Urban Sprawl

Urban planners use the term ‘Urban sprawl’ in a pejorative sense to describe the unplanned expansion of relatively low intensity urban land-use into rural areas along major roadways. This urban expansion is unplanned. Therefore, management of this kind of urban area is an administrative nightmare.

Fig. 1: Urban Sprawl of Mumbai Metropolitan Region (Source: Gadal et. al., 2009, Sapiens, Vol. 2, No. 2)

Definition of Urban Sprawl

  • Urban Sprawl is a starfish shaped large city in which the settlements spread outwards along the major roads (see Fig. 1).
  • Fig. 1 shows the sprawl of Mumbai Metropolitan Region. In this figure, the red color represents built-up urban area. Further, the dark red and maroon color is Mumbai. The reader can observe that the orange and light red lines spread outwards from Mumbai like fingers from a hand.
  • Please note that this finger like, long and narrow built-up area represents Conurbation.
  • The settlements are compact in the center of the sprawl and become less compact as we move outwards.
  • Millions of people live in an urban sprawls.
  • It has the same problems like conurbations.

Relationship With Growth Pole

  • Urban sprawl is a large city which propels the growth of surrounding areas like a growth pole.
  • There is exchange of goods and services between the large metropolitan city and smaller towns in the hinterland or umland.
  • This exchange takes place through roads and railways. Therefore, the factories, homes and other buildings expand outwards from the crowded city along these transport networks.
  • Ultimately, it looks like a starfish which is spreading its arms outwards to other cities. Hence, the sprawl is the physical manifestation of the process of economic growth.


To sum up, urban planners and geographers use the terms sprawl, conurbation and growth pole in relation to each other.  However, a planner or geographer must know the details of their distinctions for analysis of spatial interaction and relationship.