To Sprawl or Not to Sprawl
There is much debate among experts over the advantages of compact versus decentralized cities, but no consensus. Disagreement arises over the varied sources of sprawl, methodological issues and conflicts in values.
Residential suburbanization has its roots in cultural aspirations and has been promoted by official policies, but both the aspirations and the policies have come into question. By contrast, urban growth by peri-urbanization is largely unplanned and without direction. These different contributions to urban sprawl need to be reviewed with regard to their wider implications.
Environmentalists generally deprecate the decline in urban density associated with suburbanization. They see compact cities as more sustainable, because they minimize commuting, thereby using less energy and reducing air pollution. Sprawl additionally increases water consumption and eats up green space.
Few urban planners defend sprawl, but some question whether intensifying use can deliver a more sustainable urban future. They also question whether dense occupation is acceptable to the general public.(38)A large house on a large lot, with good automobile access to facilities, is what most people seem to want.(39)
Much of the discussion, whether it accepts or bemoans urban sprawl, assumes that the dispersed city is how people want to live—but this may simply reflect the bias of the discussants, who are mostly from developed countries. Dispersed suburban settlement seems simply unrealistic for urban masses in developing countries. The debate also reflects differences in values, ethics and aesthetics, adding heat to the discussion about the equity and sustainability of compactness.
Conceptual and methodological issues tend to undermine the discussion, because of the great diversity of definitions of “an urban place”. Depending on the criteria used to define an urban agglomeration, conclusions about density and other criteria of sprawl will evidently vary.
Whatever the conceptual difficulties, “the green dimension” should have full consideration in this debate. The concept of sustainable development implies solidarity with future generations. Many environmental benefits are difficult to achieve over the short term. Preserving natural areas, reducing energy consumption, encouraging biodiversity, protecting river basins and reversing climate change are all valuable in their own right, but they are also essential for the quality of life of future generations.
The discussion often neglects to notice that sprawl is increasingly attributable to peri-urbanization and to the mobility of economic activity, especially in developing countries. In view of the prospect of inevitable and massive urban growth, peri-urbanization and its leapfrog style of growth have important social and environmental implications.
Neither governments nor international development organizations have effectively responded to this challenge. But these issues will not resolve themselves without intervention. There is no invisible hand to order urban growth in accordance with societal needs, intergenerational responsibilities or gender-specific concerns.(40)
In developing countries, where peri-urbanization is an important driver of urban sprawl, some sort of planning and regulation is needed to minimize the bad and maximize the good aspects of urban expansion. Urban and regional planning, which many countries placed on the back burner in response to structural adjustment policies and the demands of breakneck globalization, will have to be resuscitated to meet this challenge. Sprawl, at least in its current forms, is not conducive to sustainable development. Compact settlement may not be the only, the best or, in some cases, even a feasible solution. The spatial form of urban expansion does, however, need to be negotiated more efficiently, more equitably and more environmentally.