Urban Sprawl Can Destroy our Natural and Social Environments

“Urban sprawl has gotten out of control and has turned into a serious and fast growing problem”, according to a 2015 study, co-authored by Concordia researcher, Naghmeh Nazarnia. Montreal and Quebec City are the Canadian cities that experienced the highest rates of urban sprawl in the last 25 years, and are expected to grow even more. In 2031 Montreal’s population is expected to increase with 530.000 people, eager to live in the cities residential areas. 

What is urban sprawl exactly?

Researchers of urban sprawl define the phenomenon as “the spreading of urban developments, such as houses and shopping centers, on undeveloped land near a city.”  The 2015 Concordia report describes urban sprawl as being most present around city centres, coastlines, and transport corridors where wide rings of suburbs show up.

Since 2008 more than half of the world’s population have been living in urban areas, making the movement a universal one. In developing countries, this move from the countryside to the city is partly due to the search for jobs and better financial perspectives.

In North-America however, the reason for the increase can be found in peoples’ desire to live with their family in a single-family home in a low density suburban area. The gas prices are relatively low, and so automobile dependency is not a problem for these households.


Although people live in more spacious environments because of urban sprawl, it has longstanding consequences for the natural environment. Densely populated areas are known to be ‘urban heat islands’, where the temperature is significantly higher than the surrounding rural areas due to human activity. With the increase of urban sprawl, this ‘urban heat island’-effect gets higher.

Also, a bigger land use means that pollution and greenhouse gas emissions will grow, causing ecosystem intrusion and habitat loss for animal species living close to cities. On a social level, it means that there will be more traffic congestion, longer commuting times, and a reduced civic involvement in the society, which is exactly what is happening in and around some of the bigger Canadian cities.

Better planning

The Concordia report tells us that one of the main reasons for the continuation of urban sprawl is the disorganisation of existing institutions and the absence of a metropolitan-wide planning agency. After comparing Quebec and Montreal with Zurich, a Swiss city that had to deal with a high level of sprawl, the scholars concluded that a high level of public transport and landscape planning can solve a big part of the problem.  https://www.cyburbia.org/forums/showthread.php?t=27507

The only way we can stop the spread of cities is to impose more regulations. Solutions for cities like Quebec and Montreal may include the introduction of a new taxation system and limitations on the construction of new roads and buildings; regulations that have been in place in Zurich for over a decade.  

Another solution might be the broadening of the Quebecois public transport system. With Montreal already having an extensive underground public transport system in place, a bigger public transport system in Quebec could connect the city centres of suburbs to the main city centre, so that these areas will stay connected.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/davduf/44851529


In Switzerland, public opinion is well respected and voiced in referenda and institutions. This high form of democracy has caused urban sprawl to be limited there. Hopefully the Canadian government, both federal and municipal, realize the impact of urban sprawl on the environment and society before it is too late. 


A better organisation of landscape planning is needed to avoid the dire consequences of urban sprawl. These consequences are irreversible in human time spans, according to the Concordia scholars, and so actions are needed to keep up with sustainable policies. 

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