Effective Management of Urban Sprawl


Urban sprawl can be defined as low-density, scattered, urban development without systematic large-scale or regional public land-use planning (Bruegmann, 2005). In its broadest sense, urban sprawl is a way of polycentric development away from the main city centre, commonly known as suburban development (Wassmer, 2000). Effective management of urban sprawl has become an essential concern in contemporary urban planning. The causes, consequences and control over land use have become relevant in expressing a desire for smart growth (Bergstrom, Goetz, and Shortle, 2004). Although the problems associated with urban sprawl are quite visible, there is a need for an in-depth scientific investigation using critical spatial theory framework which is understood in three stages, i.e. cause, communication and action. This study is relevant and essential because it adversely affects our natural environment and personal as well as social life in an urban setting. These issues of urban sprawl are associated with loss of open space, urban decay, unsightly strip-mall developments, urban air and water pollution, traffic congestion, low-density housing developments, the loss of a sense of community, encroachment on green belt, land use proximity and reliance on automobiles (Nechyba and Walsh, 2004).

Background and significance:

Due to an increase in urban population and a higher rate of migration from rural areas to urban areas, central cities are finding it difficult to hold onto its households and jobs. Also, there is pressure on existing urban infrastructure which local authorities are finding it difficult to manage (Nechyba and Walsh, 2004). Therefore, there is a growing trend towards suburbanisation, which acts as a counter magnet to the central city (Nechyba and Walsh, 2004). The understanding of these rural-urban migration patterns can be observed in economic literature, which focuses on mixed-use development, helping decline in transportation costs and rise in income levels suited to government's tax structure, expenditure and zoning policies. Local public finance literature is based on local taxes, amenities and other external forces (Nechyba and Walsh, 2004). Both these kinds of literature together, inform the discussion on the phenomenon of an 'edge cities' (clusters of population and economic activity at the urban fringe) which are very different from sprawl in the United States and Europe (Nechyba and Walsh, 2004). Many developing countries which became independent after world war II, followed modernisation as their development model, predominantly with industrial society. They also adopted zoning laws which segregate homes from jobs, shops and other activities ignoring public health and safety (Peiser, 2001). The magnitude and the global nature of this study focus on day to day functioning of both built and natural urban environment with problems such as congestion, blight, monotony, continuous development and ecological destruction (Peiser, 2001).

Furthermore, urban sprawl in areas which are poorly planned where large areas are zoned for similar use in the compact city centre. Their spaces are without parks, apartments and other such spaces which would break the monotony (Peiser, 2001). Thus, as many planners believe, undesirable of urban sprawl outweighs desirable, then it is appropriate to adopt planning policies which counter such development (Wassmer, 2008). This is empirical research with aim and objective to find a suitable policy instrument and best planning practices which would enable effective management of urban sprawl. It is a complex, multi-faceted problem requiring multi-faceted solutions (Peiser, 2001). The study is conducted using illustrative examples of such policies and practices which are tested for their soundness with the help of empirical observations and lessons learned from the previous implications.

Literature review:

Urban sprawl is a widely debated topic among academics, urban planners, and the public in general (Wassmer, 2008). There is a growing awareness about the consequences of urban sprawl both in Europe and the United States (Dieleman and Wegener, 2004). 'New Urbanism' or 'Smart Growth' are the proponents of the movements in the United States, promoting regulations of urban growth (Dieleman and Wegener, 2004). These movements are into action in some states and counties; well-known examples are state of Oregon and Maryland and Montgomery County in Virginia (Dieleman and Wegener, 2004). Recently, in the state of Michigan, with Detroit as one of the largest metropolitan areas, in the United States, there is widespread opposition to regional land use planning, and an advisory body for land-use planning has been formed by the new governor (Dieleman and Wegener, 2004). Europe has a long tradition of metropolitan urban planning at a regional scale than in the United States (Dieleman and Wegener, 2004). Such attempts to regulate the urban form is termed as compact city planning policy and promotion of mixed-use development (Dieleman and Wegener, 2004). The national government in the Netherlands have been regulating urban expansion for decades in their series of national spatial plans, focused on compact urban growth, where one of the aims is to reduce the use of a private car (Dieleman and Wegener, 2004). The evidence will be gathered from two cases, Portland, Oregon in the United States and the Randstad Holland in the Netherlands has a history of sufficient urban growth management, and that will be discussed in the literature.

Firstly, Metropolitan Portland, Oregon, is an area encompassing approximately 1.28 million people, 24 cities, and three counties (not including the county that extends North to the state of Washington) (Irazábal, 2005). It is widely considered a well-designed, lively place. However, it was not always so. In the late 1930s due to urban sprawl, Portland was strongly shaped by the use of the automobile, just like other regions of North America. During this time, it was shaped by the use of unused public spaces and parks with overloaded streets and highways (Irazábal, 2005). As a result of such growth in the mid-1960s, the Willamette valley was threatened by sprawl, and the river got polluted (Irazábal, 2005). Also, the productive farms were given to urban development with further decay in the development of the region. Furthermore, post-war change in the employment pattern and modernisation resulted in the exhaust of the real economy of the region (Irazábal, 2005). Portland region would have continued to face challenges such as more dispersed development, loss of farmland and natural areas. It would face a greater dependency on the auto and increased traffic congestion, more air and water pollution, less mobility, and higher service costs, if not addressed on time (Irazábal, 2005). However, Portlanders did effectively address the problems of growth management and reversing trends have started showing since the last decade or two (Irazábal, 2005).

Figure 1: Portland Oregon UGB

There was a powerful alliance between downtown business interests and residents of the older neighbourhood to manage the urban sprawl (Abbott, 2002) effectively. In Portland, the two interests came together in a lasting political marriage (Abbott, 2002). Portland Development Commission (PDC) was formed with the help of business leaders of the central city of Portland (Irazábal, 2005). The citizen contribution in developing Portland was so spontaneous that Portlanders never realised that they were doing "smart growth" (Abbott, 2002). Urban renewal schemes and new public spaces were initiated by PDC and resulted in completely reshaping the south of the downtown (Irazábal, 2005). Thus, a public-private partnership was developed, which produced a downtown plan in the early 1970s (Irazábal, 2005). The plan contained projects ranging from a transit mall to pedestrian improvements associated with every new building (Irazábal, 2005). In addition, the removal of the Harbour Drive freeway along the Willamette River and the creation of a waterfront park were associated with these plans (Irazábal, 2005). Since then Portland metropolitan region has been a national leader in urban policies. A new culture of planning, involving federal, ­ state, and local agencies, academics, and the private sector were evolved out of this. (Committee, ORATU, Science, AT FSP, & National, 2014).

For Portlanders Urban Growth Boundaries (UGB) was one of the legal and policy instruments for preventing suburban sprawl and curbing the spilling into the countryside (Irazábal, 2005). However, it did not effectively create compact pedestrian-oriented communities within the boundaries. Also, UGB regulations did not create compact zoning codes and incentives that permit, encourage, or even force compact growth within (Irazábal, 2005). The regional government permitted auto-dependent urban sprawl as a result (Irazábal, 2005). Furthermore, these regional events reinforced the idea of managing urban growth and preserving natural and agricultural land (Irazábal, 2005). More importantly, the UGB concept is not restricted to the Portland region but has a statewide implication with firm authority. Due to UGB there is a clear line of separation between the city and the countryside with visible farmlands and forests on the periphery (Irazábal, 2005). In 1996, Portland's Metro made up a stricter plan which will include in-house more than 500,000 people within the existing UGB for the next 20 years (Irazábal, 2005).

Thus, Portland has an excellent reputation as a well-planned city and here is how it is. Portland has a better public transit would improve air quality and enhances the attractiveness of older neighbourhoods (Abbott, 2002). Land use attracts workers and shoppers to downtown, making it a vital business centre, protecting property values in surrounding districts (Abbott, 2002). The prosperity of middle-class families would support residential reinvestment and patronise downtown businesses and offer high levels of public services (Abbott, 2002). The secret of Metropolitan Portland's success lies in accepting comprehensive strategies of planning and effective management of urban sprawl and the realm of political culture (Abbott, 1994).

Secondly, urban expansion in European city-regions since the 1990s has had a dynamic impact on the spatial planning of its countries (Xu, & Yeh, 2010). This trend also has led to a rescaling of economic and social parameters other than urban expansion (Xu, & Yeh, 2010). This certainly goes for the regions in the most urbanised zone of Europe, which meanders from the Midlands in England, through London and South East England, and through the intermediary zones of Paris, Brussels, and the Dutch Randstad, via the German Ruhr Area and South-East Germany to northern Italy (Xu, & Yeh, 2010). A secondary zone of trans-European urbanisation runs along the Mediterranean Sea (from Valencia and Barcelona in Spain, through southern France to the Italian coast near Genoa) (Xu, & Yeh, 2010). Beyond these large-scale European zones of urbanisation, one may also find shrinking cities in some peripheral regions (for instance, in parts of eastern Germany and Poland). (Xu, & Yeh, 2010).

As a response to the urban expansion, Dutch government departments, universities, private research organisations which engaged more than 200 professionals to participate in design discussion and progress in a three-year time frame (Read, Rosemann & Van, 2005). As an outcome of such collaborative actions, an exhibition of these four political perspectives was held in Amsterdam and Rotterdam (Read, Rosemann & Van, 2005). As part of this exhibition, the State Printing Office published an exhibition catalogue in two volumes: one with all the designs, the other with a research background to educate people about the development (Read, Rosemann & Van, 2005). The critical planning policy was according to Dutch regional planning and employment pattern with the low-population density in central regions, reserved as a paradise for cow's milk, butter and cheese forming the self-sufficient edge cities on the periphery having mixed land-use (Read, Rosemann & Van, 2005).

Figure 2: Edge cities of Randstad, Netherlands

Within this concept of edge cities, the country as a whole was in a way considered as a city, with the Central Business District (CBD) in the west and the living areas on higher and drier grounds in the south and east (Read, Rosemann & Van, 2005). The southern areas of the country were transformed into wetlands for water management, due to geographical conditions of the region. Farming was mechanical, with large areas of farmlands in the central region of the country (Read, Rosemann & Van, 2005).

Research Design and methodology:

This research was conducted with diagnostic research design and empirical observations forming an inevitable part of the research process. The research took place in Europe and the United States, as discussed in the literature review. The existing literature has formed the basis of analysis supported by empirical observations. The background of the study has been analysed with the help of critical spatial theory framework which will give, causal, communicative and action-oriented illustrations of the areas under study. The study is about deriving planning policies and practices from the available data which will be analysed with the inductive approach to arrive at a theory to tackle Urban Sprawl. Thus, mostly a qualitative research methodology will be applicable for the entire research with some illustrative examples for a better understanding of the topic.


Findings from the research of different locations in the United States and Europe were collected randomly and are arranged sequentially. Empirical observations, site photographs, combined with demographic data with push-pull factors are being studied to develop a theoretical base on which arguments from different authors are tested. A comprehensive strategy to curb urban sprawl is derived along with a list of best planning practices. On one hand in Portland, North America a common strategy for controlling the Urban sprawl is restricted with the help of UGBs. On the other hand, in Europe, Randstad, Netherland, due to nature of the economy and the employment pattern which is predominantly agriculture and animal husbandry, central farmlands are protected and edge cities are developed with mixed-use development. Both these solutions are working fine in these regions and can be prescribed as the best planning practices for the other regions as well.

Discussion and Conclusion:

The research was conducted for North American and European cities. The central theme which was seen as a solution to urban sprawl is to protect the green areas of the region and develop brownfield sites for expansion. In the case of North America, it is protecting the countryside with UGBs and in Europe, Randstad, Netherland in the form of edge cities. In general, as different regions have a different geographical and economic base, the solutions also will vary accordingly. However, the principle of planning will remain the same to curb urban sprawl.


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