Through the integrated approach of remote sensing and geographic information system (GIS) techniques, four Landsat TM/ETM+ imagery acquired during 1979 and 2008 were used to quantitatively characterize the patterns of land use and land cover change (LULC) and urban sprawl in the fast-growing Shanghai Metropolis, China. Results showed that, the urban/built-up area grew on average by 4,242.06 ha yr−1
. Bare land grew by 1,594.66 ha yr−1
on average. In contrast, cropland decreased by 3,286.26 ha yr−1
on average, followed by forest and shrub, water, and tidal land, which decreased by 1,331.33 ha yr−1
, 903.43 ha yr−1
, and 315.72 ha yr−1
on average, respectively. As a result, during 1979 and 2008 approximately 83.83% of the newly urban/built-up land was converted from cropland (67.35%), forest and shrub (9.12%), water (4.80%), and tidal land (2.19%). Another significant change was the continuous increase in regular residents, which played a very important role in contributing to local population growth and increase in urban/built-up land. This can be explained with this city’s huge demand for investment and qualified labor since the latest industrial transformation. Moreover, with a decrease in cropland, the proportion of population engaged in farming decreased 13.84%. Therefore, significant socio-economic transformation occurred, and this would lead to new demand for land resources. However, due to very scarce land resources and overload of population in Shanghai, the drive to achieve economic goals at the loss of cropland, water, and the other lands is not sustainable. Future urban planning policy aiming at ensuring a win-win balance between sustainable land use and economic growth is urgently needed.