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Which Is the Most Sprawling City in the World?

Most people would probably guess that the world's most sprawling city is located in the United States, and according to most measures, they'd be right.
April 20, 2017, 6am PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Los Angeles
Michael Gordon

Douglas Murphy examines the issue of sprawl and its effects, devoting significant word count to an argument for sprawl as a destructive force for the environment and for society.

After acknowledging that there is "no reliable combined measure of sprawl, and many geographers shy away from using the term because of its negative connotations," Murphy still surveys some of the most prominent attempts to measure sprawl using a scientific method.

First mentioned is the Demographia's annual World Urban Areas [pdf] survey, which shows American areas completely dominating the low densities: "the lowest density large cities are Atlanta, Boston, St Louis, Orlando and San Juan. The only real competition the Americans have is with places like Brisbane, Australia, or Quebec City, Canada, both countries with a lot of land and a love of the car."

Second among the sprawl studies listed by Murphy is the work of researchers at Smart Growth America, which introduces "mixes of use, presence of 'centres', and accessibility as other factors," into their measure of sprawl. That study places southern cities like Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis at the bottom of the sprawl list.

Finally, Murphy cites the work of Thomas Laidley at NYU, who recently created a Sprawl Index using aerial imagery. "One remarkable aspect was the discovery that Los Angeles is now the densest urban centre in the US," explains Murphy.

That final mention doesn't reconcile with Murphy's opinion, however, of Los Angeles as "the ultimate sprawling city." Murphy writes:

Think of the classic view from the Griffith Observatory, looking down at that vast carpet of concrete with its threads of light from the clogged highways. LA is decentred, potentially limitless, and stands for everything terrible about what happens when cities are developed without planning: swathes of low density housing, completely severed by roads, the whole terrain plagued by filthy smog.

Thus, Murphy produces a perhaps surprising pro-planning argument from this critique of a century's worth of planning practice.

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Published on Wednesday, April 19, 2017 in The Guardian
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