The social context of U.S. built landscapes

Emily Talen, Stephen M. Wheeler, Luc Anselin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


In this paper, we present a quantified, GIS-based analysis of the relationship between urban morphological patterns and racial, ethnic, and household characteristics. We want to understand how the built landscapes of American cities differ in sociological terms—for example, are some more prone to racial concentration or prevalence of particular family types? Since many built landscape types are relatively recent and rapidly growing, this analysis can inform current debates about sprawl and inequality. We examined six diverse U.S. metropolitan regions: Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Portland, and Sacramento, joining census block data with built landscape patterns mapped in GIS through aerial imagery analysis. We find that a large portion of our six metropolitan regions consists of patterns that can be characterized as sprawl—patterns that are often manifestations of a desire for separation. This separation has significant equity implications because resources—services, amenities, schools, parks, tax base, etc.—are not evenly distributed. Further, two of our patterns (Rural Sprawl and Upscale Enclave), which are growing rapidly and most often occur on the urban fringe, have the least diverse demographics across all six metro areas. These landscapes are also by far the least dense, leading to a range of negative environmental impacts. Older built landscape types (Urban Grids, Rectangular Block Grids, and Degenerate Grids) are denser and relatively diverse. These have lower rates of occupancy in most urban areas, indicating an opportunity to house additional residents in relatively well-located, well-connected, and diverse central portions of metropolitan regions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)266-280
Number of pages15
JournalLandscape and Urban Planning
StatePublished - Sep 2018


  • Landscape typology
  • Social demographics
  • Sprawl
  • Urban pattern

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Ecology
  • Urban Studies


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