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Is Urban Sprawl Always Sprawl?

Is Urban Sprawl Always Sprawl?

In the United States, we often refer to the widespread suburban, non-city center areas as sprawling neighborhoods. They have streets that wind in and out, causing disorientation and creating minutes-long drives just to enter or exit some developments. In contrast, we often consider the “European context” to be a dense urban paradigm that balances the

In the United States, we often refer to the widespread suburban, non-city center areas as sprawling neighborhoods. They have streets that wind in and out, causing disorientation and creating minutes-long drives just to enter or exit some developments. In contrast, we often consider the “European context” to be a dense urban paradigm that balances the city and natural landscape. But why is this?

David Grahame Shane offers a concise answer in “Urban Design Since 1945: A Global Perspective.”  “The big difference between the American megalopolis and the European ‘city landscape’ variants was that in most northern European nations, national zoning codes protected agricultural land and forests as scarce resources” (pg. 149). This would seem to suggest that the US had a fundamental tendency to expand, possibly due to the vast amount of unused – and unprotected – land.

Winding Suburban Streets

However, zoning codes aside, this type of urban planning is not unique to the American context. In “The Contemporary European Project,” Paola Viganò presents some methodological tools for understanding European urbanism. One of these is Bernardo Secchi’s earlier 1990 idea of the “diffuse city,” one that “is the consequence of the dispersion of not only residential functions but also of other urban activities…the result of both spontaneous actions as well as policy decisions.”

Diffuse City: Milan at Night

From this description we see that even in Europe, Italian scholars have identified excessive land use as a persistent problem. Even though the definitions and magnitude of these issues can be defined differently based on locational context, it is important to note that urban policy and design is not a static factor and should be continually revised to address literally sprawling problems.

Despite some of the contextual differences between “sprawl” and “diffusion,” further research in strong comparative analyses can provide insight into mitigating this issue. By determining the root causes of these typological differences, the next generation of sustainable urbanism can provide effective solutions for the case of sprawl in the next century.

What do you think is the best way to change our approach to constructing urbanism?

Credits: Photograph by Maxwell Vidaver. Image and Data linked to sources.

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Maxwell Vidaver is a graduate student in Urban Planning, Policy, and Design at Politecnico di Milano in Milan, Italy, and also holds a B.A. in Geography from Binghamton University, where he focused on urban economic analysis. He is originally from Ba...

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