• Researchers warn about the boom of the American model of urban sprawl in Spanish cities

    January 20, 2016

    A new study led by the University of Oviedo shows the urban sprawl in Spain, warns about the risks it involves and suggests the political leaders to take new measures on land restrictions.

    Detached house in the residential area Soto de Llanera, in Asturias.

    The American model of urban growth, based on residential areas away from the city center, is growing rapidly in Spain. A study led by the University of Oviedo, which has just been published in European Planning Studies, warns about the growing sprawl in Spanish cities and suggests political leaders to take measures on land restrictions.

    Fernando Rubiera, professor of the Department of Applied Economics and one of the authors of this work, explains that urban sprawl, very common in the United States, Latin America and some Asian countries, was almost inexistent in Europe until a few decades ago. However, the cities of the old continent have started to imitate this pattern of urban growth based on distant residential areas, away from the city center. The study, the most complete one as to this date in Spain, is focused on our country due to the boom of the construction sector in the past decade, which ended up in the bursting of the housing bubble.

    Cities specialized in services and with dynamic and active centers tend to be more compact than the ones that are very industrialized or multi-centered.

    Researchers have used orthophotos, images taken via satellite, in order to analyze how Spanish cities have grown in the last few years. Images have shown that Spain has been divided into very compact cities and cities that reach high levels of sprawl, similar to those in USA or Latin America. Among those with a highest urban sprawl we may find Lleida; and one of the least sprawled ones is Madrid, although with nuances. This urban sprawl pattern affects mostly multi-centered metropolitan areas like those of Murcia-Cartagena; Cáceres-Badajoz, La Coruña-Vigo-Santiago and in Asturias, Oviedo-Gijón-Avilés.

    The study not only outlines the urban sprawl, but it also studies its causes in greater depth. Thus, the results prove that the economic structure is more important that the geographical or climatic factors when it comes to explaining the sprawl in Spanish cities. Those cities specialized in providing services tend to be more compact than the more industrialized ones. Likewise, the cities with a very dynamic city center, with a strong commercial activity, are the ones that show a more compact growth.

    The multi-centered metropolitan areas, in which Asturias is set as a model, have a special tendency towards urban sprawl. Fernando Rubiera explains that, although the study is not focused on the Principality, the main area of the autonomous community, with a high level of industrial development and a multi-centered structure, "is dangerously tending towards urban sprawl". This professor adds that Asturias and Galicia share problems concerning urban sprawl, although of a different nature. The Principality tends to concentrated centers in rural areas and to sprawled growth in urban areas. In Galicia it is just the opposite.

    The growing urban sprawl process, which is strongly linked worldwide with the use of cars, is now starting to bring up problems related to economic and environmental sustainability with important consequences for the future evolution of cities. Fernando Rubiera states that the creation of residential areas with detached houses requires, for instance, public services like transport, education or healthcare. Small areas adjacent to big municipalities have promoted this way of life facilitating urban standards in order to increase their population. The study suggests, in its conclusions, to take new measures concerning restrictions in the use of land, especially in coastal areas, or those of a special environmental interest.


    • Urban sprawl in Spain: differences among cities and causes. European Planning Studies.
    • Fernando Rubiera, Víctor M. González y José L. Pérez Rivero