China has been through a period of remarkable urban sprawl since the reform and opening-up policy in 1978, with the highest urbanization occurring in the coastal zones. Sustainable urban development requires a better understanding of the spatiotemporal characteristics of urbanization. This study systematically explored urban sprawl in Chinese coastal cities with a visual interpretation method from 1979 to 2013. The results show that urban built-up areas kept increasing at a faster pace during the study period (i.e., increased about 9-fold in 34 years), especially in the first decade of the 21st century. Spatially, urban sprawl intensity generally peaked in the urban fringe. Urban built-up areas expanded mostly at a cost to cultivated land and non-urban built-up land, and became more irregular and less compact through the study period. Land-use policies, economic development levels, port developments and locations are all closely related with urban sprawl in these port cities. The results also suggest that improving the utilization efficiency of urban land and coordinating the development of city and port are necessary and important for sustainable development in coastal cities.
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