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The 5 W's of Urban Sprawl


Image is courtesy of Environmental Defence.


What is urban sprawl?


Urban sprawl is the pattern of uncontrollable growth near or on the perimeter of cities like Toronto. As stated by Britannica, it is often characterized by “low-density residential housing, single-use zoning, and increased reliance on the private automobile for transportation.” According to a research study done by students at the University of Waterloo, the GTA has had significant growth of 1115 kilometers squared from 1974-2014 with a “substantial correlation between urban extent and population in the period of study.” Britannica also explains that during this time habitats, wildlife, and trees were destroyed to adapt to the growing urban population and to continually grow the economy. Oftentimes conflicts with the environment relate back to an economic advantage, where people act from self-interest and short-term gain that exploits the environment in a way.


Who is involved/affected by urban sprawl?


5 main groups of people who are involved/affected are: environmentalists, citizens/residents, businesses (including various industries), city planners, and the government. Although city planners are a government role, many planners have a different perspective on how cities should be planned—they are the professionals for land planning and their standpoint depends on what they value in a city and future.


Smart Prosperity conveys that the citizens are the largest stakeholders. As they make up the country, they can use their voice to speak out for their future, their opinions, and use their legal and equality rights to do so. It varies for each business, but some support urban sprawl because it may allow them to expand or increase their business. Other more local businesses may be against it, as it may be harder for them to reach their target market, as is mentioned by the Ontario Government. The Ontario College of Family Physicians also explains that urban sprawl affects citizens’ wellbeing and daily life differently depending on where they live, some may have longer commute time due to urban sprawl thus increasing car time and CO2 emissions. While others may see a negative impact on their respiratory health and increased risk of obesity, as concluded by the American Public Health Association.


Where is urban sprawl happening?


Urban sprawl is a common infrastructure feature of more industrialized countries like Canada, the USA, and China. The University of Waterloo illustrates that many Canadian cities are established on fertile agricultural lands and the sprawl from major cities like Toronto have resulted in expansions and build-ups of land for commercial use and residential use. Much of the world lives in urban areas; in 2016, 3.9 billion people lived in urban settlements and this number is only growing. Rapid urbanization is a large issue in North America, as commute times become longer, fuel expenses for traveling to work, school, the grocery store, etc increase, and so do CO2 emissions, as The Guardian comments. An example of urban sprawl is in the Greater Toronto area, as shown in the picture below. In Toronto, Ontario, one of the most populated (6,254,571 million in 2021, according to World Population Review) cities have grown into the GTA consisting of 25 municipalities like Brampton, Richmond Hill, Mississauga, and Oakville.


But what causes urban growth in specific areas? There are numerous causes of urban sprawl which include: pattern of uncontrollable growth, prioritizing economy and urban growth, interprovincial migration, lack of proper city planning for the future, and population distribution (with 80% of Canadians living in urban areas, according to Statista). From a document by Sustainable Prosperity in Urban Sprawl Policy Brief from 2012 they wrote, “municipalities rely on development charges for revenue, but most do not design these charges to support growth management objectives.” This is a potential reason why urban sprawl has continued to prevail as we see the effects in daily life.


Image is courtesy of Canadian Geographic.


When did urban sprawl begin?


Urban sprawl has been a growing issue since the 1930s and as we progress into the 2020s we see the ramifications of human action continuing urban development. The Journal of Economic Perspective explains that the term “sprawl” was first coined by Earle Draper, one of the first city planners in the United States. But urban sprawl began to progress immensely in the 1950s in North America when the Industrial Revolution was occurring, as Khan Academy puts it; “which contributed to the development of faster means of transportation and communication methods.” Consequently, more people, resources, news, and communications could move faster allowing cities to form easier. What was deemed a “traditional” job that needed land as a means of production (ex. farmers) were not as common as more people became educated and sought more opportunities in urban centers. BCampus describes that as more people moved to urban centers, populations began to rise and they began to sprawl; the lack of proper city planning continued and urban sprawl is still happening to this day.


Why is urban sprawl negative towards the environment and people?

Some can argue that urban sprawl can lead to local economic growth which benefits us but the consequences of urban sprawl to the environment and humans outweigh the potential growth. There are many negative consequences for residents, according to a report by Eberhard Architects LLC, urban sprawl can lead to “higher water and air pollution, increased traffic fatalities and jams, loss of agricultural capacity, increased car dependency, higher taxes, increased runoff into rivers and lakes, harmful effects on human health, including higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, hypertension and chronic diseases, increased flooding, decrease in social capital and loss of natural habitats, wildlife and open space.”


There are some tactics created to prevent urban sprawl like the Greenbelt and areas where construction cannot occur like the Oak Ridges Moraine. Despite this, construction still occurs with certain passes. According to the Government of Ontario, there are certain requirements to surpass the limit of building on the greenbelt, destroying more habitats and green space, making the protection of the land seem a bit redundant. At present times we are able to see the downsides of urban sprawl due to the high population density, they would be more prone to diseases that are connected with air pollution. Urban sprawl is putting wildlife habitat and species at risk, cutting into farms and wildlands, as the University of Toronto explains. The David Suzuki Organization also states that this pattern of growth leads to a car-dependent future, with more traffic, more carbon emissions contributing to climate change and air pollution.


Read more of the 5W’s:


Article Author: Kelley Liang

Article Editors: Valerie Shirobokov, Sherilyn Wen