005)
Roy (2009)
Saavedra and Budd (2009)
Sarvestani et al. (2011)
Sietchiping et al. (2012)
Song (2005)
Stone Jr. et al. (2007)
Stone Jr. et al. (2010)
Tang et al. (2005)
Taylor (2008)
Tiwari et al. (2011)
Vallianatos et al. (2004)
van der Valk (2002)
Vimal et al (2012)
Wang et al. (2011)
Xi et al. (2012)
Xu (2004)
Zasada et al. (2010)
Zerah (2007)
Zhao and Lu (2011)
Zhao et al. (2010)
Zhou et al. (2011)
Figure 1: Frequency distribution of articles reviewed.
Note: Articles that address multiple elements are included, which explains why these numbers do not sum to 56.
The total number of first and second-order streams is a common measure of the complexity of a hydrologic network.
See Rickwood et al. (2008) for a more thorough treatment of this strand of literature.
It may seem strange that justice is not a component of resilience, but perhaps the emphasis on maintaining current
conditions helps to explain why they are treated as distinct here.