July 18 - 24, 2011

This article examines evidence about the impacts of current urban land use patterns or housing development on two sets of variables: socioeconomic well being and health of the population.

In principle, new home construction matters both in terms of its magnitude and its pattern that how it is distributed over space and where it is located relative to existing construction. The primary interest of this research is to measure land use distribution and population density, because within economics these are important predictors of productivity and well-being.

On one hand, the clustering economies in densely settled areas lead to higher per capita incomes and higher economic growth rates thereby raising productivity and stimulating innovation. On the other hand, densely populated sprawls can produce uncooperative and counterproductive behavior by workers.

Although, the productivity advantages are associated with agglomeration, race for quality of life and security measures in densely settled area has engaged urban population in deep stress.

According to New York Times, the events of September 11, 2001 caused businesses to re-evaluate the benefits and costs of agglomeration, and many firms have left the densely settled areas.

In addition, the density alone does not guarantee for high incomes and productivity. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than along the China-Pakistan border, which also represents the line with the greatest per capita income difference. Karachi, Mumbai and Jakarta are much more densely settled and poorer than many cities of the world. Generally, land use patterns have tended to focus more on the effect of income growth on housing expansion, than the reverse relationship. In fact, few cities experience a faster income growth rate by expansion of building activities, while others do not.

Almost, in big cities higher rates of building activities depress the rate of income growth. Therefore, housing construction is associated with higher incomes and economic activity, the situation in specific regions varies and depends on the local supply linkages and propensities of businesses and households to spend locally, as might be expected.


In populous cities, a worker's effective income, leisure time, and quality of life profligate by transport. Some researchers argued that personal transport provide significant advantages in terms of saving commuters time, pointing out that the median changing time for a worker using public transportation is higher than the workers who used their own car. The average travel time increases with the logarithm of population density. Furthermore, the relationship between hours of delay experienced and population density is not the same everywhere in all big cities of the world. One might expect a greater population density to be associated with greater congestion and more delays. The simple coefficient of correlation between density and delay is strongest. Scientifically, this type of data needs to be examined further to determine the influence of other physical characteristics of metro areas on delays.

It is noteworthy that Karachi and Jakarta have almost both the same population density and average hours of delay per capita. The most important thing to understand about peak-hour traffic congestion is that once it has appeared in a region, it cannot be eliminated or even substantially reduced. There is no effective remedy for traffic congestion because it is essentially a balancing mechanism that enables firms and people to pursue key objectives other than minimizing commuting time.

Households, on the other hand, seek flexibility in choosing where to live and prefer low-density housing, i.e., want to engage in multi-purpose trips, prefer private motor vehicles, and also want to separate their own family dwelling, spatially from other households on the basis of income and social status. Anecdotal evidences suggest that those on fixed incomes are especially threatened by rising home prices and property taxes (almost not being practiced in developing countries), and more so in areas that offer appealing natural amenities such as water availability, a pleasant climate, or interesting landscapes and topography. Interventions that reduce the supply of land (and housing) potentially raise the cost of homeownership for individuals and families. In big cities like the housing affordability has become an increasingly important issue in the last decade.

The sprawl leads to declining social capital and neighborhood ties. As some researches suggest that local ties are highest among residents of semi-rural places, followed by small-town residents, central city dwellers and suburban areas. The common reason given is that modern suburbs provide fewer possibilities for social exchanges and the space provided by low-density housing also makes it unnecessary for homeowners to visit public green spaces.

In principle, social capital enhances economic growth and also leads to lower poverty rates, where its trust factor reduces transaction costs, thereby allowing more economic activity to take place, all else equal. Due to the urban sprawl levels of social engagement have been declining across communities in developing countries, so that sprawl may be a consequence rather than a cause of declining social proximity. Similarly, the house pricing dynamics trapped especially poor households in inner cities, by lacking suitable transport, spatial mismatch in terms of employment opportunities, and quality education.

At the same time, the gentrification occurs when higher income residents move back into cities also cause problems for low-income residents, because of the discrimination in quality of life and education. The poorer regions often have educational systems of lower quality, which tend to produce students with lower educational achievement and aspirations, thereby perpetuating poverty.


The question of city expansion and health of public is inseparable, which is proactively engaged in land use debates, especially in terms of housing impacts. The land uses for residential choices are believed to affect the population's health in a number of ways. Primarily, it increases reliance on automobiles, which lead to air and ground pollution, as well as the increasing road congestions etc. The role of social scientists in general and economists in particular is to measure and value all of the benefits.

Recent reports relating urban sprawl to air pollution and poor health of the population received widespread coverage in major newspapers.

Obesity and diabetes are two other serious health concerns that are on the rise especially in developing countries like Pakistan. Although consistent statistics are not yet available, reports in popular press citing show that these medical problems are the result of a complex set of lifestyle and other factors. It is recognized by several authors that automobile dependency in urban areas is major source of such causes. Econometric estimation issues such as selection bias pose serious challenges for empirical work, and it is important to take advantage of naturally occurring experiments where they arise. For example, residents of sprawling communities may have systematic but unmeasured characteristics that account for their higher (or lower) body mass index (BMI), where they have self-selected themselves.

Moreover, some literatures show that contact with nature benefits not only physical but also mental wellbeing. However, whether land use patterns and gridlock are the primary causes of such behavior and health conflicts, whereas so many complex causes are still unanswered questions.


The subject of land use for urban sprawl is complex. The sprawl has been considered as responsible for many societal ills, causes and effects for most neighborhood proximity. It is important to be explicit about the problem to be addressed if policy tools selected are to be effective. A clearer understanding is also needed of the actual benefits derived from sprawl and suburban lifestyles.

Now recognition is growing that these problems are complex and that they can only be resolved effectively through multidisciplinary approaches. Research is needed to understand whether and how alternative residential and land use patterns impact traffic fatalities as well as environmental measures such as air pollution. Nevertheless, the public policies tend to enhance the attraction as well as the affordability of suburban relative to inner cities and villages.

To my knowledge, no one is presently analyzing these relationships in a systematic and available from the census, centers for disease control, and the environmental protection agencies, which are an excellent starting point for such analysis.

(The writer is PhD research fellow INRA-AgroParisTech, Paris, France.)