Here's a fun 2006 QJE paper that recently ran into. I especially like that they authors made a free down-loadable poster to go along with the paper!
CAUSES OF SPRAWL: A PORTRAIT FROM SPACE
MARCY BURCHFIELD, HENRY G. OVERMAN, DIEGO PUGA, MATTHEW A. TURNER
Abstract: We study the extent to which U. S. urban development is sprawling and what determines differences in sprawl across space. Using remote-sensing data to track the evolution of land use on a grid of 8.7 billion 30 30 meter cells, we measure sprawl as the amount of undeveloped land surrounding an average urban dwelling. The extent of sprawl remained roughly unchanged between 1976 and 1992, although it varied dramatically across metropolitan areas. Ground water availability, temperate climate, rugged terrain, decentralized employment, early public transport infrastructure, uncertainty about metropolitan growth, and unincorporated land in the urban fringe all increase sprawl.