Compact or sprawling cities: Has the sparing-sharing framework yielded an ecological verdict?
Purpose of Review: Global urban land area is growing faster than the urban population, raising concerns that sprawling, low-density development will reduce biodiversity and human wellbeing. The sparing-sharing framework, adapted from agroecology, provides one approach to assessing alternative urban growth patterns. It compares ecological outcomes in landscapes matched for total population and land area, but differing in configuration: land sparing (partitioned between densely urbanized and undeveloped areas) or land sharing (low-density development throughout). We reviewed the urban sparing-sharing literature since 2010 and recovered 15 studies conducted in 22 cities on four continents.
Recent Findings: Collectively, studies assessed effects of alternative development patterns on 296 species, 21 community metrics (such as species richness), and 26 indicators of ecosystem services or processes (such as carbon sequestration). Sparing was the best option for 51% of individual species; 43% of community metrics; and 27% of ecosystem service indicators.
Summary: Existing ecological research does not clearly favor one pattern or the other, and new approaches are needed to facilitate decision making and ecological insight. Specifically, future work could (1) explicitly evaluate optimized urban development patterns across multiple competing priorities (such as providing housing, delivering ecosystem services, and protecting priority species), (2) tackle issues of spatial scale and connectivity that are often ambiguous in sparing-sharing research, and (3) improve geographical representation. These advances can be made while preserving the key insight of the framework–that choices between alternative landscape configurations are only meaningful when those landscapes are matched for total area and the level of human needs met.