How to fix sprawl: The manual


Robert Steuteville

New Urban News, October-November 2010

How to fix sprawl has been in the news a lot lately. An article on page 10, for example, examines how planners in California are grappling with how to reform that state’s massive problem of single-use, automobile-oriented development.

Ever since the housing meltdown and foreclosure crisis, which struck hardest in suburbs, the nation has begun to wake up to the notion that our built environment is a mess. There’s mounting evidence that sprawl is not resilient from a resource point of view (it is vulnerable to high oil prices) or environmentally sustainable (it contributes to higher greenhouse gas emissions). The flaws of sprawl are becoming increasingly noticeable in a time when shifts in demographics and consumer preferences are pushing demand away from conventional suburbs.

Fixing sprawl is nothing new to new urbanists. Every new urban project from the beginning was, in essence, a counterargument against sprawl or its close cousin, the modernist planning of cities. New urbanists were into fixing sprawl before fixing sprawl was cool. Many of them have spent two decades working on the details of turning automobile-oriented lead into walkable gold.

Now the stakes have risen and the tenor of public discussion has changed. Many officials now recognize that suburbs need to become more compact, walkable, and transit accessible. The question is no longer whether suburbia should be reformed but how.

Along comes a new book — Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva, a principal at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, and published by Island Press — that helps to address the complex details of how to reform the suburbs.

Kinds of sprawl

One common misconception is that all suburbs are created equal. Tachieva explains why that isn’t so and why some will be easier to fix than others. Suburbs in the US fall into three broad categories:
The first generation, built until the 1920s, featured a mixed-use, traditional-neighborhood form. Most were railroad and streetcar suburbs, but some early 20th Century ‘burbs built for cars — like Coral Gables, Florida — also took a cohesive form.

The second wave, which first appeared in the 1920s and flourished in the decades after World War II, were radically different — low density and single use. The best-known example is Levittown. “Though Levittown had schools, shopping centers, and park areas, its master plan ignored the traditional neighborhood structure, and the community was created only for families that owned cars,” Tachieva says. The middle of the 20th Century was when “the walkable compactness of the prewar suburb gave way to sprawl.”

The story does not end there. Starting in the 1980s, a third ring of suburbs emerged when the single-use, low-density model reached its apex in the form of gated pods, McMansions, and various commercial agglomerations.

These suburban waves require different strategies, Tachieva notes. The first wave mostly needs preservation and emulation. The often blighted and outdated suburbs in the second wave, by contrast, “are the urgent contenders for repair, as their deficiencies [e.g. outdated housing stock] prohibit them from responding to the changing demographics of a fast-aging and more diverse population,” she says.

The third generation was until recently economically healthy. Because it is regulated through homeowners’ associations, it may be the hardest to change. But it can be transformed with visionary leadership.

Sprawl takes many forms — it’s not just a bunch of cul-de-sacs and shopping centers. There are campuses, edge cities, commercial strip corridors, business parks, shopping centers, malls, multifamily subdivisions, and various kinds of single-family subdivisions. All of these present different opportunities and barriers to change.

It’s not difficult to imagine higher-density business parks, shopping centers and malls, campuses, and strip commercial corridors morphing into town and village centers — this is already happening. Residential subdivisions, though in some ways more resistant to alteration, also need transformation.

There are tens of thousands of opportunities waiting. Chances are, whatever the sprawl problem you’re confronting, you’ll find drawings and detailed instructions for dealing with it in Sprawl Repair Manual.