Impact of Urban Sprawl on the Environment

Janis Huntington & Rob Tarulli
23 January 2012

Above: Image © Chris 73, Wikimedia Commons

Do you walk to the grocery store, the bank, and to school? Is public transportation easily accessible to you? Or, do you spend most of your time in your car driving from place to place?

If you answered “yes” to the last question, you’re not alone. The increase of urban sprawl not only impacts the way we live our lives, but more importantly the effect we have on the environment.

As our population moves from the country to cities at increasing rates, attention needs to be paid to how urban areas are growing. One way to characterize this growth is by the amount of sprawl.

Did You Know? The percentage of Canadians living in cities increased from 45 percent in 1911 to 80 percent in 2006.

Cities considered to be more “sprawled” have these general characteristics: low density or scattered residential and non-residential development; more travel by private vehicles than walking, biking, or public transit; and no limit on outward expansion. The design of cities impacts how we get to work, how we stay healthy and how we interact with each other—it also impacts the environment we live in.

Did You Know? One measure of urban sprawl is how “walkable” a city is, which means how easily a person can walk to get the things he/she needs. Calculate the walkability of your neighbourhood here:

Areas with urban sprawl require people to rely on their cars because it is too costly to implement effective public transportation. These developments often separate commercial areas from residential developments and require people to travel longer distances to reach amenities. Even if public transportation is available, it is an inconvenience compared to driving. This increase in vehicle traffic causes more air pollution and higher energy consumption. The limitless outward expansion unnecessarily consumes natural vegetation, harms fragile ecosystems, and reduces the diversity of species. As housing develops further away from the urban core, undeveloped natural areas disappear along with the wildlife they once supported.

Some of the best agricultural land is often lost to rapidly expanding urban sprawl. The loss of farmland on the outskirts of a city makes the city more reliant on food sources that must be transported from farther away, which uses more energy.

As you can imagine, urban sprawl is not sustainable.

So, what is being done about it?

Progressive urban planners and policy makers are working towards development centered on public transportation. Many cities are implementing urban growth boundaries that limit development to defined areas. The goal is to create more liveable cities that make it easier to choose walking over driving and balance the needs of residents with the health of the environment.

Learn more!


  • Canadians in Context - Geographic Distribution. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.
  • Guzman, J.G. et al., “Population Dynamics and Climate Change”, InternationalInstitute for Environment and Development, 2009.
  • Jaeger, J.A.G. et al., “Suitability criteria for measures of urban sprawl”, Ecological Indicators, 10, 2010,397-406.
  • Johnson, Michael P., “Environmental impacts ofurban sprawl: a survey of the literature and proposed research agenda”, Environment and Planning A, 33, 2001,717-735.
  • Seto, K.C., Sanchez-Rodriguez, R., and Fragkias, M.,“The New Geography of Contemporary Urbanization and the Environment”, Annual Review of of Environment andResources, 35, 2010, 167-94.

Janis Huntington & Rob Tarulli

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Avatar  tuem abebe

what is the difference b/n urban expansion & urban containment & what is their advantage & dis advantages