Posts about new urbanism

Will anything redeem suburban ’sprawl’?

June 30th, 2009

Came across a great article over at Huffington Post.  Mark Oppenheimer asks some interesting questions about the ongoing debate between New Urbanist and proponents of suburan “sprawl” (not sure they have a collective name).  Mark writes:

I don’t know. On the one hand, I don’t want to underestimate children’s capacity for self-mystification. I suspect that most children, at least most of those who grow up middle-class, and sheltered from anything too abysmal in the family’s home life, look back at their early years with a certain sense of awe and wonder. Those lookalike houses in Del Boca Vista Estates are not lookalike to the children inside them, who know which house has the best video-game system, which kid has the dad who makes the best forts with the dining room table and some blankets, whose parents go out late and don’t hire a babysitter (all the better for watching verboten TV channels).

On the other hand, there is empirical evidence that suburban life of this kind can lead to bad things: obesity, too much time in the car, fewer friends, less play. And teenagers — forget about it. If they can, they flee to the city. Or at least the curious ones do.

But what I don’t have are good sympathetic non-fiction books about life in suburban sprawl. For every book critical of that way of life — Langdon’s book, Duany et al.’s Suburban Nation, Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place — there seem to be exactly zero books about why it can be pleasurable to grow up in spaces that are, after all, safe, predictable, and quiet, which are all good things.

I want the other side of the story. Ideas, anyone?

It seems like a fair question to me.  There surely is another side to the story and there must be people that like to live on the outer edge of suburbia.  I mean, they choose to live there, right?  One of the commenters – Steve Mouzon – says that yes, there are some who like to live there, but many suburbanites are simply there because they lack options.  He use some rough estimates to make a point, but the point is still interesting to consider:

grew up in suburbia, and could go on for pages about its deficiencies, but that would just be anecdotal, wouldn’t it? If you discount the “sprawl lobby” that is funded by the asphalt companies or the road-builders, then you’re right: you find precious little sympathy for sprawl. ESPECIALLY concerning its lovability. Maybe that’s a clue.
The bottom line is that sprawl proliferated not because it was well-loved, but because it was the only choice of an industrial-grade land development system that actually outlawed everything else. When the New Urbanism began, all of its proposals were either illegal or otherwise impossible, even though its principles were based on the places in each region that people loved the most.

In the end, we’ve built so much sprawl that it now constitutes half of American buildings. Let’s assume for a moment that 1/3 of Americans loved sprawl. That’s dubious, given your noted lack of evidence of sympathy for sprawl. But just being generous, let’s assume that 100 million of 300 million Americans love sprawl. But if half (150 million) live in sprawl, then we have huge oversupply of sprawl. To eat up the oversupply, America would have to grow from 300 million to 450 million so that the 1/3 (150 million) who possibly love sprawl could match the sprawl units. That means we’d need to build 150 million units of New Urbanism and not a single new unit of sprawl to meet the market preferences.

Interesting food for thought.