Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Urban sprawl (also called suburban sprawl and Los Angelization) describes the growth of a metropolitan area, particularly the suburbs, over a large area. In examples of this phenomenon, such as Los Angeles, California and Houston, Texas, new development is often low-density, where the metropolis grows outward instead of 'upward' as with higher densities. Environmentalists and an increasing number of urban planners deplore urban sprawl for several reasons.
But "Los Angelization" could not be a more inappropriate contemporary term for urban sprawl. Los Angeles was one of the world's first low density urbanized areas, as a result of achieving wide automobile ownership long before others. But, Los Angeles has continued to build at much higher densities than other areas and is now more dense (as per 2000 US Census) than any other urbanized area in either the United States or Canada. Five US urbanized areas cover more land area than Los Angeles: New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston and Philadelphia. Outside the United States, one urbanized area, Tokyo, covers more land area than the Los Angeles urbanized area.
The title of the world's most sprawling urban area depends on the definition. The New York urbanized area covers more land area than any other, at approximately 8,684 km² (3,353 sq miles) (compared to 4,320 km² (1,668 sq mi) for the Los Angeles urbanized area) The lowest density large urbanized area in the world is Atlanta, which covers 5,084 km² (1,963 sq miles), with a population of 3,500,000 for a density of 688 people per km² (1,783 people per square mile). This is approximately one-third the density of the New York urbanized area and one-quarter the density of the Los Angeles urbanized area. The world's most dense major urbanized area is Hong Kong, with approximately 3,400,000 people in 70 km² (27 sq miles), for a population density of 48,571 per km² (128,000 per sq mile). It should be noted that Hong Kong, as a former city-state, is somewhat anomalous. It is highly likely that its area would be substantially larger if it had originally been a part of neighboring China rather than a territory of the United Kingdom.
Urban sprawl is a synonym for suburbanization --- the geographical expansion of urban areas at or beyond their fringes. Suburbanization is often thought of as uniquely American. But in fact, virtually all urban growth in recent decades has been sprawl or suburbanization. More than 90 percent of urban growth in the United States, Japan, Canada and Australia has been in suburbs in recent decades. Suburbs have captured nearly 115 percent of urban growth in major Western European urban areas, due to central city population losses (Metropolitan Urban & Suburban Trends).
Five Components of Sprawl
The dominant characteristic of sprawl is that each of its components is strictly separated from the rest. Another characteristic of sprawl is its relative simplicity. Traditional towns combine the events of daily life in an infinite number of combinations. In sprawl, life is abstracted into only five components or systems that make up the entirety of daily postmodern living. Any two components may be adjacent to one another but always occur separately. These components are: housing subdivisions, shopping centers, office parks, civic institutions, and roadways. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 5)
The death of the traditional neighborhood or village has caused these labels to become free floating signifiers, labels that have lost their meaning and are applied chaotically wherever it serves a capital purposes to the developer. The names of housing subdivisions, such as “Blue Plains” and “Starling Heights,” are third level images, masking the absence of the basic reality that nothing exists there but houses and parking. (Simulacra 170) Furthermore, the romanticized names are a pastiche of powerful stylized memories in our collective nostalgic meta-history. Like the natural resources, the original references for these romantic names have been lost and are randomly cannibalized, the context with which they were originally intended utterly forgotten. (Jameson 16-25)
Suburban homes are all the same, simulacrum of some lost referent home immortalized in our combined subconscious television memory of family sitcoms from the 40’s and 50’s or the Brady Bunch. While you drive through them you get lost in the lack of difference. Each house is no different from the next, each subdivision no different from the rest, except in the imagery chosen to lend an air of class to fragile suburban egos. (Schlosser 60)
Shopping centers, a component consisting of retail space such as strip malls, shopping malls, and big box stores are places only for shopping. Shopping centers come in every conceivable size, from small convenience stores to the Mall of America, yet most are only one story tall and not one of these is a destination that many may reach by foot. This is because people in subdivisions don’t want them anywhere near their houses. It is not that the neighbors don’t need convenience, it is that they are afraid that a one story, aluminum and glass building with a dirty parking lot flooded with florescent light from a plastic sign might lower their property values. And they are right. No one wants such blight in his or her neighborhood and no one considers a good view of the local shopping center an amenity. The corner store, the traditional main street counterpart to the convenience store on the other hand, was compatible with the residential buildings in the neighborhood and accommodated office and residential space with its multi-story format in a way that lent value to the surrounding properties. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6, 26) Shopping centers and strip malls also have romantic, idealized names such as “The Village” or “Camelot Place” just like housing tracts.
Fast food chains, a particular kind of shopping experience where people in cars shop for food, thrive among sprawl. They often lead the way by building in areas with low property values where the population is about to boom and where huge amounts of traffic is predicted and set the precedent for future development. Schlosser says that fast food chains accelerate suburban sprawl and help set its tone with their trashy parking lots, flashy signs, and plastic architecture. (Schlosser 65) It is exactly this kind of plastic cheapness that people want to put as far away from their homes as possible. This only reinforces a destructive pattern of growth in an endless quest to move away from the sprawl that only results in creating more of it. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 26)
Office parks are places set aside exclusively for work. The contemporary office park was born from the modernist vision of skyscrapers surrounded by a utopian park like environment to preserve open space. However the office park today is merely a collection of large buildings surrounded by parking lots and encircled by busy streets and accessible only by the automobile. Nonetheless, office parks maintain their idealistic name despite being surrounded by traffic and pollution instead of countryside. The environment features the bear minimum number of trees necessary to fulfill the developer’s obligation to provide vegetation as per zoning regulations and beautification ordinances. The sidewalks provided between the speeding traffic and the parking lots are not for pedestrians because no one ever walks to work. The only pedestrian activity that happens at the base of these buildings is walking to and from an automobile. Lastly, during the lunch hour the workforce is obliged to commute half the time to a shopping center only to rush through a meal at a franchise restaurant. By comparison, in traditional neighborhoods the nearness of the workplace to retail and restaurant space that provides cafes and convenience stores with daytime customers is an essential component to the successful balance of urban life. Furthermore, the closeness of the workplace to homes also gives people the option of walking or riding a bicycle to work. Without this kind of interaction between the different components of life the urban pattern quickly falls apart. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6, 28)
The fourth component of sprawl is civic institutions. This is space zoned for public life, such as town halls, libraries, schools, churches and theaters. In traditional neighborhoods these buildings were given places of importance in the community, accessible to everyone, and often creating the focal point of an entire city, perhaps at the end of a scenic boulevard. In suburbia this form is radically altered. Schools and churches for instances are becoming more like shopping malls, surrounded by enormous parking lots, signs at the road, and located on the fringe. Schools have become too remote to allow children to walk to school forcing the school districts to bus children in at a great expense to the taxpayers and inflating class sizes marginalizing the educations of American students. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6)
The last component of sprawl is roadways. Thousands upon thousands of miles of paved surface that serves to link the other four disparate components. Traffic is congested because everyone is forced to drive. The average suburban household generates 13 car trips per day. Since sprawl separates the different activities of daily life into segregated zones, it is necessary for most people to spend a lot of time in their automobiles, often alone, to travel along roadways to get to the different places that a wide variety of activities demands. Even if someone lives 75 yards from the front door of Wal-Mart, they will not be able to walk there because of a wall meant to separate the retail component of suburbia from the residential component. He or she will most likely get in their car, drive out of the subdivision, drive down the strip for about a mile and a half, then turn into a parking lot and back track all the way to a parking space, only to walk the remaining 75 yards to the doors of the store. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 7, 25)
When you drive on the collector streets, the mega corporation restaurant chains mysteriously repeat themselves over and over again every few miles. The exact same building each time, a simulacrum, it makes you think you are driving in circles. (Schlosser 60) Our culture thrives on disorientation and honors manipulation. Koolhaas describes the suburban strip as “Superstrings of graphics, transplanted emblems of franchise and sparkling infrastructures of lights, LED’s, and video describe an authorless world beyond anyone’s claim, always unique, utterly unpredictable, yet intensely familiar.” (Koolhaas 410)
It is easy to see that Sprawl is not just the postmodern condition of our built environment only but the total end result of the Modernist Programme on absolutely every aspect of life that has led to the breakdown of reality into images that mask basic realities and images that mask the absence of basic realities. We are bombarded with these images day and night until the pervasiveness of the hyperreal fills not only the homes we live in but cloths we buy, the cars we drive, and even the food we eat.
Bibliography of Works Sited
Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, 1983
Duany, Plater-Zyberk Andres, Suburban Nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American Dream, North Point Press, New York, 2000
Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism, 1990
Koolhaas, Rem, Junkspace, Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Harvard Press, 2003
Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002
Arguments for and against
By many measures, real estate development is taken as a measure of progress. When a city grows laterally, new homes are built, transport projects are undertaken, and property values often are higher in the new areas of the metropolitan area. In addition, many households in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia --- especially middle and upper class families--have shown preferences for the suburban lifestyle. Reasons cited include a preference towards lower-density development (since it often features lower ambient noise and increased privacy), better schools, and lower crime rates (even though car-related fatalities often make it more dangerous to live in the suburbs than in the city).
Yet after an explosion of sprawl in the later half of the 20th century in the United States, some drawbacks have emerged towards this growth pattern. When citizens live in a larger space, often at a lower density, car usage often becomes endemic and public transport often becomes infeasible, forcing city planners to build large highway and parking infrastructure, which in turn decreases taxable land, and revenue, and decreases the desirability of the area adjacent to such structures.
However, lower density development also has its advantages. For example, traffic intensities tend to be less, traffic speeds faster and, as a result, air pollution emissions tend to be less intense per square mile. (See demographia's report.) As a result, commuters in the United States, with the most sprawling urban areas in the world, tend to have considerably shorter one-way commute times than in Western Europe or Japan, which have higher densities.
In addition, urban sprawl often consumes land that would otherwise be used for "natural" purposes, such as wildlife reserves, forests, and agriculture. Detractors of sprawl often espouse smart growth and/or New Urbanism. Urban sprawl isn't the only way to increase real estate development; many of the urban areas of cities in Japan, Hong Kong, and Europe which have urban growth plans show higher property values than do their suburbs.
Finally, suburbs are in large part to blame for the vast homogeneity of society and culture, leading to sprawling suburban developments of people with similar race, background and SES (socioeconomic status ). Segregated and stratified development was institutionalized in the early 1950s and 60s with the financial industries' illegal process of redlining neighborhoods to prevent certain people from entering and residing in a district. This is often referred to as a form of institutionalized racism , and was endemic to the occurring ("White Flight") of the urban cities. While certainly not as forthright today, the similar price characteristics for many developments in suburbs automatically limit those who would choose to live there to only a certain segment of society. The lack of cultural diversity (not the manufactured diversity driven by the media and marketers) is, in large part, a symptom of the spread of suburbia. The current price discriminatory housing trend of sprawl has been argued by some, such as former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, to have ramifications on public schools as finances are pulled out of the core city to the wealthier sister suburbs.
Examples in the United States
According to the National Resources Inventory (NRI), about 8,900 km² (2.2 million acres) of land was developed between 1992 and 2002. Presently, the NRI classifies approxiimately 100,000 more km² (40,000 sq miles) (an area approximately the size of Kentucky) as developed as the Census Bureau classifies as urban. The difference in the NRI classification is that it includes rural development, which by definition cannot be considered to be "urban" sprawl. Currently, according to the 2000 Census, approximately 2.6 percent of the US land area is urban. Approximately 0.8 percent of the nation's land is in the 37 urbanized ares with more than 1,000,000 population.
Nonetheless, some urbanized areas have expanded geographically even while losing population. For example, between 1970 to 2000, the population of the Detroit, Michigan urbanized area declined 2% while its land area increased 45%. Similar situations occurred in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Buffalo, New York and Rochester, New York. But it was not just US urbanized areas that lost population and sprawled substantially. According to data in "Cities and Automobile Dependence" by Kenworthy and Laube (1999), urbanized area population losses occurred while there was an expansion of sprawl between 1970 and 1990 in Brussels, Belgium, Copenhagen, Denmark, Frankfurt, Germany, Hamburg, Germany, Munich, Germany and Zurich, Switzerland.
At the same time, the urban cores of these and nearly all other major cities in the United States, Western Europe and Japan that did not annex new territory experienced the related phenomena of falling household size and white flight, sustaining population losses [High-Income World Central City Population Losses].
On the other hand, the state of Oregon enacted a law in 1973 limiting the area urban areas could occupy, through urban growth boundaries. In response, Portland, the state's largest urban area, has become a world leader in smart growth policies that seek to make urban areas more compact (they are called urban consolidation policies). After the creation of this boundary, the population density of the urbanized area increased somewhat (from 8,000 in 1970 to 8,650 per km² in 2000) [USA Urbanized Areas 1950-1990] [USA Urbanized Areas 2000] . However, the urbanized area still sprawled an additional 222 km² (86 sq miles) through the next decade, witnessing a population growth of 411,000. In July of 2004 the Portland area increased its urban growth boundary to beyond the boundary previously planned for 2040. Even so, the Portland urbanized area remains considerably less dense than the Los Angeles urbanized area. If Los Angeles sprawled at the same density as Portland, it would cover 2.2 times as much land.
There is also a concern that Portland-style policies that limit the amount of land that can be developed will increase housing prices. Over the past 30 years, Oregon has had the largest housing affordability loss in the nation [Housing Affordability Trends: USA States]. Research by [Glaeser and Gyourko] suggests that most of the affordability differential between major US housing markets is the result of land use policy. In short, scarcity raises prices and critics of so-called smart growth policies believe that housing affordabiliy losses are now apparent in the California urban areas and places like Sydney, Melbourne, Southeastern England, Auckland and Vancouver (BC).
Urban sprawl in fiction
In William Gibson's fiction, "the Sprawl" is a slang term referring to the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States. In Gibson's future, New York's City's urban area is continuous with that of other eastern cities, from Massachusetts to Florida; the entire area is formally known as the BAMA, or the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Area. The following three books are sometimes referred to as Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy:
- Neuromancer (1984) (part 1 of the Sprawl Trilogy)
- Count Zero (1986) (part 2 of the Sprawl Trilogy)
- Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) (part 3 of the Sprawl Trilogy)
Urban Sprawl in nonfiction
- The Future of Success : Working and Living in the New Economy by Robert Reich
- The Geography of Nowhere: The rise and decline of America's man-made landscape (ISBN 0-671-70774-4) by J.H. Kunstler
- Suburban Nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American Dream (ISBN 0-86547-606-3) by A. Duany, E. Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
- urban planning
- rural exodus
- urban studies
- regional planning
- spatial planning
- Faux Chateau
- New Urbanism
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