Sprawl? Evil or Natural



Sprawl, as soon as I say it I bet I will get the Compact City division in Auckland gnashing teeth while the people like Councillor Dick Quax saying it is the silver bullet to Auckland’s housing ills. Well both are technically correct but it is very dependent on how the sprawl is applied to a City even like Auckland.

Sprawl is a natural growth pattern of a City when it is incremental through time just as cities have done since going beyond the City Wall some thousands of years ago. However, sprawl can also be artificial as the Americans have shown in the 20th Century when building en-mass to final form (meaning that is it nothing else after the fact unlike incremental) is downright harmful and can tip a City to financial insolvency.


Southern Rural Urban Boundary with Future urban zones in yellow
Southern Rural Urban Boundary with Future urban zones in yellow


Auckland has done both sets of sprawl patterns with incremental sprawl following the Southern and Western Rail Lines up until the 1950’s when the motorway network would then open up large tracts of Auckland to en-mass sprawl especially in South Auckland. From 1999 (when the Metropolitan Urban Limits were applied by the then Auckland Regional Council) sprawl would become extremely hap-hazard in all directions as Auckland lost is natural pressure relief value through incremental sprawl. Instead we get places like Albany and Botany Metropolitan Centres with their residential surroundings happening on that en-mass scale meaning both infrastructure was unable and still is unable to keep up. With their urban form being that final any urban renewal will still be decades away. Ironically (although expected) the urban form that followed the incremental sprawl approach (so following the rail lines) is undergoing renewal at the moment as people seek to be close to good quality mass transit lines to get around a congested City.

Where does Manukau City Centre fit into it? Manukau was built as an auto-centric Centre to be a second Centre of Auckland. Manukau occupies both incremental and en-mass sections of sprawl given it was built all in one go initially and was connected to the then new Southern Motorway while all the South Auckland bus routes would run through it (just like the main City Centre) (so en-mass). The incremental side of Manukau City Centre’s own sprawl started in the late 1990’s with the construction of the Manukau Supa Centre, continued into the 2000’s with the Mitre 10, Bunnings and Kmart, and is to continue now with the Manukau Station operational and Panuku Development Auckland kick starting the 600ha Transform Manukau program.


Manukau Project area Source: Panuku Development Auckland
Manukau Project area
Source: Panuku Development Auckland


Can Auckland return to the incremental approach of sprawl rather than the hap-hazard en-mass approach?

Yes and no.

The Rural Urban Boundary with the Future Urban Zone can allow incremental sprawl again as we are seeing in the deep south of Auckland. The Drury South heavy industry complex and several Special Housing Areas in the surrounding area would demonstrate that incremental sprawl (see the Strong Towns article below in dealing with industry triggering sprawl) can indeed happen (ironically the Southern rail Line is also in the area and a station is proposed to service Drury South as well). Westgate and the saga of North-West Mall show that even with the RUB and FUZ haphazard en-mass sprawl can still happen and at a high cost ($200m) as well (bigger irony is that there is no rail line at Westgate and it can only truly be reached by motorway).


From Strong Towns:


A couple weeks ago, I made a few people upset with me by asking that I not be called a smart growth advocate. Actually, I received a lot of email and messages on that one and the ratio of positive to negative feedback was, in my rough estimation, about 8:1. Still, some of you were upset because you identify as a smart growth advocate and wish that I did likewise.

One comment, in particular, stuck with me. This from a member, so not someone who is uninformed on what we are doing:

“Let’s focus our energy on the people building the weak towns full of sprawl.”

I’ve been writing at least three days a week here since 2008. In those hundreds of thousands of words — or in the over 300 podcasts I’ve recorded — you will not find me using the world “sprawl” except where I have excerpted or otherwise quoted someone else. There is a simple reason for that: I don’t think sprawl is the problem.

At least, it’s not the problem I’m trying to solve. Google provides the following definition of sprawl, which I find to be fairly accurate in the way I hear others use it:

The expansion of an urban or industrial area into the adjoining countryside in a way perceived to be disorganized and unattractive.

Let’s first look at that definition. If we could somehow reset the American landscape back to 1945, I don’t think anyone — even the most ardent smart growth advocate — is going to have a problem with expansion of an urban or industrial area into the adjoining countryside. The problem comes with those two adjectives used to describe the expansion: disorganized and unattractive. 

Many people — particularly planners — look at the American landscape and see disorganization, as if having properly-sized signs, verdant parking lots and decorative, night sky lighting would cure what’s wrong with these places. (Note that there are many fools who have AICP behind their name that actually believe it would.) As an engineer, I don’t see disorganization. In fact, I see one of the most highly organized mass endeavors ever undertaken by humanity. We have transformed an entire continent around a new theory of development. This required incredible levels of centralized coordination on policy, finance and regulation. American development is exquisitely organized.

That leaves us with unattractive, a rather subjective — and dare I say, polarizing — descriptor that really doesn’t move the conversation very far. If you heard the podcast last year where I interviewed my local council member, you heard him describe how he found wide streets without any cars parked along them to be aesthetically pleasing. You may disagree (I do) but you’re not going to convince him, or millions of other Americans, that a gritty urban street is beautiful while the tree-lined suburban boulevard fronting their manicured lawns is ugly, despite how transitory the latter experience may be.

We identify the problem as the Suburban Experiment, which we contrast with the Traditional Development Pattern. Both of these we have defined:

Suburban Experiment:The approach to growth and development that has become dominant in North America during the 20th Century. There are two distinguishing characteristics of this approach that differentiate it from the Traditional Development Pattern. They are: (1) New growth happens at a large scale and (2) Construction is done to a finished state; there is no further growth anticipated after the initial construction.

Traditional Development Pattern: The approach to growth and development that humans used for thousands of years across different cultures, continents and latitudes. There are two distinguishing characteristics of this pattern that differentiate it from the Suburban Experiment. They are: (1) Growth happens incrementally over time and (2) All neighborhoods are on a continuum of improvement.

“Strong Towns is not an anti-sprawl organization because sprawl is not the problem.”


The wealth and prosperity of pre-Depression America — as it had been around the world for thousands of years — was largely the byproduct of small investments over a broad area over a sustained period of time. Incremental growth which slowly improved and refined the places we lived. It wasn’t all wonderful, but the Traditional Development Pattern provided a path for broad, inclusive improvement and a long track record for having done so.

The wealth and prosperity of the America of the Suburban Experiment is largely an illusion, a distortion brought about by what we’ve called the Growth Ponzi Scheme. It manifests in quick growth and job creation followed by increasing poverty, enormous income gaps, declining neighborhoods, concentrated power, unpayable debts and, as a result, widespread social anxiety. This is not a suburban phenomenon; it is an American one.


……….I encourage you all to stop using the word sprawl. It doesn’t accurately describe the problem, it prevents us from getting to real responses and it unnecessarily divides the national dialog in ways that are unhelpful.

Note: There is a follow up to this piece that is now available.


Source: http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/4/17/sprawl-is-not-the-problem


Incremental sprawl as cities have done for many-a-generation before the 1950’s I see is organic and yes maybe “disorganised” and “unattractive” but I see it as “controlled chaos” and actually attractive as far as a City evolving goes.

See even in Cities Skylines the difference between Incremental and En-Mass Sprawl (or Traditional Growth Pattern and Suburban Experiment) affects the dynamics of the City in simulation. With Neo Layton City I find if I go for incremental sprawl I don’t find the Residential Demand Bar crashing to zero and growth in the City being hamstrung for a few cycles as I would with en-mass. I also avoid the death waves that back up the crematoriums for ages as well. Going incremental also means my finances don’t get whacked either as you can extend the bus, tram and subway lines bit by bit rather than having to place entirely new infrastructure without the population there to support it yet (that said I can run things like subway lines, subway and bus stations ahead of a pending development but they are “turned off” until the zones are put down). Finally going incremental also gives that organic controlled chaos approach as well to the City.



The Belmont District and the Airport District were examples of sprawl en-mass which did depress development else where for a few cycles. Meanwhile the areas next to Bedford Park are demonstrations of going incremental which will not depress development on the other side of the City.

So again even Cities Skylines demonstrates the difference between Traditional and the Suburban Experiment with sprawl (as well as difference following a rail line (Bedford Park) and a motorway (Belmont and Airport Districts (although both are now serviced by Subway Metro Line #3).


In follow-up to Sprawl Not the Problem post I recommend reading: THE SPRAWL CONVERSATION  followed by THE DENSITY QUESTION because it is not the sprawl but how we sprawl that determines the health of a City. As Auckland has demonstrated it does both incremental and en-mass sprawl with predictable results….


2 thoughts on “Sprawl? Evil or Natural

  1. Good Sprawl = Drury with rail line easy to upgrade,

    Bad Sprawl = Walkworth needing billions of infa thrown at it.

    I wish we would ditch Walkworth development be better to sprawl further South instead towards Pokeno since you just need to extend the elect.

  2. This comes down to a simple theory that there is good, and there is bad sprawl. Is this theory useful? Yes – once you grasp that in the era of mass urbanisation and proliferation of the automobile and telecommunications. large scale horizontal growth of cities into the ‘countryside’ is inevitable. This is something the Auckland Plan authors have had a great difficulty getting their head around. They are trying to ‘ban’ sprawl. They might as well try to ban earthquakes and tsunamis. Auckland planning will see the dawn again when Auckland planners realise that the pressure for outward growth can only be managed by giving the growth an intelligent shape, structure and metabolism, and not by prescribing arbitrary scale (30% of all future growth) and boundary (RUBs).

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