Sprawl or Suburbanization? What's the Difference?

Sprawl, growth, and suburbanization are all words used to describe an expanding city, and they are also used interchangeably, as to be synonymous with one another. When these words are used to address change in Edmonton, they are often meant pejoratively to address a personal disapproval of the pattern, style, and even the pace of the introduced built-form. This discussion is dominant in the discourse of the outermost suburbs, think any development exceeding the Anthony Henday. Having a personal disapproval towards the built environment is natural and is an extension of our preferences towards our spatial living arrangements. However, it’s particularly problematic if the language we use to describe the changing environment does not have practical and clear limits, and the concept of sprawl becomes a household term attached to the characteristics of all suburban environments. Our goal should be to identify the characteristics of sprawl, in this case, to an Edmonton specific lens, and to concentrate the antithesis of its characteristics to building better suburbs.

Sprawl vs Urban Sprawl

Ryan Jackson Photography - Punkoryan.com

Ryan Jackson Photography - Punkoryan.com

For starters, there is a distinction between urban sprawl and sprawl. Urban sprawl describes “patterns of low-density development outward from the city, transforming rural--greenfield-- land into new suburban areas”, whereas sprawl is referring to development patterns of “low density of residents and jobs, and the separation of land uses across different zoning districts, at large distances from one another (Filion et al., 2015)". And there arrives our first distinction. Urban sprawl is characteristic of low-density development, think single detached tract housing, which may or may not be outward development. Sprawl, on the other hand, seems to be referring to a spatial mismatch of land uses that are of large distances of one another.


What does this look like in Edmonton?

The lack of precision in the definitions of the two concepts is underwhelming. Under these conditions, urban sprawl may be referring to almost all of Edmonton with the exception of a few neighbourhoods hugged against our river. You could count these neighbourhoods on your own two hands. Edmonton’s built form is overwhelmingly low-density. Surely, this cannot be looked at pejoratively because this is a fundamental characteristic of our city, and low-density developments are not inherently deleterious to our quality of life. A low-density neighbourhood is completely capable of having amenities and jobs within walking distances, and cul-de-sacs of befriended neighbours. Sprawl, on the other hand, is referring to an environment that has separated land uses that’s noticeable, or large. As it’s rare for developments to see a perfect division of land uses, we should preferentially look at the separation of land uses as a matter of degree, as well as define what we mean by a large separation. This distinction is important as a large distance of zoning districts would take on a different meaning in low-density Edmonton, versus high-density Toronto, and an environment with land use separation may still have freedom of choice (the abundance of choices residents have to access jobs and amenities using any method of transportation), as Brent Toderian explains in Invisible Cities podcast, “Transforming The Suburbs”.
Otherwise we have our first three characteristics of sprawl: Low density, separation of land uses, and large distances between the land uses.

Poor residential accessibility

- Congress for New Urbanism

- Congress for New Urbanism

So now, we need to tease away what degree of land use separation is meant by sprawl, as well as defining the concept of large. A planning professor at the University of Utah named Reid Ewing offers an interesting position on some indicators that may further characterize sprawl. While discussing the haphazard nature of Los Angeles's development patterns, Dr.Ewing argues that “accessibility” and “functional open space” are indicators of sprawl. Accessibility, or in this sense, poor residential accessibility is the nature of the neighbourhood residents being far from the activities they enjoy, and this characteristic is induced by leapfrog development, think Heritage Valley, and strip development, think any congregation of commercial buildings hugging the edge of a neighbourhood.

Functional Open Space

Moving on, the concept of functional open space is interested in if the space in a development “performs some basic public function” for its residents. A distinction is made between public space used to contain developments, think the green space that sits adjacent to larger arterial roads and the fence line of a neighbourhood, and public space that is bounded and amenitized, think any green space that serves as a strong public gathering place. If the public life performed on green spaces is confined to one’s own private backyard because amenitized green space is absent, that’s a non-functional open space development.

After digesting that information, our concept of sprawl now has the following characteristics: Low density, separation of land uses that contribute to poor residential accessibility, and has non-functional open space.

Answers with ambiguity

These characteristics are far from perfect. Dr.Ewing's indicators leave us with ambiguity. First, what is meant by being far, or inaccessible to activities? Answering this question would also define what is meant by a large separation of land uses. Second, does a public space have to be amenitized straight from its conception, or may the amenities follow with the increased occupancy of the neighbourhood? This idea is reflective of Edmonton's newer suburbs as many of the neighbourhood's amenities, either in the form of impressive community halls or small playgrounds, are if times dependent upon the persistence of residents eager to see a public space be transformed into a playground capable of serving their children (see Brookside Park).


Marchetti’s Constant

The first question may be a hurdle to answer. Eric Jaffee, the former New York bureau chief for CityLab, explains that even if cities expand exponentially, commute times remain relatively the same. The reason, people have daily travel time budgets, precisely one hour, and people desire not to exceed that one hour, a concept coined as Marchetti’s Constant. This concept seems unrealistic, even made up. Travel time should increase if more people are occupying the road, and your destination, let’s say work, remains in the same location. Travel time should also increase if there is a greater distance between your residence and your workplace. However, a University of Buffalo study suggests these daily “travel time budgets” have a tendency to remain stable as increased road congestion encourages more individuals to switch their transportation behaviour to taking transit, and in doing so, move closer to where taking transit is more feasible. Further, as travel times increase, individuals begin to make fewer, even more fleeting trips throughout their day. From here the research takes another surprising angle and this time from an MIT study. Travel time may often be independent of distance. What is meant by this is that commute times are strikingly similar for individuals living close to their workplace, let’s say 5 km, and individuals living far from their workplace, let’s say 15 Km. The theme, individuals "adopt their lifestyles (e.g. commute behaviors) in a way so that they spend a reasonable amount of time of their lives commuting.” This research leaves us at a crossroad. It would be exceedingly easy to say that any neighbourhood that has an average personal travel time exceeding Marchetti’s Constant is sprawl. Although, that may not be true. Marchetti’s Constant seems to be contingent on the idea that travel options are to not only exist in a city, but in abundance. Edmonton may need to be given an exception. We live in a city where almost 80% of work commutes are done by automobile, and alternate travel options are lacking. It’s a combination of our employment centers being located away from our downtown, preferring suburban landscapes, and our transportation system ignoring the employment centers. But we’ll revisit this idea shortly.


When should amenities be introduced?

As for the second idea on the timing of amenitized green space, a simple answer exists. The green spaces should be amentized from their conception. An interesting definition of sprawl arrives from Batty et al. and defines sprawl as incremental and uncoordinated growth, and the consequences of such growth are ignored. Saying that green spaces should include amenities that facilitate the social life of the neighbourhoods from their conception is a matter of opinion. But it must be acknowledged that public amenities are the central mechanism that brings a neighbourhood to life. If they are planned to be introduced incrementally, that may be a clear-cut indicator of sprawl. Although, I’d be interested to see more discussion take place on this idea.


Freedom of choice

- National Association of City Transportation Officials

- National Association of City Transportation Officials

Now, revisiting our previous discussion on evaluating the idea of accessibility, I briefly introduced an idea from Brent Toderian, the former Chief Planner for the City of Vancouver. The idea of freedom of choice means that users of all methods of transportation, not just automobiles, have several choices, or the freedom of choices to reach several desired destinations, being the location of jobs and shopping. It’s not a discussion of connectivity (the speed at which one can access a particular destination) but an accumulation of the idea of accessibility (the ease of reaching valuable destinations) and mobility (the ability to move from one place to another regardless of the transportation method chosen). Up until this point we have been focusing on accessibility as a conversation of overcoming large travel distances because of the spatial mismatch and expansiveness of suburban development types. This may not be the right conversation. Freedom of choice should be a characteristic of neighbourhoods, and remain true from automobile users to active and public transportation users. Under these circumstances, sprawl may best be characterized as a development offering a lack of freedom of choice, or more simply stated: car dependency.

Here is where our concept of sprawl finishes, and here are the characteristics: Low density, separation of land uses that contribute to car dependency and makes residents feel constrained under their personal “travel time budgets”, and has open space that does not introduce amenitized open space from the developments conception.


Call to action

The concept of suburbanization has intentionally been left-out until now, because at the end of the day, it simply just encompasses development concentrating itself around the periphery of a city;  nothing more, nothing less. Suburban locations do have tendancies to take on lower-density development, but on their own, suburban developments may take on any built form. It’s for this reason it’s problematic to automatically characterize every suburban development, or the idea of outward growth itself, as sprawl. Moving forward, let’s challenge ourselves to clearly define what we mean by sprawl, recognize its characteristics, and encourage better growth patterns based on shared experience. This article is not a commentary on the destructive nature of sprawl, but I hope to address its consequences in another article. Let’s first work together to define what sprawl looks like in Edmonton and expand from there, no pun intended.


- Cooper Csorba, 2017




Batty, Michael; Besussi, Elena; Chin, Nancy (November 2003). "Traffic, Urban Growth and Suburban Sprawl" (PDF). UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis Working Papers Series. 70. ISSN 1467-1298. Retrieved May 17, 2015.

Edmonton Census. (2016). Retrieved December 19,  2017. https://www.edmonton.ca/city_government/documents/census/Summary%20Report%20of%20All%20Questions_EDMONTON_2016.pdf

Eric Jaffe. (2014, June 20). Why Commute Times Don't Change Much Even as a City Grows. Retrieved December 19, 2017, from https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2014/06/why-commute-times-dont-change-much-even-as-a-city-grows/373051/

Ewing, R. (1997). Is Los Angeles-Style Sprawl Desirable? Journal of the American Planning Association, 63(1), 107-126.

Filion, P., Moos, M., Vinodrai, T., & Walker, R. C. (2015): 175-194, 447. Canadian cities in transition: perspectives for an urban age. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.

Keesmaat, J., Toderian, B. (2016, August 16). Invisible City: “Transforming The Suburbs” [Audio blog post].