Global Urban Growth Typified By Suburbs, Not Skyscrapers


An F&ES analysis of 478 cities with populations of more than 1 million people finds that urban growth across the world is predominantly moving outward rather than upward, a trend that is generally considered inefficient and unsustainable.

To many people, the term “urban growth” connotes shiny new high-rise buildings or towering skyscrapers. But in a new analysis of 478 cities with populations of more than 1 million people, researchers at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) found urban growth is seldom typified by such “upward” growth. Instead, the predominant pattern in cities across the world is outwardexpansion: Think suburbs instead of skyscrapers.

These outward patterns of urban growth are generally considered inefficient and unsustainable because of their high energy and maintenance demands and intensive land use. However, the study points to opportunities to promote more sustainable development in many of the world’s growing cities where outward growth is occurring at a slower pace.

“While these trends are probably not sustainable in the long term, it’s not too late to shape the future of what these cities look like,” said Richa Mahtta, a research associate at F&ES and lead author of the paper. “However, we must act soon, before all the urban infrastructure is built and energy consumption becomes locked in. Once cities are fully established, both their spatial patterns and associated human behavior are difficult to change.”

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