Urban Sprawl

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Encyclopedia Entry

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Encyclopedia of Social Problems


In the early 21st century, urban sprawl continues to be a source of considerable controversy and political debate, yet many Americans quietly accept sprawl. They express their acceptance by moving farther away from central cities into housing and business developments on land that was formerly rural and undeveloped. While a significant number of suburban communities have existed in the United States since the late 19th century, the greatest growth in suburbs occurred after World War II.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the suburban population represented less than 12 percent of the total U.S. population. By 1950, that figure doubled, and it doubled again by 2000, so that 52 percent lived in suburban communities. While the U.S. Census does not officially define suburban area, the term generally refers to the territory within metropolitan areas that is outside of the central city. The term sprawl refers to a pattern of metropolitan growth characterized by low-density, primarily single‐family residential development, low‐density commercial and employment establishments, and the resulting heavy dependence on the automobile for travel. These developments occur on the periphery of the metropolitan area. In the early 20th century, many affluent and middle‐class families moved out to the suburbs deliberately to escape the large and dense city populations.

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Original citation: Encyclopedia of Social Problems, Vincent Parillo, ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing (2008).


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