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Urban Sprawl in Portland: Advantages, Disadvantages, Net Effect


Urban sprawl refers to the loss of a land’s rural characteristics due to the geographic expansion of cities and towns or spatial footprint. Urban sprawling is caused by the need to accommodate an increasing urban population and fulfill residents’ desire for increased living space and residential amenities. The European Environment Agency (EEA) defines urban sprawl as ” the physical pattern of low-density expansion of large urban areas, under market conditions, mainly into the surrounding agricultural areas” (Fertner et al., 2016, p. 2).

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It is characterized by decentralized planning or minimal planning control of the land division and patchy development strung out and scattered across the region. The newly-developed urban areas tend to be fragmented/discontinuous, have low-density residential settlements and private transportations.

Portland’s landscape has changed drastically in the last fifty years. Cornfield lands have been replaced with ranch houses, wetlands have been drained to allow highway construction, and forests that previously provided shades during the summer have given way to parking lots that radiate heat. Fertner et al. (2016, p. 9) indicate that about 75% of new housing uprose in designated urban villages in the past two decades. The existing structure of the metropolitan area has changed due to new infrastructure and urban developments. Fertner et al. (2016, p. 7) analyzed the characteristics of urban areas established in Portland between 2006 and 2011 and concluded that the land was characterized by fragmentation. Portland is the fastest growing city in Oregon, with a population, with a growth percentage of 1.2 percent between 2006 and 2011 (Fertner et al., 2016, p. 2).

It had over 580 new urban patches with an average individual size of 2.1 hectares and a total size of 1235 hectares (Fertner et al., 2016, p. 2). These new patches were established adjacent to the existing urban areas and were created by extending a current metropolitan area or transforming formerly low-density regions. Most of the urbanized land was agricultural and natural (forests, wetlands, and semi-natural areas).

The Specific Advantages of Urban Sprawl in These Areas

Economic Growth

The urban sprawl in Portland has contributed to the metropolitan area’s economic growth. According to Fertner et al. (2016, p. 6), the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Portland grew by 5 percent between 2006 and 2012 (the period in which Portland experienced a spike in the growth of urban areas). Anecdotal evidence indicates that the GDP increase was caused by the population growth experienced during the same timeframe. The construction of commercial, industrial, and residential settlements creates employment opportunities for locals, and the local government can also benefit from sales and property taxes generated from the new development.

The Specific Disadvantages of Urban Sprawl in These Areas

The Socioeconomic Implications

Literature on urban sprawl has enabled a deeper understanding of the social implications of the dispersion of cities. Sociologists argue that urban sprawl causes differences in social classes, inculturation issues, and ethnic conflicts. Social groups mostly coincide with ethnic/racial or religious groups, creating social disputes. Due to poverty, some ethnic communities might cluster in urban ghettos that typically are characterized by crime.

For example, Portland’s socioeconomic disparities and social inequities are both racialized and spatial. A recent study conducted by Goodling et al. (2015) indicated that Portland’s “uneven development” is the reason why the urban core of the metropolitan area is predominantly White and affluent, while the outside areas (the eastside) are impoverished and mainly occupied by people of color. The authors attributed these outcomes to be the negative externalities caused by the uneven historical development of the region.

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During the height of urban sprawl in the 1960s, the federal government supported Whites by providing them loans to buy newly constructed houses. While White Portlanders migrated outward the region, African Americans were segregated in the inner areas of Portland. These regions were devalued due to the government switching capital from industrial enterprises to real estate (Goodling et al., 2015). For example, between 2000 and 2010, the income level of regions in the eastside dropped by 15% (Goodling et al., 2015, p. 506). On the other hand, the Whites benefitted from infrastructure improvements and federal investments. This analysis shows that the urban sprawl in Portland caused socioeconomic inequities.

Transportation Costs

Urban sprawl also negatively affects mobility and energy efficiency, increasing transportation costs. Regions characterized by urban sprawling have a greater reliance on private transportation, which weakens public transportation systems (Rubiera-Morollón & Garrido-Yserte, 2020). About 57.7% of Portland’s residents use private means to commute, 8.9% carpool with others, and 12.3% use mass transit (“Commuting in Portland, Oregon,” n.d. para. 3).

Rubiera-Morollón & Garrido-Yserte’s (2020) study implies that an urban-sprawl-areas have a greater dependence on private vehicles. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that, in part, Portland’s urban sprawl has contributed to the region’s increased personal transportation means. This reliance on private transportation creates congestion, traffic jams and increases atmospheric carbon emissions.

Environmental Costs

Portland’s environment has had a significant impact on the region’s environment and environmental quality. Fertner et al. (2016, p. 6) indicate that approximately 150ha of nature and agricultural land in Portland was transformed for urban uses during the 2006 and 2011 urban sprawl. Natural land such as forests was cleared to make way for infrastructure and residential and commercial buildings, destroying wildlife habitat. The destruction of the natural areas also degrades free ecosystem services such as flood control and water purification. Although Portland still has several green spaces, these areas are too small to support wildlife and native species.

The Overall Net Effect of the Urban Sprawl

Energy Consumption

Urban sprawl is associated with an increase in energy consumption. Evidence from various studies has shown consistent results that urban sprawl causes high energy consumption (Rubiera-Morollón & Garrido-Yserte, 2020). Typically, many residential homes are scattered in regions characterized by urban sprawling, yielding energy inefficiencies. Energy providers need to travel long distances to provide the dispersed homes with energy, increasing transportation costs. Infrastural costs result from lengthy distribution systems, pipelines, power lines for more kilometers to reach every home. These works increase energy costs due to increased infrastructural and transportation expenses.

Economic Costs

The effect of population increase without a significant surge in density negatively impacts a country’s fiscal situation. Study outcomes retrieved from various econometric analyses have shown that an increase in urban dispersion increases the local public debt and a more significant financial burden in the long term (Rubiera-Morollón & Garrido-Yserte, 2020). Simply put, regions characterized by high population and population density have better pecuniary outcomes than dispersed cities.

Increase Transportation Costs

Researchers indicate that urban dispersion (patches of urban areas) characterized by low population density increases commuting distance, impeding efficient mass transportation (Rubiera-Morollón & Garrido-Yserte, 2020). Because people are spatially dispersed across the region, the number of stops increases, increasing the transportation costs. A vicious circle exists between private means and urban dispersion. First, the use of personal vehicles encourages or accelerates dispersion, but at the same time, people need them to commute between urban patches.

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Environmental Effects

Urban sprawl causes air population primarily from carbon emissions generated from the increased use of private vehicles. Currently, carbon emissions contribute significantly to the current global warming issues. Urban sprawl also causes significant consumption of natural resources for urban activities. This consumption destroys wildlife and their habitat and strains the ecosystem’s ability to sustain itself. Whenever urban sprawl extends to a region with extensive forests, it creates forest fragmentation and disrupts wildlife’s migration corridors. It also causes water and soil pollution. Automobile transportation systems are non-point sources of water pollution, while soil properties are permanently affected. For example, human activities cause loss of soil compaction, water permeability, soil biodiversity, and the soil capacity to act as a net sink for carbon and greenhouse gases.


Urban sprawl extends beyond the expansion and dispersion of buildings and encompasses planning, economics, sociology, policy science, and environmental analysis. Urban sprawl in Portland is characterized by low-density urban areas sprung out across the region and disparities in localities. It had over 508 new urban areas between 2006 and 2011 and is still one of the fastest-growing regions in Oregon. Despite the boost in economic growth in the region during the urban sprawl, Portland has also experienced adverse effects. The urban sprawl in Portland has created social conflicts characterized by social inequities and socioeconomic disparities, inefficient energy consumption, and increased transportation costs. The city is currently working with urban growth management to control the sprawl.


Commuting in Portland, Oregon. (n.d.). Sperling’s Best Place. Web.

Fertner, C., Jørgensen, G., Nielsen, T. A. S., & Nilsson, K. S. B. (2016). Urban sprawl and growth management: Drivers, impacts, and responses in selected European and US cities. Future Cities and Environment, 2, 1–13. Web.

Goodling, E., Green, J., & McClintock, N. (2015). Uneven development of the sustainable city: Shifting capital in Portland, Oregon. Urban Geography, 36(4), 504–527. Web.

Rubiera-Morollón, F., & Garrido-Yserte, R. (2020). Recent literature about urban sprawl: A renewed relevance of the phenomenon from the perspective of environmental sustainability. Sustainability, 12(16), 1–14. Web.

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