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What is Urban Sprawl? Is it Bad for the Okanagan?

Discover the positives and negatives of urban sprawl and how we are mitigating the effects


You may have heard the term “urban sprawl” referred to on a news segment with a not so subtle note of disdain. Apparently urban sprawl is the worst thing to hit the West Coast of Canada since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but what exactly is urban sprawl and is it necessarily a bad thing?

What is Urban Sprawl?

Urban sprawl is a term to describe the expansion of low-density, inadequately planned developments which place houses, stores and industrial spaces over large swaths of land. This puts long distances between businesses and residences, segregating the various aspects of a whole community into different areas.  

The Potential Benefits of Urban Sprawl

Although the general consensus on urban sprawl is portrayed as negative in the media, there are a few benefits that are often overlooked. The “suburbs” have become overwhelmingly popular with the middle class, so there must be more to this issue than meets the eye.

When you purchase land outside of a major urban area, the land tends to be cheaper, which in turn makes the housing much more affordable for the families that decide to live in that area. Not only are the houses more affordable, they tend to come with more living space and larger yards. For the large families that are frustrated sharing a tiny bathroom in their condo or apartment, the homes that come with urban sprawl are comparably extremely spacious and appealing.

There are also some who argue that urban sprawl helps boost the economy with increased construction efforts and the general services that are required for a satellite community. In this situation it is fair to say that while the economy is benefiting, so are the residents with a greater number of available jobs and potentially higher access to professionals such as dentists and doctors.

A street view of the homes in the suburbs in Kelowna

School Systems and Crime Rates of Urban Sprawl Areas

On average, the quality of schooling tends to be higher in the suburbs when compared to the schooling of large urban centers. Why is this the case? It is likely caused by several factors which include funding, crime rates and quality of life.

If a teacher has a higher quality of life in a large home in the suburbs, she will be a superior educator in the classroom. If a school is located in an area which has less crime, the overall character of the children and the teachers will be more geared towards education, supplemented by stable lifestyles. In addition to lower crime rates and a higher quality of life, the schools in the suburbs are usually “state of the art”, while teachers in urban centers combat old infrastructure issues and low levels of funding.

What are the Negative Effects of Urban Sprawl?

Now let’s take a look at the potential downside of urban sprawl and the effect that it may have on our environment and lifestyles.

Loss of Habitat

One of the most obvious issues with urban sprawl is the loss of wildlife habitat. As we push the boundaries of our cities further from the centre, the amount of grasslands, fields and woodlands diminishes. There are now approximately 16,000 species that are endangered, all of which could become extinct in the years to come if we don’t change the way we impact the world around us. By building with a flat, low density mindset, the amount of natural habit for plants and animals decreases every single day.

Increased Water Consumption and Pollution

When developments become more spread out and yards become larger, the amount of water used drastically increases. In the United States about 30% of all water used is for outdoor landscaping. A high density urban community typically uses less water than a low-density suburban development. 

While the amount of water being consumed increases, so does the air pollution in areas of urban sprawl. The life in the suburbs often comes with frequent, long commutes into a major city area. The average amount of time Canadians spend commuting has been steadily increasing every year with the average now just over 26 minutes. More time in vehicles means more air pollution and a greater risk for respiratory health issues and smog.

A picture of a busy highway as residents of BC commute to their jobs

Increased Disparity

When the middle class leaves the major urban areas, their tax dollars also leave with them. While the amenities and infrastructure increase in quality in the suburbs, the lower income population is left behind in the large cities that struggle with funding for transportation, education, crime etc. Economic disparity is not the only issue; racial disparity increases as a result of urban sprawl too.


It’s true! A study conducted by the Ontario College of Family Physicians discovered that families living in the suburbs tend to be more obese than those who inhabit major city centers. Why is this the case? Families outside of large cities rely more on their vehicles to travel opposed to walking or biking. This increases the risk of diabetes, high-blood pressure and heart disease for those living in urban sprawl areas.


What is Architecturally Distinct Solutions Doing to Combat Sprawl?

With a steadily increasing population, it is clear that people will continue to move out of major city centres – there simply is not enough room to fit everyone. We cannot halt urban sprawl all together but we can mitigate some of the negative effects.

With superior designs, we can utilize our available living space in a more efficient manner. The City of Kelowna provided a challenge dubbed the “Infill Challenge”, where architects were challenged to create home designs that helped increase density and sustainability in the new RU7 zone.

Our design was one of two that was selected by the City of Kelowna and will now be utilized to help Kelowna grow in an efficient and beautiful manner!

Want to learn more about our award winning design?  CLICK HERE!


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