Urban sprawl is nowadays a pervasive topic that is subject of a contentious debate among planners and researchers, who still fail to reach consensual solutions. This paper reviews controversies of the sprawl debate and argues that they owe to a failure of the employed methods to appraise its complexity, especially the notion that urban form emerges from multiple overlapping interactions between households, firms and governmental bodies. To address such issues, this review focuses on recent approaches to study urban spatial dynamics from the perspective of the complexity sciences. Firstly, spatial metrics from landscape ecology provide means of quantifying urban sprawl in terms of increasing fragmentation and diversity of land use patches. Secondly, cellular automata and agent-based models suggest that the prevalence of urban sprawl and fragmentation at the urban fringe emerge from negative spatial interaction between residential agents, which seem accentuated as the agent’s preferences become more heterogeneous. Then, the review turns to practical applications that employ such models to spatially inform urban planning and assess future scenarios. A concluding discussion summarizes potential contributions to the debate on urban sprawl as well as some epistemological implications.
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