Sprawl

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Sprawl is a term used to describe post-World War II patterns of land use in the United States.

Contents

The History of Sprawl

The traditional urban area was compact, walkable, and was characterized by multi-use development such as residences and offices over shops in the same building.

Technology and legal developments disrupted traditional urban land use patterns. Street cars provided the first expansion of cities in transit oriented developments that greatly expanded the scope of walkable cities along the transit lines. This was followed by the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s which made much larger areas accessable via automobile.

Meanwhile, the buying power of the middle class was incerased as the GI Bill and federal mortgage loan programs (FHA and VA, for example), and incentives in the Federal Income Taxation system put home ownership within reach of middle class families who had previously only been able to rent.

Euclidian Zoning (named afte Euclid, Ohio) sought to seperate different land uses into different areas within a municipality, combined with the emerging Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) Syndrome, and an expanding industrial economy in the early 1950s exiled large numbers of new factories, whose workers could now drive to work in their automobiles, from core urban areas (often along rivers and rail lines) to the urban fringe. In the 1970s, the fedeal superfund law (CERCLA) further encouraged factories to locate in "greenfields" so that the owners would not be held economically responsible for population created by prior owners ("brownfields"). These large, heavily unionized factories, newly converted from wartime production to peace time consumer goods production, also created a solid middle class with the means to afford "the American Dream" of the home, the car, the stay at home mom, the kids and the dog.

Euclidian Zoning made infill developement, and new uses for existing properties in urban areas, more difficult, further encouraging new housing developments to move to previously rural areas.

As a result of these pressures, huge areas of farmland and open space were developed into suburbs (Levittown was one of the first), which were designed to be affordable, while providing a lawn and single family home which had previously been beyond the economic means of the middle class which had previously mostly rented apartments in urban areas. Factories were built far from these suburbs in similarly urban fringe areas. In some areas, the first office parks were built, segregated from both residential construction and industrial construction. The enclosed shopping mall and strip mall entered the scene, again segregated from all other kinds of land uses and usually built in previously undeveloped areas (often in single story buildings).

The result, we now know as sprawl.

Problems with Sprawl

Progressives are concerned about sprawl for a number of reasons:

  • Sprawl takes land from its natural state, which provides habitat and ecological balance to a region, and turns it into an urban area which can no longer serve as habitat.
  • Sprawl greatly increases the necessity for automobile useage, increasing ourn nation's dependence on polluting combustion of gasoline, reducing our nation's physical fitness as we walk less and drive more, shifting our time from leisure to commuting, and leading to more traffic deaths. Sprawl similarly makes it impossible for many households to manage without two cars, when one or no cars sufficed in the city.
  • Sprawl, by overzealously separating land uses, creates sterile communities of office parks, bland suburbs, and generic malls, rather than the healtier communities in which these uses interact in more urban areas. Features like cul-de-sac and curving roads in suburbs, designed to discourage high speed driving and create zones of peace, can sap social energy from a suburban community and be disorienting. Large lawns often come at the expense of public spaces like community parks. Street facing garages and air conditioning, have reduced neighborhood interaction on the street and from the front porch. In short, sprawl has isolated people from each other into their very private spaces.
  • Sprawl requires great public investments in infrastructure (schools, utilities, roads, etc.) which often cost more per person in suburban areas than in urban areas.
  • Sprawl replaces mixed income communities, with inner city ghettos and homgenous middle class suburbs, ioslating the poor and making escape from proverty, as a result, more difficult.

New Urbanism

New urbanism is an architectual and land use approach which seeks to restore many of the more traditional urban land use values to mitgate the impact of sprawl, while recognizing that the 21st century does need to accomodate technological advances.

New urbanism typically encourages planning and architectural elements such as:

  • Multiple use developments with residential, office and retail uses intermixed.
  • Mixed income housing (often with covenant based price or rent controls).
  • Walkable spaces.
  • Front porches and alley parking for residences.
  • Infill developments where space is available within existing cities.
  • Connectivity to public transporation.
  • Small lots accompanied by large parks ("green space").

New urbanism is driven in part by frustration with long commutes (the interstates soon became crowded) and unsatisfying suburban communities. The legal innovation of the condominium, has made it possible for the home ownership model popularized in the post-WWII period to be made available to multi-unit building residents. Planned unit developments (PUDs) have taken center stage in the zoning world were "straight zoned" Euclidian zones have become less important. Historic preservation statutes and remodeling friendly building codes have encouraged thoughtful redevelopment and "gentrification" in urban areas, while "brownfields" legislation has made it possible for urban industrial areas to see new life without undue liability risks.

Some cities, like Portland, Oregon, have simply banned sprawl, creating urban growth boundaries beyond which development is not permitted.

Affordable Housing

The main downside of gentrification, urban redevelopment, urban growth boundaries, and similar measures designed to limit sprawl, from a progressive point of view, is the impact these changes tend to have on supplies of affordable housing. Simply put, as population increases, demand for housing increases, while efforts to maintain high population densities effectively reduce the available supply of land, making land, and as a consequence housing, more expensive. A lot in a dense urban center, particularly in a desirable neighborhood with a short commute, can cost $150,000-$400,000 or more, an amount that can begin to dwarf the construction costs associated with the site unless a high rise is built there, while land on the suburban fringe can often cost $1,000-$10,000 per considerably larger lot.

Meanwhile, design restrictions (such as requirements that homes have a certain percentage of brick fascade, certain minimum square footage, etc.) and mandatorily large lot sizes (up to 5 acres in some communities) can also make surbuban living unaffordable (this is known as "restrictive zoning").

In short, figuring out where those who need affordable fit in comprehensive land use plans is often avoided by planners facing NIMBY pressures. Those who need affordable housing often lack the time, energy and inclination to participate in the lengthy master planning process. For example, almost every community in the United States would like to ban manfactured housing communities(i.e. trailer parks) because they are associated with poverty and crime, even thought manufactured housing is often one of the better technologically available compromises in terms of house per dollar spent. Likewise, many cities have actively worked to discourage "single occupancy hotels" (aka flop houses), even though these modest rooms, often with chickenwire for a roof and single small rooms with bathrooms down the hall and very low cost fixtures (e.g. plastic plumbing fixtures) are often the difference between sleeping under a bridge and having a roof over your head with a secure place to store your belongings, for many vagants and marginally employed single adults.

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