The effects of natural disasters on urban sprawl

Since all stakeholders seek the utmost flexibility when planning a town, it is not surprising that government regulations are perceived as blockage for innovation and development. However, the recent – and ongoing – events in Texas demonstrate once more the value of forward looking government regulations to limit loss of life, economic and environmental exposure.

One of the effects often debated and where regulation is sought is urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is understood as the effect when growth of a metropolitan area (or a city) mainly manifests in the spacial and low density expansion. The effects can be planning wise and financially devastating since the newly developed areas require utilities, government services and transport access. Due to the low residential and commercial density, the costs to fulfill these needs are considerably high while benefits in terms of tax revenue are considerably low.

Houston has received national attention due to the high growth ratio in urban sprawl (see for instance this article from 2014). Datapointed has under this link an impressive map on the urban sprawl in the metropolitan area of Houston, the fourth largest city in the USA.


Hurricane Harvey has raised the topic of urban sprawl now again as it requires immense efforts in evacuation, care and later rebuilding efforts of the neighborhoods. Currently, the urban sprawl reduces the possible actions the authorities can take. For instance reducing water pressure in reservoirs by controlled flooding of areas can only be performed in a limited matter. This can create more long term damage in the utilities infrastructure.

With consequent regulation, urban sprawl can be limited to few areas. This requires that developers work together with the local authorities to define areas where growth should occur and where low and high density areas should be planned. It should not be forgotten that regulations are created for such events and might seem as a government overreach during normal times.


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