Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sprawl Is Dead! Long Live Sprawl!

What does sprawl mean anymore to anyone? In one day President Obama discusses how important it is to build an interchange and how sprawl is dead. Are those two reconcilable? Only if we define what sprawl is and how it's created. Some on the other side consider streetcar suburbs from the end of the 19th century and early 20th century to be sprawl. They would consider the the Roman Empire to be sprawl.

But we seem to forget that those neighborhoods were made for walking, and recent studies have suggested that the interconnected road networks built by streetcars and before are safer than those built just for cars. This isn't just an issue of the environment, its an issue of public health and safety. But does that lead to a simple definition of the detrimental effects of sprawl?

So what is sprawl? Is it like Larry Flint's magazines? Do you know it when you see it? To my own understanding, sprawl is development that acts as a leach, taking tax base away from central cities and spending it sooner than it can be raised. It doesn't necessarily mean low density alone because that is a part of the market, just not 80% of it. The Fresno Bee also had a story about a study done on farmland preservation in California's central valley. We're losing land fast to endless unsustainable development. But how do we get to sustainable? What is the goal there? 0% net energy usage? Then there is this dependence on oil thing.

Sinn-Frei via Steven B.

But is it sprawl if your house is close to your job, even if you live out the suburbs? I've tried to think of what it is and what it isn't, but I can't seem to pin it down. So if we can't define it, how do we kill it?


John said...

I've always considered sprawl to be auto-dependent places, places where biking, walking, and transit aren't practical or feasible. Perhaps even that isn't a clear definition though. To be more clear, I might say a place without sidewalks, with disconnected street networks (maybe we need a threshold of intersections per square mile), and no transit service except perhaps a couple of express bus trips in the peak hours.

Anonymous said...

"Sprawl" is a function of national wealth and "Lebensraum". America has plenty of both. The key to "fighting" it is to somehow stop it from leeching so much from traditional cities. By making it fully pay its own way, for example.

fpteditors said...

When economics are applied honestly and not used to cover up the true cost of the auto, then a definition will be possible. Sprawl is low-density resulting from corruption and dis-economic behavior.

Unknown said...

Sprawl is development that is by the car, of the car, and for the car. It is characterized by more space being devoted to car storage and infrastructure than space that is used by people. It is also characterized by the lack of a human scale street grid. The street grid is where it all starts. Without one, it's probably sprawl.

Morgan Wick said...

I don't think any of these definitions capture what most people think of when they hear sprawl - space-wasting. They come across as trying to redefine a term to our own advantage. Any definition, to be credible outside our own subculture (ie to Congress), needs to touch on density somehow, not just the car and oil.

I'm not even sold on fpteditors' definition; if you have two cases of the same low density, is one sprawl and the other isn't solely because of how they came to be?

It's tempting for me to say sprawl is auto-enabled low density, but I think the fact that the car was a requirement for that low density is more happenstance than anything else. Maybe it's low density at absurdly large areas? Basically, it involves the fact that the metro area is so large that it would lose its cohesiveness if it weren't for technology from the 19th century or later (trains or cars).

Anonymous said...

Let me posit an thought (just a thought, mind you - nothing I'm married to) as to what sprawl isn't in an attempt to help refine the definition. I grew up on a dirt road, in a farm house that was built before automobility was the norm. We still had to drive to get our groceries, but the distance was a part of a system that developed independent of the automobile. The function of the land that kept our house from being closer to the nearest town was agriculture. Perhaps the functionality of the land separating housing from density is a part of the definition - though, if our definition were to be adopted in some sort of legislation, it's easy to see some dummy functionality being assigned to land separating housing from cities, in an attempt to avoid classification as 'sprawl'. I don't see old farmhouses as falling within the definition of sprawl, typically, but I do tend to see suburban strip malls that way. Perhaps the definition has more to do with commercial than residential property; when businesses enable a car-centric, suburban McMansion lifestyle, you create sprawl. When businesses remeain centered in denser areas, the suburban McMansion becomes a lot less appealing, but people on dirt roads will be willing to go to the denser areas to do their shopping.

Pedestrianist said...

A general definition may be underuse of space. I'd also say that, in general, sprawl is the idea that new land uses have to be next to old land uses, rather than over or under them.

Sprawl's connection with the automobile is, like Morgan Wick said, partially by chance. But a truism of sprawl is that when you always build out, you create large distances between places that need transportation solutions.

Sprawl is necessarily low-density, IMHO, but that doesn't mean it's homogeneously low-density. A new New Urbanist development outside of Bakersfield might be a good, high-density project. But because it's expanding the paved footprint, it's very likely lowering the overall population density of California.

I think the converse of sprawl is infill, more than it is density.

PeterB said...

When or if we ever develop the capacity to run our cars on renewable electricity, sprawl could be a lot worse. We won't have the excuse of greenhouse gas emissions any more or oil dependency...something to ponder.

Anonymous said...

> something to ponder

I always argue against sprawl without resorting to arguments about energy. There are certainly plenty of other arguments to make.

Plus, I think "green motoring" is a folly. I think it is likely to be enjoyed by a small, upper class; but in no way is it going to replace the essentially free oil the world has been accustomed to for the last 100 years.

Anonymous said...

but the next day obama discussed the stimulus from the shoulder of an under construction highway in suburban virginia
i think some key aspects to sprawl is auto-centricity, segregated land uses and lack of civic or shared space. but theres more.

i'd say its important to ask: would most definitions of sprawl include or exclude places like tysons corner and your typical edge city? could most definitions of sprawl also end up covering your post-war downtown core that turned into little more than a 9 to 5 office park?