Chicago-Area Sprawl Revisited: The Role of Demographics, Prosperity and Homeownership with a Note on Sustainability

Population growth in the Chicago area was rather modest from 1970 to 1990 but the increase in the amount of land used for urban purposes was considerable, approximately four percent versus thirty-five percent respectively.  This and a variety of other concerns contributed to public discourse on urban sprawl, future growth patterns, and the livability of the region. In subsequent decades, both economic and demographic conditions have changed.  Thus, it is time to revisit the circumstances that contribute to sprawl by tracking the recent rates of sprawl and its implication for transportation demand.

Our previous work (Sen et al., 1998 and Sööt et al., 2001) focused on two vital points. First, there have been a series of sociodemographic and economic trends that have contributed to large increases in land consumption that now have diminishing effects. Today, population growth and land consumption increases are largely equivalent.  For approximately a century, declining household sizes created a disproportionate number of households in contrast to overall population growth driving the demand for housing units. Now household sizes have effectively stopped declining, thereby slowing the demand for housing.  Growing home ownership rates have also been closely related to urban sprawl, but even before the economic downturn, home ownership rates began to stabilize and decline.

Second, there is a relationship between urban sprawl and prosperity.  During periods of economic expansion, rising incomes contribute to urban sprawl.  We experienced that in the 1990 and the early 2000s. Since the middle of the first decade in this millennium, the economy has weakened. We conjecture that declining home ownership rates, brought upon by the recession, have had a substantial effect regarding urban sprawl rates, slowing the outward movement of the population.


Principal Investigator(s):

Dr. Siim Sööt


Dr. Siim Sööt
Brendan Dodge-Hayakawa




The purpose of this report is to present information and stimulate discussion by focusing on the period since 2000 to assess where growth is occurring in the Chicago area, as well as the scale of the changing dynamics in urban growth. Specifically, we will re-examine our proposition that while sprawl is facilitated by the transportation system, the level of prosperity is a major factor in the degree and pace of sprawl.



We are now in a period (post 2005), that contrasts with the later part of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st Century. This calls for another examination of the factors relating to urban sprawl in the Chicago area.


Expected Results or Products:

At the same time we will note how the data we are examining suggests that the Chicago area is becoming more sustainable with high densities and growth in core areas.  This is done through an examination of aggregate data and does not include a study of specific growth patterns within communities.

The report focuses on the traditional six-county Chicago region, but in several cases we consider Kendal and or Grundy Counties as appropriate.  The Chicago area is also frequently compared with other urban areas.  The vast majority of the data were derived from the latest available U.S. Census Bureau tabulations. It will not attempt to cover the vast literature on the subject as that is beyond the scope of this study.


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P.S. Sriraj
Urban Transportation Center
University of Illinois at Chicago
412 South Peoria Street, Suite 340
Chicago, IL 60607
Voice: (312) 413-7568
Fax: (312) 413-0006


Metropolitan Transportation Support Initiative (METSI)