Steering urban sprawl

Gabriella Elanbeck and Rory Clarke, OECD Observer



© Keith Meyers/The New York Times/REA

New York City has one of the highest average population densities in the world, and few other US cities share its concentrated hustle and bustle. In fact, most of them face an entirely different challenge: urban sprawl.

The average number of inhabitants per km2 of populated urban space is actually very low in the US, as our chart shows. So while New Yorkers must grapple with the difficulties that accompany larger numbers of people in limited urban space, such as congestion and high rents, people in low density cities face long commutes and costly public service provision.

The US is not alone. While average population density in the urban areas of OECD countries is high in Korea and Japan, it is low in countries such as Austria and Canada.  But even in those countries and cities with high average densities, urban sprawl must be confronted.

People’s lives may suffer, as this scattered and decentralised city growth can lead to environmental damage, social exclusion, and pressures on transportation and public services, as well as high public and private costs. What can policymakers do?

Finding sustainable solutions to reduce sprawl demands rethinking urban space and weighing the private benefits of low density living–my house and garden–against social, environmental and infrastructure costs. Compact cities, which balance dense development patterns, strong public transport linkages, accessibility to local services and jobs, affordable houses and healthy open spaces, can provide an answer.

Links and references

OECD (2018), Rethinking Urban Sprawl: Moving Towards Sustainable Cities, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2018), Average population density in urban areas of 29 OECD countries, 2014,

©OECD Insights July 2018