What is sprawl?

What exactly is suburban sprawl? What are the characteristics that define the places where over 70 percent of Americans now live? There may be slight differences in the form that sprawl takes throughout the country, but no matter whether it is outside Washington DC, Dallas, Miami, Minneapolis, Atlanta, LA, or Seattle, sprawl has several distinct and common characteristics:

  1. Low density design. Sprawl is tens of thousands of physically autonomous residential subdivisions developed at low densities and spread over the landscape. Small towns are replaced by garish, neon-lit commercial strips strung along major traffic arteries.
  2. Lack of multi-use development patterns. With no corner stores, café, restaurants, offices, public buildings, and homes within an easily walkable area, genuine communities in America have gone the way of the dodo bird.
  3. Automobile dependence. With the functions of life spread all over the landscape, cars are the only practical mode of transportation in sprawl. Modern suburbs are built to accommodate cars and commerce, not people or public transit. Walking has been eliminated as a safe and pleasant means of locomotion. An overall lack of sidewalks and pedestrian areas effectively reduces foot traffic, eliminating the possibility of social interaction.
  4. Gridlock. Subdivisions in sprawl are accessible by a hierarchy of feeder roads that offer few interconnected, alternative routes. These all disgorge traffic onto a few major arteries, which are quickly saturated by the volume of vehicles, causing gridlock.
  5. Inadequate public transit. Mass transportation is scarce in sprawl, except for infrequent bus service along major arteries. Without public transportation hubs, generally train or trolley stations, around which small towns could develop, there are few community gathering places in sprawl.

Suburban sprawl, no matter how you look at it or where it exists, is a formless, centerless, fragmented urban structure that the Sierra Club calls "the Dark Side of the American Dream." James Howard Kunstler, best-selling author and world-renowned urban critic, describes sprawl as "a landscape of scary places, the geography of nowhere, that has simply ceased to be a credible human habitat."

Copyright © Douglas E. Morris 2005-2012