Sunlit Water

February 11, 2009


Filed under: Land — by teofilo @ 1:04 pm

Ryan has a post up about Obama’s recent statement that the “age of sprawl” is over in which he addresses the difficulty of definining “sprawl” and notes something that I think goes largely unaddressed in most land-use policy discussions: the fact that there are really two things that are called “sprawl” which are rather different.  Ryan classifies these as “neighborhood density” and “regional density,” but I kind of prefer his initial formulation as “compactness” and “dispersion.”

Basically these are two different scales within which development can have varying levels of density.  When it comes to metropolitan areas and other large-scale situations, the type of “sprawl” that people talk about is really dispersion: neighborhoods and other key nodes in the area are far apart from each other.  As Ryan points out, this is not really a problem that public policy can or should address; it has a lot more to do with geography and other fixed factors than with policy decisions.

Within those neighborhoods etc., however, the issue becomes compactness: how close together the individual buildings are and whether it is possible to walk from one to another.  Here the pattern is determined almost entirely by policy choices.  Older urban and suburban neighborhoods in the northeast and midwest may be dispersed or not, but they are generally quite compact, and if they are dispersed they are linked together by effective public transportation systems.  The result is that cars are less necessary for people to have, and few people have them.  This doesn’t have anything in particular to do with the geography of these areas, however, as can be seen by the variety of levels of dispersion.  Rather, it’s because these areas were developed in the nineteenth century when no one had cars and governmental policy heavily favored the creation of rail networks.  This meant that if an area was to be developed, it needed a train station to connect it to other areas, and the development was centered on that train station and within walking distance of it.  That is, compact.

In other parts of the country, however, most neighborhoods were developed in the late twentieth century, when government policy largely favored private automobile use and the creation of highway networks.  Since most of the resulting roads were free to drive on, travel was cheap, and development became very spread-out and not at all compact.  This is where we are now, with the possibility of the political pendulum swinging back toward rail and compactness.  The fact that most development over the past fifty years has been low-compactness sprawl doesn’t mean that a shift in policy can’t steer things in a different direction.  (Though, as Ryan notes, doing this productively will require actual policy changes rather than merely rhetorical gestures.)  We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.


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