In the past 40 years, the topic of urban sprawl has risen on the agenda of most developed countries. The increase in sprawl typically goes hand in hand with increasing income and a substantial reduction of transportation costs. In Switzerland, the reduction in urban sprawl has become a topic of political importance, as shown by two initiatives on immigration and second homes.
Our research in this area is primarily concerned with the effect of institutions and planning activity on the degree of urban sprawl. The role of local taxes, zoning plans, and transportation infrastructure is of particular interest to us. These instruments can in part be chosen independently by local governing bodies and can fuel or dampen urban sprawl. As urban sprawl is typically affected by a mix of overlapping instruments, we pay particular attention to the interplay between different institutions and instruments.
In a comparative research study on urban sprawl in Europe, we look at the connection between institutional factors and the degree of urban sprawl. Urban sprawl describes here the increasing shift of economic activity away from city centers into less densely populated surrounding areas. Figure 1 illustrates the average degree of urban sprawl in Europe.
Our results for the period of 1990 – 2912 show that there is significant variation between the countries, but that this variation is relatively stable in the observed time period. Urban sprawl is relatively pronounced in Central and Eastern Europe and comparably low in Northern Europe. In addition, we observe a negative correlation between the degree of urban sprawl and the growth rates of real housing prices. This suggests a trade-off between sprawl and low housing prices. In terms of the relevance of regional decentralization, it becomes evident that countries with a high degree of autonomy of local governing bodies have on average 25 to 30 percent more sprawl than more centrally organized countries.