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Urban Sprawl


Urban sprawl refers to the horizontal spread of a city. It entails unlimited physical expansion into undeveloped areas such as agricultural land. A primary indicator of urban sprawl is the way in which land is used and developed. Through the practice of "zoning" residential, commercial and industrial developments are separated by space (i.e. parks), infrastructure (i.e. buildings) and/or physical barriers (i.e. roads/highways). This form of land separation is also referred to as "leapfrog" or "patchwork" development. As a result, where people live, work and shop can often be separated by large distances. Urban sprawl also features "low density land usage" wherein sparse populations reside on large pieces of land, producing low population densities. This sort of horizontal development is in direct contrast with vertical development in the central business district of a city (characterized by limited space and a high population density).


Edmonton Suburbs By the mid 20th century, suburbs began to form in response to widespread urbanization as families began relocating to the outskirts of cities in search of bigger homes and greater space. In Alberta, urban sprawl emerged in the 1950s during an era known as the golden age of real estate.

While high urban population densities located in the central business districts of cities greatly contributed to the formation of suburbs, other important factors cannot be overlooked. Transportation costs considerably declined in the late 20th century due to the fact that vehicles became cheaper to produce and thus, cheaper to purchase. As a result, commuting to and from city centers became more affordable. Local governments began to make large public investments in road infrastructure, vastly improving streets and highways. Suburbs were now connected by a network of freeways designed to accommodate thousands of vehicles daily. Also rising incomes eventually increased the demand for land, making large properties desirable and affordable for small and wealthy families.

State and provincial zoning policies along with federal government laws also encouraged urban sprawl to the point where it became economically viable to build horizontally. For example, tax and insurance amendments made houses less expensive outside city centers as property rather than land became subject to taxation. Consequentially, consumers had an array of housing options in this new buyer friendly environment.

When discussing urban sprawl, urban geographers frequently use the terms "pull" and "push" to help explain the concept of urban sprawl. Some residents are 'pulled' out of cities while others are 'pushed'. For example, residents who were pulled out of the cities were lured by the numerous services and amenities (i.e. schools, shopping centres, etc.) available in their neighborhoods. Others were enticed by the push factor, escaping what they considered 'inner city' problems such as high crime rates, noise pollution and poverty.

Ramifications of Urban Sprawl

One of the most cited benefits of urban sprawl is that housing costs significantly decrease as people move further away from city centers thus people can afford to purchase new homes in the outskirts of cities. Urban geographers have also argued that urban sprawl can disperse traffic congestion in spite of increased automobile dependency. Sprawl can redistribute city traffic into other outlying areas as multi-laned roads and highways have become inextricably linked to urban sprawl neighbourhoods. Suburbia, in theory, created a favorable environment for consumers seeking larger homes, backyards, increased privacy and tranquil neighborhoods.

3-door Garage Conversely, many experts on the subject claim that urban sprawl is detrimental to urban growth and development. Urban sprawl developments tend to encroach on public spaces, isolating people from each other as residential fenced backyards and even strip malls and large shopping complexes become prioritized. The concept of suburbanization has been linked to the segregation of society along racial and class lines. In Alberta, for instance, urban sprawl has contributed to class stratification as suburbs tend to be developed for the wealthy only. This is particularly true as suburbs have a small amount of affordable housing due to zoning restrictions making property ownership in suburbia unaffordable to lower income earning citizens. In this way, urban sprawl is characterized by redundancy and isolation creating a lack of cultural diversity.

Urban sprawl has had adverse effects on the environment. Suburban areas are particularly deficient in transportation options. Given that these areas are characterized by low population densities, public transportation is often underdeveloped as it becomes quite costly. What little public transportation exists is largely ineffective (i.e. light rail transit does not reach many of Calgary and Edmonton's suburbs). As a result, suburban residents become completely dependent on automobiles. Furthermore, suburban cul-de-sacs channel all traffic to a limited number of 'collector streets', thus increasing traffic congestion and air pollution in particular areas.

The occurrence of urban sprawl is costly for municipal and provincial governments. For example, utilities such as water, sewer, electricity and road development heavily burden municipal governments as these projects are much more expensive in low density areas. Suburban properties tend to have lower property values because there is limited development around sprawled areas and low population densities are so costly to maintain. Economic costs are consequentially acquired as the land grows at a much faster rate than the population itself.

Urban sprawl is particularly present in Alberta given that the Edmonton-Calgary 'corridor' is one of the fastest growing areas in Canada. Both cities are considered sprawling metropolises as they are home to skyrocketing investments in the oil sands and natural gas industries, respectively. Some of Edmonton and Calgary's populations have seeped into Red Deer, the midpoint between the two large cities. Because of Red Deer's geographical position and because it is home to the oil patch and agricultural industries, it too has evolved into a land of new subdivisions. Moreover, both Edmonton and Calgary suffer from chronically low population densities as the land has become much larger than the population. Calgary, for example is now as large as New York but, with one tenth of the population. Edmonton is also one of the largest cities in North America yet, has one of the lowest population densities of the entire continent. It is for all these reasons that alternatives to urban sprawl (see new urbanism) have been given more attention in effort to curb the disadvantages of urban sprawl.


Burchell, Robert. Sprawl Costs: Economic Impacts and Unchecked Development. (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2005).

Grant, Jill. Planning the Good Community. (New York: Routledge, 2006).

Nechyba, Thomas and Walsh, Randal. "Urban Sprawl." The Journal of Economic Perspectives 18. no. 4 (Autumn, 2004).

Williamson, Donald. Urban Sprawl: A Reference Handbook. (Santa Barbara : ABC-Clio, 2000).

Flint, Anthony. This land the battle over sprawl and the future of America. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

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