Urban sprawl describes a phenomenon where increasing numbers of citizens move from rural locations to urban cities; in order to accommodate the population growth, cities will then increase in size and require additional infrastructure, land area and resources to maintain this population. This phenomenon has been observed in the United States for the past 200 years, as the shift from a primarily agricultural society toward an industrialized society required the need for more productive urban centers (Lopez 1). Generally speaking, more technologically advanced societies tend to be more concentrated; because less advanced societies are often economically based on agriculture, large areas of land are required for adequate farming space. However, as societies become more advanced and expand past an agriculture-based economy, its citizens will tend to congregate in towns, and then into more condensed cities. Urban growth is the natural result of an increased population, while urban sprawl has a more negative connotation and generally refers to inefficiency at the city planning level (Bekele 6).

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Urban sprawl is not a new phenomenon; the sociologist Emile Durkheim explores how this phenomenon has played out historically: Athens and Rome, for example, once started as towns and then grew into major urban areas as the need for social organization saw more individuals moving toward the city (Durkheim 236). Because cities required significant resources, such as a supply of food that could adequately feed a sizable population, agricultural land development coincided with urban development. For cultures that did not move past the agriculture period, such as American Indians and Germanic tribes, towns never developed. After the Roman Empire eventually collapsed, which had developed towns throughout Europe, the towns did not develop further due to a lack of technological advancement throughout the Middle Ages. However, once technology advanced throughout the Renaissance and later periods, cities started to grow. Most notably, the Industrial Revolution saw significant urbanization, as more people moved from rural areas to cities.

The more advanced a society, the larger and more condensed its urban centers will be, which will further increase the demand for resources. Along with this comes the need for increased social organization, as the proximity of more individuals facilitates the need to define these relationships. From here, class distinctions are born: the largest populace will be those who remain in the lower social classes, while the ruling class tends to remain small and concentrated (Durkheim 240). The wealthy have the most access to resources, either through privilege or purchasing power, while the lower classes are limited in the number of resources they have access to. Essentially, larger cities directly correlate with an increase with the division of labor. This is why in nomadic tribes, which do not have towns or cities, there is a minimal division of labor between the individuals and much more equality. In more advanced societies, with large urban centers, there will always be more stratification. The result is unequal distribution of resources, both in land or area use as well as economic distribution (Durkheim 241): for instance, tightly condensed urban areas will see real estate spike in value, as living spaces will command a premium. Those who are able to afford it will be able to rent or purchase larger apartments or homes than those who cannot, resulting in the lower classes often being forced to live in cramped living quarters or on the outskirts of town, where costs are lower. As cities grow, the need to increase infrastructure often results in building outward into neighboring areas, as the costs tend to be lower the farther away from the primary economic center of a city. This results in the phenomenon known as urban sprawl. Because the most prevalent resource associated with urbanization is land availability, city growth negatively affects those in lower-socioeconomic brackets the most. Economic solvency affords choice: those who are able to afford it can choose where they live, particularly in markets where available real estate is at an increased demand.

Urban sprawl is also not limited to first world growth; indeed, many third-world nations are rapidly becoming urbanized: “The world is now 53% urbanized, compared to 29% in 1959 and 39% in 1980. By 2050, some 70% of the 9.6 billion humans will live in cities” (Clemente para. 1). The development of cities in third-world countries accounts for much of this growth as they shift from rural, agricultural societies to manufacturing-based economies made possible by cities. According to the World Bank, “80 percent of global goods and services are produced in cities” (World Bank para. 2), which means most of the world’s resources are now manufactured or produced in cities. This means many citizens of third world countries are moving to cities from rural areas for job opportunities, as cities are where resources are most prevalent. In third world countries, however, a large influx of people moving to a city can strain the city’s resources. The city must have adequate infrastructure to support the new citizens, including having enough available housing, food, and water, as well as being able to provide enough energy. Because many third world countries have limited development and resources, this will cause many of these cities to develop large slum areas due to the rapidly increasing population.

If it occurs too quickly, rapid urbanization can negatively affect agricultural production as well, further diminishing resource availability. In Africa, for example, coffee production is one industry that is being negatively impacted as a result of urbanization. As these nations develop and become more industrialized, the amount of pollution resulting from urbanization can make growing crops harder to sustain. For instance, in countries such as Nairobi and Kenya, the pollution from nearby cities has caused coffee harder to grow on farms that were once considered rural (Jaramillo 17). Because these countries rely heavily on income generated from the export of coffee beans, the entire economy becomes destabilized along with the environmental damage created by the pollution. Farmers whose lands are negatively affected by droughts caused by climate change will often leave for the city, creating a situation where urbanization is accelerated and the pollution becomes even worse.

The challenge of urbanization in third world countries is that it cannot be regulated and appears to be inevitable (Lopez 7). If the city has the right resources and effective leadership, then urbanization can indeed be beneficial for a developing country. The increased manufacturing capability of the city will create new goods and resources which can be traded with other countries, increasing the economic standing of the country. In turn, this income can be used to further develop the infrastructure and provide for things like health care and education. However, if the leadership is ineffective and the political structure is weak, rapid urbanization can lead to problems such as outbreaks of disease due to poor sanitation and cramped living conditions, food and water shortages and increased gang activity if employment opportunities are scarce. If resources become too limited, the result is that countries may wage wars in an attempt to gain new resources or they may resort to growing crops such as opium and cocaine, which are shunned by many world governments but valuable in the black market (Bekele 114). Thus, urbanization should not solely be considered as either a positive or negative phenomenon; rather, it can have either affect, depending on leadership and city planning. If a city’s needs are anticipated and resources are considered, including land availability and job availability, the phenomenon known as urban sprawl can be reduced.

Term 1: Division of Labor: The specialization of economic tasks within a society. Increased division of labor results in an increase of economic stratification and class systems.

Term 2: Land Development: altering the landscape by changing landform from natural or semi-natural for a purpose such as agriculture or housing.

  • Bekele, Haregewoin. Urbanization and Urban Sprawl. 2005. Stockholm.
  • Clemente, Jude. “Urbanization: Reducing Poverty and Helping the Environment.” Forbes. July 22, 2014. Web. December 11, 2015.
  • Durkheim, Emile. “The Division of Labor in Society.” In Classical Sociological Theory, Third Ed. Ed. Craig Calhoun. 2012, New York: John Wiley, 234-242. Print.
  • Jaramillo, Jay. “Climate change or urbanization? Impacts on a traditional coffee production system in East Africa over the last 80 years.” PLoS One, 2013. Print.
  • Lopez, Russell. “Urban Sprawl in the United States: 1970-2010.” Cities and the Environment 7.1 (2014): 7.
  • World Bank. “Developing Countries Need to Harness Urbanization to Achieve the MDGs: IMF World Bank Report.” World Bank News. April 17, 2013. Web. December 11, 2015.