Vertical Sprawl – it’s a term used by some planners, and more often by opponents of higher density models of development, and some like to pretend that there’s no such thing, but I’d like to suggest that Tin Shui Wai new town in Hong Kong is the ultimate in vertical sprawl definition.

I don’t think that density is a bad thing, but simply because high density can be done very badly, just like anything else. The definition of sprawl, or horizontal sprawl if you like is reasonably well understood, namely:

Sprawl Definition

  1. Land hungry – sprawl is usually the result of building on previously undeveloped land.
  2. Low density development – large gaps between buildings, which are typically of a low height, often just 1-2 storeys.
  3. Single use – the zoning patterns of sprawl favour
  4. Heavy car dependence – because the land use patterns dictate that different functions must be in separate locations, and that these functions must inherently be far away from each other, lifestyles are almost entirely dependent on extensive private car usage.
  5. Poor architectural quality – even if this might be a matter of taste, sprawling developments tend to feature little variety, with houses often describes as being “cookie cutter” or “rubbed stamp” copies, or slight variations on the same model.

Vertical Sprawl Definition

It naturally follows that vertical sprawl, if we want to accept that such a concept exists, must fit the following description.

It naturally follows that vertical sprawl, if we want to accept that such a concept exists, must fit the following description.

  1. Built on a green field site
  2. High density
  3. Single use
  4. Transit dependence
  5. Poor architectural quality

Vertical Sprawl In detail:

  1. Built on a green field site – irrespective of density.
  2. High density development – typically tower blocks rather than individual homes.
  3. Single use – even though individual buildings may be close to each other, different usage types might still be some distance from residential areas, or even if they are close by, they are difficult to access due to the need to cross highways.
  4. Heavy bus, tram or taxi dependence – a “vertical sprawl” development might be situated on a direct metro link, but they are at or near the end of the line, and the only way to get around the development area is using buses or taxis. Private car usage is typically very low, leading to reliance on buses or trams which might only run along certain set corridors, and which only operate on a limited basis outside peak hours. Walking and cycling rates are low due to poor provision for them.
  5. Poor architectural quality – just because buildings are tall, this doesn’t mean that they are high quality, and with vertical sprawl, the same “cookie cutter” template might be used. In fact, because tower units need to be constructed on similar foundations, using similar spatial layouts, there may be even less variety on the number of different models made available to the cutter of the cookies – if any at all!

Tin Shui Wai – the ultimate in vertical sprawl



Don’t be fooled by the idea that the only way to build a vibrant and attractive city is to encourage as many people as possible to live there by building high and building everything close together. The urban theory behind this says that if a city is built to a higher density, then this helps to conserve the scarce resource of land and it also helps to support local businesses and public services. The other idea behind high-density development is that if more people are closer together, then this makes it easier to build and promote public transport networks and it also makes it easier for people to walk and cycle, and therefore to be less dependent on their cars.

Tin Shui Wai in Hong Kong is the ultimate challenge to that idea, and this is essentially because it takes the idea of urban density to a ridiculous extreme, but ultimately because this vast city of 300,000 people was thrown up in just 5 years, and it’s was and it was built as cheaply as possible to cater for an expected surge in demand for light industry, as it is situated just below the border with Shenzen in neighbouring Guangdong province, China mainland in the Chinese mainland. Not only did these promised jobs never materialise, because this kind of facility these jobs instead shifted to the other side of the border, but the town that was created has ultimately become an example of vertical sprawl – instead of spreading out over hundreds of square miles and being completely car dependent, Tinsley why has been built right at the back end of the MTR system, and it’s been built in a way that residents have to take a tram just to get to this backwater Metro station. Thus, this is a true example of transit dependency, because even though many of the apartments here do provide car parking facilities, the taxes on first year car registration are so high that very few people drive. Tinsley why does have a token cycle network, but it’s a very difficult place to actually negotiate on foot or by bike, especially because it still has a massively over-engineered internal road network, meaning that the tram is needed even just to go to the school or to the shops.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *