News and Features

Urban Sprawl as a Development Problem in Spatial Planning



Incessant flooding and disasters in Metro Manila serve as constant reminders on the consequences of unplanned urban expansion. Economic and human losses due to the impact of floods stand as testaments to the ill effects of urban sprawl. And yet, effective plans to mitigate or completely eradicate these effects still remain to be seen.

Urban sprawl has already been a concern for different countries in the past years. It is recognized that urban sprawl begins as urbanization takes place in any given area without proper planning and foresight.  Jan K. Brueckner, in his paper Urban Sprawl: Diagnosis and Remedies, defines the term urban sprawl as the “excessive spatial growth of cities.[i]” This excessive spatial growth of cities can be attributed to two main factors: population increase and the need for income augmentation. Urbanization gives a notion of development, such that people in the rural areas seeking to amend their income and increase their opportunities migrate to urban areas, thereby increasing the density of people in the city. This population increase result to other causes of urban sprawl: consumption of land at affordable prices outside the urban area, investment in transportation infrastructure and job suburbanization. As the demand for housing increases, people opt to locate their homes in the suburban areas in search of lower prices. Transportation infrastructure investments further encourage the people to live in the suburban as these make their job locations more accessible. As more people move to the suburban, the suburban area slowly becomes urban as job suburbanization occurs, where jobs are relocated by businesses to follow the labor residing in the urban areas. In a way, this follows the concept of the invisible hand, as the free market dictates where development is to take place.

However, the question now is whether the operation of the invisible hand is successful. A rapid urban expansion brings with it a multitude of consequences that sometimes can lead to market failure. Market failure happens when markets fail to “allocate resources in a socially desirable manner, so as to maximize aggregate economic well-being.[ii]” This market failure can be seen in the negative impacts that unplanned urban expansion brings. These negative impacts include the increase in government expenditure, when the government spends money on infrastructure outside the urban areas at the cost of neglecting existing infrastructure in the cities that are not used or underutilized. This impact is both a cause and effect such that it happens in a cyclical pattern. Also, people living in the peri-urban areas tend to contribute to air pollution, traffic congestion and vehicle-related incidents as they either commute to the cities or use their automobiles. Use of vehicles, in addition, has led the peri-urban citizens to be automobile dependent, such that they use their vehicles to travel even short distances. This becomes ingrained in their culture, thereby losing the opportunities for exercise which benefits the human body. Furthermore, dependence on automobiles gives the government the incentive to spend more money on larger highways and parking spaces, which takes away a substantial part of the government budget.

Market failure has been evident in Metro Manila, where continuous rains and floods exposed pollution and diseases, leading to a disincentive for its citizens. Incomes are therefore reallocated for personal wellness, health and medicines, providing a negative blow to the household economic status. These failures may not have been seen, or even disregarded, as markets choose where to locate their businesses, given that private entities tend to put a prime on profit-generation.

Unplanned urban spatial expansion also brings about disparity in wealth between cities and suburbs. The emergence of the suburbia can lead to the deterioration of urban communities. If urban sprawl continues without proper planning and zoning, it may block out ways possible quality services in the future.

On the other hand, some say that urban sprawl has its own positive effects. These include the availability of cheaper housing and lower living costs in the peri-urban area. Moreover, the stretching of urban areas encourages industries to build branches in the peri-urban areas, thereby creating a distribution of development. Once these businesses are built, improvements in transportation and infrastructure sometimes follow. Since there are the branches to provide goods and services to the people, it becomes more convenient for the people in a way that they are closer to the businesses that they patronize. Also, urban sprawl takes away some of the people in the highly congested urban areas. Some studies have shown that a low-density development is better for air quality since it disperses air pollution over a wider area. In addition, areas with low-density of people have more room for green spaces, which help minimize pollutions in air and water. However, if carefully analyzed, these positive effects are only positive to a certain extent. For instance, the decision of developers to build in the suburban areas may lead to land conversion, and therefore, loss of open spaces and farmlands. Migration of the people from the urban to the suburbia may lead to urban decay, especially as the suburbia slowly develops to become urbanized. All in all, these positive effects may only be fully realized if there is careful planning to control urban sprawl.

A solution to control urban sprawling has been done in Portland, Oregon, where urban expansion has been recognized in the 1970s by Gov. Tom McCall and his allies as detrimental to the state’s natural beauty and access to nature. He thus convinced the Oregon Legislature “to adopt the nation’s first set of statewide land use planning laws.[iii]” These land use planning laws gave birth to their adoption of what is called the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) in their state. A UGB is a tool used by local governments to divide higher urban density development and lower density development; and serves as a guide for zoning and policy making decisions. It is a regional boundary that “supports urban services like roads, water and sewer systems, parks, schools and fire and police protection that create thriving places to live, work and play.[iv]” The main objective of the UGB, as used in Portland, is to protect farms and farmlands from urban sprawl and efficient use of land and support services inside the boundary. The Oregon Metro website enumerates some of the benefits of a UGB, which include the incentive to continuously develop land inside the urban core, thereby keeping the core intact and insusceptible to urban decay; certainty for businesses and local governments in making decisions on where to place their infrastructure and other developments; and efficiency for both the public and private entities such that their funds are wisely used given the certainty of where to develop and concentrate their resources, as opposed to inefficiency in funding use in order to build infrastructure to support the labor residing in the suburban areas, further resulting to unplanned urban expansion. Because of its usefulness, the UGB has been adapted in other areas aiming to control urban sprawl: United Kingdom, Albania, Canada, Australia and South Africa.

But then again, the UGB has encountered controversies given the effects that have been experienced upon its implementation. Studies have found that although the UGB indeed results to the expected benefits, some of the effects have been unexpected and are now a growing concern among those areas that implemented the UGB. These effects include the rising cost of housing and land prices inside the UGB; increased overall housing costs, reducing the overall quality of life for the residents as the money that should be used for other needs is used for housing; increased overall housing density; and reliance on infill development thereby causing further increase in housing prices, decrease of vacant land within the growth boundary, and therefore a decrease in available open spaces. In general, it somehow hinders housing development inside the UGB, making it difficult for the UGB’s residents, especially for the low income households, to keep up with the increase in prices. Portland looks at the possibility of increasing its UGB, which is met with disagreement by stakeholders such as the low-income households, and, unexpectedly, the emerging group “hobby farmers”. The “hobby farmers” are a group of people engaged in non-commercial farming, who have managed to circumvent Portland’s land use policies by buying lands outside the Metro and calling them farms. Apparently, the expansion of the UGB will affect their quality of life as some of their lands will be affected upon the enactment.

Given these, what can be done on the urban sprawl happening in Metro Manila? The following are only some of the options that the author has thought of in relation to the problem stated:

Option #1: Encouraging compact cities in Metro Manila. A compact city, by definition, is a city with high residential density and mixed land uses. It relies on an efficient public transport system that encourages walking, cycling, low energy consumption and reduced pollution. Because of this, the society becomes less dependent on cars, less money will be needed for transportation infrastructure and air pollution and traffic congestion can be decreased. Some studies found that a decrease in car use occurs when population densities rise. And because there is mixed land use, people will no longer feel the need to commute longer distances to acquire a good or to work because these will be readily accessible in a compact city. Urban sprawl will be prevented, such that people will have a higher preference to live closer to their workplaces, given that housing prices decrease with larger increase in supply (which will be occurring if population densities will increase in an area). This is somehow already seen in Metro Manila with the proliferation of high rise condominiums in the urban core. However, much more is to be done with reference to the public transport system and public safety, as well as mixed land use, if a true compact city is to be achieved.

Option #2: Strictly establish and equally disperse the growth pole areas. This is somehow similar to the UGB solution, but wider in scope as it entails planning in the regional level. As applied in the Philippines, this may mean the designation of growth or development poles per region. But this should be done strictly such that once an a province or city is designated as a growth pole, only that area will be a central developed area for urbanization in the region. This may help in controlling urban sprawl, especially in Metro Manila, in a way that people who migrate from other regions to go to Manila for employment opportunities will no longer feel the need to do so, as there is a place near them where they can have the same opportunities as the people in Metro Manila. Of course, this should be supported by competent institutions for health and education, which are some of the reasons why people migrate. Moreover, support infrastructures must be strengthened to encourage businesses to locate in designated areas. Aside from this, there must be a firm control on the part of the LGUs to implement their land and zoning policies in order to avoid urban sprawling in these designated areas.

Option #3: Full dispersion. This alternative may be radical in such a way that dispersion will be fully implemented to decongest the urban area. This will entail the dispersion of private entities and public institutions to the whole country, and in effect, may further urbanize the same. Since the businesses and necessary services are closer to the people, they will no longer seek employment, goods and services at the urban core. However, this may start the urbanization of all areas in the country. But since all of the people will be experiencing widespread urbanization, urban sprawl will be eradicated such that ‘urbanization’ is dispersed.

Option #4: Going back to rural. This means encouraging rural life and developing innovative solutions to uplift the rural areas. If urban areas are reformatted to return to the basic rural ways, urban sprawl won’t be a problem anymore, as well as the problems of land conversion, traffic congestion, pollution and other negative impacts of urban sprawl.

Option #5: Do nothing. What this means is to let the invisible hand operate, while providing countermeasures for market failure. After all, it is said that one of the positive effects of urban sprawl is to decongest the city, and which means lesser environmental pollution in the urban core. However, development in the suburban areas must be guided strongly by policies, especially on land use and zoning, and effective implementation, for it to work. It may discourage urban sprawl, such that as job suburbanization happens, people residing in the suburbia may opt to work near their homes, thereby lessening the negative impacts of urban sprawl like traffic congestion and unnecessary investments in transportation infrastructure.

In reality, all of the proposed alternatives, as well as other possible alternatives not mentioned, will not work without the guidance of sound policies and effective policy implementation. Of course, sufficient evaluation of alternatives and consideration of impacts are also important before a spatial strategy is implemented. This may be what lacked in the implementation of the UGB: some of the effects were not expected and therefore, plans were not made to counter the unforeseen impacts of the same.

Metro Manila, given its negative experience, should by now be making its plans in order to reduce or eliminate urban sprawl. There are a variety of solutions to choose from; all it takes is the political will to really undergo the planning process needed to get to the best possible solution.


About the author

Muy, called Myra Jean by her irritated mother whenever she does something annoying, is a twenty-three year old kid from the province of Quezon. She is a graduate of BA Public Administration from the National College of Public Administration and Governance in the University of the Philippines-Diliman, and has recently finished her graduate diploma course in Urban and Regional Planning from the School of Urban and Regional Planning in the same university. In a span of one and a half years, she’s already had a number of work experiences due to her impulsive nature. She now works as a Project Development Officer for one of the programs of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). Her hobbies include cramming, sleeping, travelling, drinking, enrolling in courses she will probably not use and learning something new everyday.

[i] Brueckner, Jan K. “Urban Sprawl: Diagnosis and Remedies.” International Regional Science Review, April 2000. < sprawl+remedies_IntRegSciRev2000.pdf, accessed September 5, 2012>.

[ii] Brueckner.

[iii] “Urban Growth Boundary.” Metro Oregon website. < ex.cfm/go/by.web/id=277, accessed September 5, 2012>.

[iv] Metro Oregon website.

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“Causes and Consequences of Urban Growth and Sprawl.” Springer website. < ACcfTmAXNwYD4Ag&usg=AFQjCNHfwsxBSzFWyuW-LgZK5LRntDi4QA&sig2=iI NlBUbPQCCdG2tO6HstYA, accessed September 5, 2012>.

“Compact City.” Wikipedia website. <, accessed September 5, 2012>.

Ferris, David. “Positive Effects of an Urban Sprawl.” eHow website. <, accessed September 5, 2012>.

Hamlin, Roger et al. “Urban Growth Boundaries.” Michigan State Universty website, December 2000. <, accessed September 5, 2012>.

Staley, Samuel R., Mildner, Gerard C.S. “Urban Growth Boundaries and Housing Affordability: Lessons from Portland.” University of North Alabama website, October 1999. < ng%20Urban%20Growth,%20Lessons%20from%20Portland.pdf, accessed September 5, 2012>.

“U.N. Plans ‘Unplanned Urban Expansion’ to Cause More Floods” The Philippine Star, Newsflash website, August 11, 2012. <, accessed September 5, 2012>.

“Urban Growth Boundary.” Wikipedia website. < growth_boundary, accessed September 5, 2012>.

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