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Urban Sprawl
ONC Editorial

Jul 15, 2023

Explaining the environmental, economic and social effects of urban sprawl.

Urban sprawl is the unregulated expansion of spread-out (or “low-density”) residential areas. It has many economic and environmental consequences, including higher costs for public services, more congestion and worse pollution. 

Urban sprawl creates enormous residential areas far from business districts where most jobs are, leading to longer commutes and more carbon emissions. For example, one study found that sprawling cities have 62% more high ozone emission days every year than their more compact counterparts. 

Moreover, the sprawling landscape requires more roads, water supply systems and other basic infrastructure, placing greater burdens on local finances. In certain metropolitan areas, the expansion of communities is also taking up hillsides and woodlands, disrupting the environment and degrading water quality. 

Urban sprawl can also affect people’s social lives. Some critics argue that sprawling neighborhoods, with little public space and long distances between households and social settings, hinder interpersonal interactions and undermine a sense of community. 

Urban sprawl tends to hit low-income households especially hard. Spread-out residential areas usually have less public transportation coverage, so their residents have to rely on more expensive private vehicles for daily activities. 

The higher infrastructure costs also translate into higher taxes. All of these forces work together to obstruct upward mobility. In fact, with every 10% increase in a city’s sprawl index (meaning it is more compact and less sprawling), a resident child is 4.1% more likely to move from the bottom 25% national income level to the top 25%. 

Zhengmao Sheng was an Infrastructure intern for ONC during the Summer 2022 semester. 


Frumkin, Howard. “Urban Sprawl and Public Health.” Public Health Reports, vol. 117, no. 3, 2002, pp. 201-217.

Measuring Sprawl 2014. Smart Growth America, April 2014.

Rethinking Urban Sprawl: Moving Towards Sustainable Cities. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2018.

Stone, Brian, Jr. “Urban sprawl and air quality in large US cities.” Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 86, 2008, pp. 688-698.

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