Sprawl is the viral strain of metropolitan expansion. Lacking traditional centers, it clones itself across the landscape. This very American pattern of settlement is the familiar, seemingly autonomous, footloose, and one-size-fits-all pattern of horizontal growth of cities from the mid-20th century into our own time.
It is easiest to distinguish sprawl from what it is not. It is not the city. Nor is it the suburban middle landscape of planned and well-designed dispersed growth. Sprawl is not the equivalent of low-density development per se, although density is a one defining, if relative, condition. The planned middle landscape that occurs in connection with historic cities or town centers as metropolitan areas have grow along multi-and intermodal transit corridors is not sprawl. Planned and designed places such as these are sub-urban in the truest senses of the term. Though it may not prove to be sustainable in the future, this version of suburbanization provides the physical infrastructure systems of transportation choice. In this, it differs from sprawl in that it promises access.
Sprawl, on the other hand, is the landscape of limited access. Cars rule. The first high tech cellular devices, cars have collapsed time and space. Or rather they have promised this efficiency of movement before their proliferation, before traffic. A technological agent of individual choice, the car embodies mythic mobility and privileged access to goods, services and employment since the middle of the last century.
Cars have move on a landscape dominated by roadways designed for them. A central strand of the genetic code of sprawl is the collapsed hierarchy of the functional classification of streets which is its armature. It is a formative strand, hiding in plain sight. There are basically only two types of roadways in sprawl, highways and local residential streets, these usually truncated by cul-de-sacs.
To begin to understand the effects of the collapsed hierarchy, think of the typical car trip home from work. One moves as quickly as possible from workstation to the onramp of a limited access highway. Then one lurches in peak traffic, sometimes made more dense by trucks, to an exit. If there was little congestion on the highway, the exit will likely prove different. In this space of pause, the landscape of peak demand drapes itself across the field of view. Adrift in seas of parking lots are low- and mid-rise buildings, some having only one real side. These structures mall-up to market typical consumer goods shipped here in trucks via the global logistics network. Other commercial services also avail themselves to those who can afford them. Sometimes health services and other job nodes are also present at the exit, but more rarely. The frontage roads lining the parking lots often connect to highway strip malls with still more commercial offerings. Immediately behind these monotonously repetitive scenes, lie labyrinthine subdivisions. Broad masses of sessile cellular architectural forms occupy lawn and shrub panels, all composed around short wide streets and cul-de-sacs. A garage gapes opens with a touchpad and welcomes one home. Walking from the car to the door might be the only exercise on this leg of the trip.
Familiar, even predictable, in its superficial physical effects, the underlying effects of sprawl have cumulatively enlarged and now precipitously intensified a greater realm of cultural and ecological uncertainty. Suburbia’s promise of home, community, a level of predictability and middle class well-being is undermined by the sprawling scale of it meme. The monocultural cellular development intended to underpin suburban values have in their overextension perversely subverted them.
In large part, this slide to uncertainty arises from consumption. This defining cultural character cultural derives from two paired regulatory strands of the genetic code, the subdivision ordinance and zoning. Derived from a planning tradition of values associated with consumption, these regulations set in place the physical framework of single-use, dispersed, privatized places of low density. Subdivision ordinances take down the land with spacious lots and wide streets, but no sidewalks. And, of course, no gardens. Landscape ordinances rarely exist, but if they do, the intent is usually to perpetuate an exotic green pastorale, with little biodiversity. Zoning prescribes the land use and determines the size and placement of buildings on the lots. In commercial zoning categories, off-street parking is tied to specific uses and their projected peak needs.
In this expansive landscape of consumption, the car is the agent of procurement. As one drives to work to get the money for same, so, one also drives to the malls and everywhere else. Recreation, if it occurs at all, probably takes place in private, indoor spaces, some distance away. Healthcare requires another car trip, either scheduled or prompted by injury or illness. While transportation infrastructure at the highway scale provides for high capacities associated with peak condiitons, other infrastructure is cheaply bundled to take advantage of lower intensity in the zone of single-family cul-de-sacs. Sewers may not be needed here as there is enough land for individual septic tanks. Precipitation is quickly moved to the too-wide streets and then to storm drains, to rivers and oceans, out of sight and mind.
With activation of this viral pattern of consumption comes collateral damage to other in-place systems. Sprawl takes down the land according to its needs. Everything else is externality. And in this single-purposed process, sprawl fragments natural and cultural systems that were already there, some of them, whole and offering life-support in the multiple forms of ecosystem services and biodiversity.
Recently this consumption strand of sprawl has become more complicated. Underlying weaknesses in new patterns have surfaced sharply since the 2007 foreclosure crisis. So-called leapfrog developments from the 1970s forward have used the opt-out provisions of not being in a city or town to create a ‘drive-till-you-qualify’ economy. The advance of poverty into these areas taken down cheaply in development has evidenced the dissonances between the subliminal and tangible uncertainties of sprawl and places of greater diversity and access.
Such complexly generated, viral and fragmenting monocultures are therefore neither resilient nor easily adapted much less stopped. If Americans are to keep from skidding toward further vulnerability to fragmentation, more nuanced understanding must be brought to efforts to mitigate and adapt the increasing scales of damage wrought by this generative form of settlement.
The modes of agency of sprawl are not easily analyzed. Sprawl’s drivers are in themselves specialized elements each evolved to embody complex bundles of self-referential values. While few of these drivers are in themselves operationally complex – it is comparatively easy to see how a developer builder works, how the banks evaluate the deals and or how the designers and engineers play their individual parts in reshaping land and water for new human functions. But in the unpacking of the bundled values and when combined, the drivers defy analysis by their composite complexity.
A place to start in the large project of sprawl is the disaggregation of the problem and the diagramming of its agencies. Knowing how all the drivers have been generated and become generative, how they work and fit together, and what impacts this all incurs, requires broadly framed systemic and spatial mapping.
What data and empiricism can be brought to this mapping? What maps?
To start we have the spatial mapping of data in the U. S. census and in other GIS layers of sprawled regions. These spatial maps and their metadata will give rise to more precise questions, hypotheses and premises.
These are some issues that arise from sprawl maps that we now have:
Maps showing income, housing values, time to work, food deserts
A next level analytical mapping would involve the creation of systems maps of drivers. In an analytical disaggregation of the values of cultures and means of specialization that have characterized the businesses, institutions, disciplines and professions that have driven sprawl may be seen the individual strands of their generation. Once identified in relation both to immediate and other effects, the composite pattern and the catalytic patterns and drivers of agency should emerge. And once the drivers are understood, and seen in space, form, and system, projective maps might then be drawn with metadata suggesting the scale of potential mitigation and adaptation.
Can legacy sprawl be adapted and its impacts mitigated? Engaged scholarship may play a critical role in forging solutions. However bringing effective scenarios toward implementation is still uncharted territory crossing multiple disciplinary lines, world-views, economies, ecologies, social constructions, cultures and jurisdictions. Speculating on alternatives to what some regard as home, and others as dystopia will require not just analysis, but imagination. And even if these challenges are met in the academy, by an as-yet-to-be-invented transdisciplinary process, the solutions may not be clear to all, much less embraced.
Realizing effective change will require attention, participation and commitment.