Where is the world’s most sprawling city?

Driving to work, driving to dinner, driving to meet friends … this quintessentially American invention requires a limitless supply of land and resources. Los Angeles is infamously sprawling but is it the worst offender?

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Suburban Atlanta … a sprawling city according to Demographia and Smart Growth America
Suburban Atlanta … a sprawling city according to Demographia and Smart Growth America / © Alamy

As a young child in Glasgow I was desperate to visit the United States, to see its incredible landscapes and its legendary urbanism: the Grand Canyon, the Manhattan skyline. But it wasn’t until visiting much later that I experienced what is truly the iconic American landscape: the strip, that stretch of multi-lane road leading off into the distance, surrounded on either side by fast-food restaurants, islands of retail lost in seas of asphalt.

Strip development, and its cousin the shopping mall, are symbols of America’s gift to urbanism: sprawl. Los Angeles may be the world’s most famously sprawling city but is it the worst culprit? What about Montreal, or Brisbane, both low density cities in countries with no shortage of space and a strong love of the car?

Sprawl, even though we know when we see it, proves extremely difficult to pin down into a functional definition. Urban sprawl is usually huge, mainly low-density, mostly unplanned, and primarily residential development that covers increasing areas of land around city cores. It is suburbia on steroids or, as Robert Kirkman’s The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth puts it: “sprawl suggests the city has collapsed, like a drunkard on a sidewalk, and is now spreading inexorably outwards, oblivious to the surrounding countryside”.

The first and most important common factors is the car. After the second world war, American developers took advantage of cheap oil and the personal mobility made possible by car ownership to create low density residential developments that were not contiguous with places of work, commerce and leisure. These single-use areas often consist of detached houses in the centre of a lawn, scattered over the landscape, often unevenly, with residual gaps of undeveloped land between them and the city. […]