Suburbia on steroids … Cape Coral in Floridomain authority sports the sprawling ranch-style homes and spacious yards indicative of mid 20th-century American suburbia. Photograph: Planet
Driving lớn work, driving lớn dinner, driving lớn meet friends … this quintessentially American invention requires a limitless supply of lvà và resources. Los Angeles is infamously sprawling but is it the worst offender?
As a young child in Glasgow I was desperate khổng lồ visit the United States, to lớn see its incredible landscapes và its legendary urbanism: the Grvà Canyon, the Manhatchảy skyline. But it wasn’t until visiting much later that I experienced what is truly the iconic American landscape: the strip, that stretch of multi-lane road leading off inlớn the distance, surrounded on either side by fast-food restaurants, islands of retail lost in seas of asphalternative text.
Strip development, and its cousin the shopping mall, are symbols of America’s gift to urbanism: sprawl. Los Angeles may be the world’s most famously sprawling đô thị but is it the worst culprit? What about Montreal, or Brisbane, both low density cities in countries with no shortage of space và a strong love of the car?
Sprawl, even though we know when we see it, proves extremely difficult to pin down inkhổng lồ a functional definition. Urban sprawl is usually huge, mainly low-mật độ trùng lặp từ khóa, mostly unplanned, và primarily residential development that covers increasing areas of l& around thành phố cores. It is suburbia on steroids or, as Robert Kirkman’s The Ethics of Metropolitung Growth puts it: “sprawl suggests the thành phố has collapsed, lượt thích a drunkard on a sidewalk, và is now spreading inexorably outwards, oblivious to lớn the surrounding countryside”.
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Sprawl suggests the city has collapsed, lượt thích a drunkard on a sidewalk, và is now spreading inexorably outwards …Robert KirkmanThe first & most important comtháng factors is the oto. After the second world war, American developers took advantage of cheap oil và the personal mobility made possible by car ownership to lớn create low density residential developments that were not contiguous with places of work, commerce & leisure. These single-use areas often consist of detached houses in the centre of a lawn, scattered over the landscape, often unevenly, with residual gaps of undeveloped l& between them và the đô thị.
Although the first use of the term “urban sprawl” appears khổng lồ be in the context of London in 1955, what we know as sprawl is a quintessentially American invention – it is aspirational, a culture of không lấy phí individualism, of conspicuous wealth, & requires a seemingly limitless supply of l& and resources. To live in sprawl means driving to lớn work, driving to lớn get dinner, driving lớn meet your friends. It means congestion, as its inhabitants travel ludicrous distances for work or basic services, and isolation due lớn the laông xã of the perks of compact thành phố life. Sprawl eats up huge areas in very inefficient ways, destroying arable land & creating monocultures. Furthermore, a sprawling metropolis generates vastly greater amounts of pollution & CO2 than a more compact one.
Suburban Atlanta … a sprawling đô thị according to lớn Demographia và Smart Growth America. Photograph: AlamyThere is no reliable combined measure of sprawl, & many geographers shy away from using the term because of its negative connotations. Perhaps the most reliable metric comes from looking at population mật độ trùng lặp từ khóa. To look at the whole world is difficult, as definitions of metropolirã boundaries don’t always match up, but free-market think tank Demographia’s annual World Urban Areas survey attempts just that.
The results seem to lớn tally with what we expect: American areas completely dominate the low densities, and ahy vọng many smaller conurbations the lowest density large cities are Atlanta, Boston, St Louis, Orlanbởi and San Juan. The only real competition the Americans have is with places lượt thích Brisbane, nước Australia, or Quebec City, Canada, both countries with a lot of lvà and a love of the car. In Europe, down there in the low densities are a number of French urban areas such as Nantes và Toulon, but little else, while the Middle East sneaks in with Saudi Arabia’s Ad Dammam. According to Demographia’s metric, East Asian và South American cities tend not khổng lồ sprawl at all.
The problem with an average value though, is that it mistakes particular characteristics. For example, London & Athens have very similar average densities, but the Greek đô thị has a far denser core & a much more sprawling suburbia. Some researchers try to lớn overcome these difficulties through additional metrics. Researchers for Smart Growth America introduced mixes of use, presence of “centres”, and accessibility as other factors. Their retìm kiếm was pretty damning for the southern states, with Atlanta, Nashville và Memphis to lớn the bottom of the các mục.
Elsewhere, Thomas Laidley of NYU recently created a Sprawl Index using aerial imagery. One remarkable aspect was the discovery that Los Angeles is now the densest urban centre in the US. The thành phố which is usually considered the ultimate in sprawl has reached such a consistent intensity of development that there is very little spare l& of any kind that could lower its score. Laidley’s index once again gives the worst scores khổng lồ cities in the deep south: Columbia in South Carolimãng cầu & Hickory in North Carolimãng cầu.
The Griffith Observatory with Los Angeles sprawling beyond, in 1964. Photograph: Bettmann Archive
Is sprawl so bad?If it can’t be carefully defined, is sprawl necessarily bad? The great urbanist Lewis Mumford thought so, arguing hysterically in The City in History in 1961 that the endpoint of sprawling megacities was “total human annihilation”, falling victim to technical rationality and the end of organic human existence. Later, characters as ideologically different as the New Urbanists and Richard Rogers would advocate dense, walkable cities with active street life, an anti-sprawl attitude that is now standard in much planning, at least in Britain.
Even as it stands on the cusp of change, the ultimate sprawling thành phố still has lớn be Los Angeles. Think of the classic view from the Griffith Observatory, looking down at that vast carpet of concrete with its threads of light from the clogged highways. LA is decentred, potentially limitless, and stands for everything terrible about what happens when cities are developed without planning: swathes of low density housing, completely severed by roads, the whole terrain plagued by filthy smog.
Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne talks of a ‘first’ Los Angeles at the beginning of the 20th century, when it grew much like a European đô thị, before the ‘second’ LA happened post-war: mass-transit was eliminated, the freeway took over, suburbia raced to lớn the edge of the mountains. This created the LA that everyone loves khổng lồ hate, the “72 suburbs in tìm kiếm of a city” in the words of Dorothy Parker. The ‘third’ LA, which is developing now, is in Hawthorne’s words “having lớn re-learn the art of sharing the thành phố,” by intensifying its civic culture within its own boundaries, becoming a haven for artists, constructing more collective sầu housing, & with new transport infrastructure that includes walking & cycling.
Others have defended sprawl on its own terms. Architectural historian Reyner Bansi wrote the seminal Los Angeles: City of the Four Ecologies in 1972. Excited by its unapologetic modernity, Banham mê argued that the sprawling unique of LA offered “radical alternatives” khổng lồ, not deviations from, what was accepted wisdom in urbanism. This refrain was taken up by Jonathan Meades in his 2012 series On France, where he noted sprawl’s prevalence, and mounted a muted defence: “It is not vilified. It is nothing lớn be ashamed of. Nor is pride taken in it as pride is taken in conventionally elegant towns & orthodoxly pretty villages. Sprawl is accepted, it’s there.”
At the over of the day, sprawl is probably best described as the antithesis of an igiảm giá thành phố type – the compact, efficient pedestrian settlement with a rich civic culture – và thus is an essentially negative term. Advocates for miễn phí markets may well argue that sprawl is simply the không tính tiền and natural result of people’s desire for their own space but in the future, with massive urban growth still khổng lồ come, is it materially or ecologically possible to lớn sustain 20th century petrol-soaked American sprawl across the world?
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