Thesis – Chapter 2 Planning Today: 2.1 Sprawl

Thesis – Chapter 2 Planning Today: 2.1 Sprawl

Chapter 2 Planning Today: 2.1 Sprawl

It should be noted that the residential sector is the largest user of urban space. It constitutes from 30 to 50 percent of the developed land in an urban area (Kaiser, Godschalk, Chapin, 1995). Jaquelin Robertson, in The Seaside Debates notes, “Since 1945, we have built a second America, as much as was built between 1607 and 1939. In historic terms, this was not a well- thought-out effort. We planned carefully and won the war, but we did not plan carefully and thus lost the peace” (2002, p. 48)  Levittown is one of the clearest examples of mono-zoned sprawl, look-alike houses in tidy rows, perfectly spaced, devoid of the trappings of architectural individuality and character (Figure 2.1). To gain some perspective, the current population of Levittown, New York is approximately 97,000.


Figure 2.1. Levittown, NY (Reprinted from Frumpkin, Frank, Jackson 41)

Unlike the traditional neighborhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system. It is not without a certain beauty: it is rational, consistent, and comprehensive and its performance is largely predictable (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Speck, 2000).  This is not unlike the way that Indian villages of teepees or cliff dwellings or early neighborhoods of company housing were developed.

When we examine the design or lack of design of suburban developments, several points jump out. All of the houses look alike: same style, same colors, same landscaping. Even when the developers resist the urge to put identical house plans on contiguous lots, the different styles available are so similar that minimal differentiation is achieved. The houses appear to have been built for cars not for people, and a streetscape that consists largely of garage doors is not an interesting or inviting public space (Levy, 2000).  Frequently the front door is so overwhelmed by the multiple, status-affirming garage doors that it is all but hidden.


And yet, even seeing and feeling the effects of this pattern of building, and knowing that what we perceive as the traditional American family is vanishing, we continue down this path. “We are using land planning strategies that are 40 years old and no longer relevant or affordable to today’s culture. We are still building World War II suburbs as if families were large and had only one breadwinner, as if jobs were all downtown, as if land and energy were endless and as if another lane on the freeway would end traffic congestion” (Kelbaugh, 2002).


Most American suburbs feel like collections of individual homes rather than true neighborhoods (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Speck, 2000).  There are no new villages being built only agglomerations of units, unrelated objects of every shape and design pockmarking a once lovely land (Robertson, 2002).

“Sprawl, as we know it today, appears deceptively chaotic. In fact, it is a highly ordered and predictable form of development. An edifice of public and private instruments erected over the past three-quarters of a century reinforces and extends sprawl. In addition to the zoning codes, subdivision regulations, development financing, and housing lending policies, to name a few such instruments, converge to the same end. Private sector practices such as the financing of commercial and residential development, also contribute to the ordered replication of sprawl” (Frumpkin, Frank, Jackson, 2004, p.42).

What are the effects of sprawled development on the people in these subdivisions? (The word neighborhood in the traditional sense no longer seems to apply.) Since this type of development is automobile oriented, many young families live in neighborhoods with neither sidewalks nor walkable destinations. It lacks diversity and in homogeneous subdivisions, many children grow up never befriending or even meeting anybody from a lower social class or from a wealthier social class (Frumpkin, Frank, Jackson, 2004).  In addition, the homogeneity of income in suburban development causes people to move not just from house to house but from community to community. Only in a traditionally organized neighborhood of varied incomes can a family significantly alter its housing without going very far. In the new suburbs, you can’t move up without moving out (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Speck, 2000).


Suburbs are unintentionally designed for young to middle-aged drivers only. Old people lose their independence in the suburbs not when they are too infirm to walk, but when their eyesight becomes too dim to drive. At that point an adult who may otherwise be entirely capable of independent living becomes dependent. At the other end of the scale, young people who have not yet reached the legal age to drive are extremely dependent on adults to drive them to activities. The child’s freedom and mobility are severely restricted, and the parent is tied down by the need to be a chauffeur (Levy, 2000).


The five-minute walk, or pedestrian shed, is roughly one-quarter mile in distance. It was conceptualized in the classic 1929 New York City Regional Plan but it has existed as an information standard since the earliest cities, from Pompeii to Greenwich Village (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Speck, 2000).  But in order to walk, you must have a destination and a safe path to get there. Modern suburbs provide neither. With the disappearance of that once common activity, the useful walk, the weight of the average American adult has risen eight pounds in ten years. Nearly 60 percent of Americans are overweight (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Speck, 2000).


The sad irony is that many people who choose to live in sprawled suburbs are on some level longing for life in the country and the amenities they come with that dream. What they get is a watered down version of their dream, while the true country is receding farther and farther from the visible horizon (Tunnard, Pushkarev, 1963).

About the Author

Kevin Walters

Mr. Walters is a graduate of the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program at Virginia Commonwealth University, where his thesis subject was Feng Shui and Neighborhood Development. He has studied Essential Feng Shui with the Western School of Feng Shui and Classical Feng Shui at the Golden Gate Feng Shui School. Since 1999, Mr. Walters’ consulting business has focused on improvements with affordable and homeless housing providers, including the Better Housing Coalition and Virginia Supportive Housing in Richmond Virginia. He is a member of the Home and Community Design Committee of Habitat for Humanity Tucson and has contributed to Community Renaissance’s Do Happy Today Program. With Do Happy Today, Mr. Walters assisted the Limberlost Neighborhood Association and the City of Tucson Parks and Recreation in the design of feng shui elements for the walking path at the Limberlost Family Park. He has presented Feng Shui programs at Planning and Housing Conferences in Arizona and Virginia, and most recently at the National Environmental Health Association Conference in San Antonio, Texas.



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