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Defining Sprawl and Smart Growth


The term sprawl, as used by land developers, planners and governmental institutions, critically describes a pattern of low-density, often unsightly, automobile dependent development that has been a common form of growth outside of urban areas since at least World War II.  One popular typology distinguishes between categories of sprawling development such as low density, strip, scattered or leapfrog.  Many people “know it when they see it”. 

Sprawl trends are often referred to as urban, suburban or rural sprawl. Although these terms might sound contradictory, they focus through different lenses on the same phenomenon—that is, the poorly planned shift of development from urban areas, to suburban and rural areas.

Framed in terms other than development, sprawl refers in large part to the decentralization of human occupancy. That is, communities are requiring more dispersed, and simply more, land and space per person to provide homes, workplaces, shopping locations and recreation spaces.  Sprawl frequently occurs where robust population growth occurs outside of urban areas, but it also accompanies settlement outside of existing cities and villages even in regions with little overall growth or even declining population.

The spread of development of land to suburban and rural areas outside of their respective urban centers is one of the most important characterizations of sprawl.  However, it is incomplete -- not all such development counts as sprawl.  Careful attempts by academics and others to define and measure important dimensions of sprawl have identified multiple defining characteristics of sprawl.  These include but are not limited to:

  • the low density of population settlement patterns
  • the increasing spread, or de-concentration over time, of urbanized development into formerly rural areas
  • the pattern of overall settlement pattern which evolves from a compact gradient around a center to an irregular, discontinuous, and dispersed pattern with multiple centers
  • the separation and distance between residential, commercial, and other land uses
  • the form and design of buildings and their neighborhood contexts which tend to be single story, homogeneous, and support only single use (e.g., single family residential)  

Galster and coauthors argued influentially that definitions of sprawl lead to confusion when they blend processes, patterns, causes and consequences of sprawl. They proposed an indicator combining eight distinctly measurable technical dimensions of land use patterns. However, no single definition of sprawl has proven itself universally acceptable or applicable.  One of the most recent popular publications on the topic, for example, highlights four major combination factors in measuring sprawl: development density, land use mix, activity centering (the proportion of people and businesses in close proximity), and street network accessibility

More fundamentally perhaps, given its multiple dimensions, is the recognition that there is no formal bright line that separates sprawl from nonsprawl.  However, the multidimensional indicators of sprawl that have been used all span a range of development patterns within which sprawl can be distinctly identified.

Smart Growth

Smart Growth has been advocated as an antidote to the undesirable impacts of sprawl. For some, it simply repackages the fundamentals of “good planning”.  Like its opposite, sprawl, it has multiple dimensions. In any particular context, achieving Smart Growth requires the sensible interpretation and blending of general principles. The concept focuses attention on spatial patterns of development that concentrate physical growth in designated development centers and minimize the travel required (especially by car) between routine origins and destinations (home, work, shopping). 

Multiple benefits have been associated with Smart Growth.  These range from reduced pressure for farmland conversion to lower required overall spending on public infrastructure.  Perhaps Smart Growth’s most attractive promise is that it can increase the mix of available and affordable housing and transportation choices while helping to foster a strong “sense of place” and high quality of life.

Ten common Smart Growth Principles have been concisely identified by the national Smart Growth Network as:

  1. Mix land uses
  2. Take advantage of compact building design
  3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
  4. Create walkable neighborhoods
  5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
  6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
  7. Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
  8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
  9. Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
  10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions

In New York State, the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act of 2010 includes a more elaborated variation of these principles that influence state support for public infrastructure.  While there is broad overlap with the general principles listed above, the New York State law specifically prioritizes State support for repair or improvement of existing infrastructure and for infrastructure in municipal centers or infill areas with approved development plans.  It also adds explicit criteria about intergovernmental coordination and about promoting sustainability in existing and new communities “which reduce greenhouse gas emissions and do not compromise the needs of future generations.”

For more information see:

  • American Planning Association, Policy Guide on Smart Growth. See
  • Environmental Protection Agency, About Smart Growth.   See
  • Ewing, R. 1997. Is Los Angeles-Style sprawl desirable? Journal of the American Planning Association 63, 107–126.
  • Ewing, R., Pendall, R. and Chen, D. 2003.  Measuring Sprawl and its Transportation Impacts, Transportation Research Record 1831, Paper 03-4195, pp. 175-183.
  • Galster, G., Hanson, R., Ratcliffe, M., Wolman, H. Coleman, S. and Freihage, J.  2001.  Wrestling Sprawl to the Ground: Defining and Measuring an Elusive Concept, Housing Policy Debate 12(4):681-717.
  • Kew, B. and   Lee , B.  2013. Measuring Sprawl across the Urban Rural Continuum Using an Amalgamated Sprawl Index, Sustainability  5, 1806-1828.
  • New York State, State Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act. 
  • Smart Growth America.  2014.  Measuring Sprawl 2014. See