Sprawl 12.15.2005

Sprawl is the natural human condition
Rybczynski: "It appears that all cities–at least all cities in the industrialized western world–have experienced a dispersal of population from the center to a lower-density periphery. In other words, sprawl is universal. Why is this significant? 'Most American anti-sprawl reformers today believe that sprawl is a recent and peculiarly American phenomenon caused by specific technological innovations like the automobile and by government policies like single-use zoning or the mortgage-interest deduction on the federal income tax,' Bruegmann writes. 'It is important for them to believe this because if sprawl turned out to be a long-standing feature of urban development worldwide, it would suggest that stopping it involves something much more fundamental than correcting some poor American land-use policy.'"

There is a wonderful old joke that I'm going to paraphrase here: "When confined to a cage with others, most animals go crazy. Mankind is the only animal which willingly puts itself into such a cage."

It has never dawned on me that many urban planners actually believed that Mankind's natural state is the high density apartment living of New York. Hell, most New Yorkers know that such high-density living is not their preferred state of living. The only reason why most people tend to live in high-density surroundings is because it's economically efficient. And whenever you ever read the phrase "economically efficient", translate that to mean "only poor people would ever want to do that." McDonalds is more economically efficient than Spago, but this does not make McDonalds better food. But even in the small compact cities of Spain, there are always sprawling palaces a few miles outside of town where the super-rich elite lived. The only reason why most cities of Spain are super-compact is because of the cost of security: outside of most city walls of Europe was complete lawlessness that makes the current insurgencies in Baghdad seem tame and mild in comparason. Only the super-wealthy could afford the private police force necessary to set up a private household outside of the fortress walls of most European towns.

I suspect, however, that the theory that mankind's natural state would be super-compact urban spaces comes as much from wishful thinking: if we all live in a compact space, the problems of creating an enticing space boils down to the creative act of figuring out how to plan an urban "Disneyland": urban planners can concentrate on easy and fun things like textures in subway systems and exciting multi-level forms of walkways and shapes of the skyscrapers.

But if in reality most people would prefer to live in a single-unit home--and only economics forces people to live in small apartments shoulder to shoulder without any privacy with their neighbors--then the pressing problems of most urban planners becomes plumbing: how to get enough water out to the fringes, how to reclaim the sewage, and how to deal with traffic. There is no urban planning to be done because most people who own their own homes can set up their own style--and thus there is no need to select textures, create exciting walkways or otherwise decorate the interior of the cages urban planners would rather build.

posted by William Woody at 6:10 AM

Mankind's natural state involves him driving 30 miles to work each way (and taking 1.5 to 2.5 hours to do it) so he can build his house on 2 acres of what was once useful farmland so he can pay Jose to mow his lawn and so he can sit on his couch in isolation grinning the grin of success. Given that sprawl evolved more or less naturally I agree that it is man's natural state. Man's natural state is depraved. Designing cities that encourage a close-knit interdependent community might go against his "natural" state but it is nonetheless in his best interest. BTW: Most new urbanist plans include a variety of residential density areas, not just high-rise apartments, so the self-important can still build their "bigger barns" and be, thankfully, at some distance from the core of the society.
Blogger R10B at 10:06 AM  

Man's natural state is depraved.

That's a rather elitist statement...

Blogger William Woody at 10:55 AM  

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A moderate conservative living in the left coast, surrounded by the sureal, wonders if there is a sane life living amongst those who have lost touch with reality.

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