Urban sprawl: the big picture


We strive for space to inhabit throughout our lives — for work, leisure, and housing. We instinctively know when the space surrounding us is great by the way it makes us feel. Space is abundant on Earth — it is inside and outside of buildings and is formed by objects both natural and artificial.

Humans are inquisitive by nature. As many futurists predict, it is inevitable that one day, humanity will sprawl from Earth into what seems to be infinite space.

Space, or, the universe, exploded into existence 13.8 billion years ago. By our observation, it is estimated to contain 2 trillion galaxies. Within the Milky Way galaxy alone, an estimated 200 billion stars. Most of these stars are orbited by planetary systems, with an estimated 20 billion containing planets located within their stars habitable zone (PowerfulJRE 2019, 03:24).

What lies beyond what we can presently observe?

Figure 1:  Powerlines beneath the Milky Way
Source: Whitman 2015

While space technology underwent its remarkable birth throughout the 1950s and '60s, and futurists were making such predictions, another kind of colonisation was rapidly spreading — right here on Earth (NASA 2002). It was the dawn of the modern suburb, a time of post-war prosperity and growth that saw housing developments seemingly appear across the landscape (NASA 2002).

Space technology has grown with our cities. Today, hundreds of artificial satellites orbit Earth (UNOOSA 2019), making observations and gathering terabytes of scientific data (NASA 2002). Such an array provides 'big picture' spatial coverage, which among many things has supported a deeper understanding of the problems associated with urban sprawl (NASA 2002).

The formal term for urban sprawl is 'greenfield development', which involves clearing land on the urban fringe for housing.

Presently, more than half of humanity — 3.5 billion people — live in cities, and it is forecasted that this number will continue to rise (Bolleter, Melsom and Myers 2018). In all regions of the world from 2000 to 2015, the expansion of urbanised land surpassed the growth of urban populations, resulting in urban sprawl (Bolleter, Melsom and Myers 2018).

Research into the effects of urban sprawl has identified many environmental, sociological, and economic problems (Brody 2013). Some of the headlines include air and water pollution, loss or disruption of environmentally sensitive areas, decreased open space, and reduced quality of life (Brody 2013). Our lives are far better when we live in reasonable proximity to work, family, recreation, public transport, and essential services.

Infrastructure — particularly transport infrastructure — shapes our cities. The past 50 years of urban development in Australia has focused on building new automobile-dependent suburbs on the urban fringe of cities (Trubka, Newman and Bilsborough 2010). Such development is no more evident than in Perth, Western Australia (WA), where 3 out of 5 new homes are built on the urban fringe (Acott 2019). Many of these homes are situated far from public transport, which continues to drive dependence on automobiles (Acott 2019). In turn, such reliance increases traffic congestion and accelerates the depletion of fossil fuels (Brody 2013).

In a bid to deal with problems such as these, and deliver ‘equitable, efficient and sustainable use of land and natural resources’, there has been a shift in focus by governments to deliver urban infill development (Bolleter, Melsom and Myers 2018). The economic advantages to the Australian Government associated with such repositioning were estimated (Ludlam 2016). Costs in providing infrastructures — such as roads, water,  power, communication, emergency services, health, and education — to greenfield sites are $150,389 per lot, versus $55,828 per lot to urban infill sites (Ludlam 2016). Put differently, every 1000 lots developed within inner-urban suburbs equates to a saving of up to $94.5 million.

Despite these incentives, ‘curbing urban sprawl’ in Perth appears to have become nothing but a catchphrase in recent years, with new analysis suggesting that it is closer to fantasy than reality (Young and Allan-Petale 2018). With councils failing to meet urban infill targets, developers struggling to convince buyers to downsize, and new plans showing suburbia set to extend north of Yanchep and south to Waroona (Young and Allan-Petale 2018). On a more positive note, Perth’s Metronet program appears to be trying to alleviate the problem with new rail lines and stations proposed near urban growth areas such as Yanchep, Canning Vale, Ellenbrook, Byford, and Karnup (Acott 2019).

The Australian Government needs to place greater importance on urban infill development. Ultimately, cities such as Perth will reach a density-reckoning as urban sprawl cannot continue infinitely.

At Collier Homes, we recognise that there is a great availability of unused land throughout the inner-urban suburbs of Perth. Such land can be developed to realise its latent housing potential and market value. We are working on quality, well-designed, sustainable, and scalable solutions to assist in filling this void.

Alberto Amara BAppSc(Hons), DipBldg is a third-generation builder and skilled construction professional with extensive experience across building and construction.


Figure 2:  Perth as seen from the International Space Station
Source: Kopra 2015


Acott, Kent. 2019. "Perth’s urban sprawl driving our love affair with cars." PerthNow, February 1, 2019.  https://www.perthnow.com.au/news/transport/perths-urban-sprawl-driving-our-love-affair-with-cars-ng-b881091421z

Bolleter, Julian, Melsom, Chris, Myers, Zoe. 2018. Missing in Action: Strategies for delivering the 'missing middle' in Perth. Perth: Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, Landcorp, Department of Communities. https://www.audrc.org/missinginaction

Brody, Samuel. 2013. "The Characteristics, Causes, and Consequences of Sprawling Development Patterns in the United States." Nature Education Knowledge 4 (5): 2. https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/the-characteristics-causes-and-consequences-of-sprawling-103014747

Kopra, Tim (@astro_tim). 2016. "Great night passes over @Australia - beautiful #CitiesFromSpace. #GoodNight @CityofPerth from @Space_Station." Twitter, April 17, 2016, 3:22 p.m.  https://twitter.com/astro_tim/status/721826178894585856

Ludlam, Scott. 2016. "Design Perth vision saves billions." Media release, June 3, 2016.  https://greensmps.org.au/articles/design-perth-vision-saves-billions

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 2002. NASA. "Urban Sprawl: the Big Picture." https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2002/11oct_sprawl

PowerfulJRE. 2019. Joe Rogan Experience #1233 - Brian Cox.  2:34:53. https://youtu.be/wieRZoJSVtw

Trubka, Roman, Newman, Peter and Bilsborough, Darren. 2010. "THE COSTS OF URBAN SPRAWL – INFRASTRUCTURE AND TRANSPORTATION" Environment Design Guide (83): 1:6. https://www.crcsi.com.au/assets/Resources/b6e1625f-d90b-433d-945a-6afeff2e42f6.pdf

United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). 2019. UNOOSA. "United Nations Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space." http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/spaceobjectregister/index.html

Whitman, Jay. 2015 (@jay.whitman). "#powerlines beneath the #milkyway #exmouth #westernaustralia #astrophotography #universetoday #longexposure." Instagram photo, August 26, 2015. https://www.instagram.com/p/62OMdSMH_y/

Young, Emma, and Allan-Petale, David. 2018. "Halting Perth's urban sprawl is not as easy as it sounds." WAtoday, September 4, 2018.  https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/halting-perth-s-urban-sprawl-is-not-as-easy-as-it-sounds-20180830-p500t1.html


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