Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Back to the Future with Sprawling Nonsense

The reappearance of sprawl as a preoccupation is a sure sign that the post-9/11 world is over. Back in the late 1990s and into 2001 I was working intensively on this issue, writing a number of articles and book chapters including, for example, this one, which may have contributed to the sacking of a left-wing hack at the National Governors Association.

Back, in those days, I used to get called about once a week by a reporter, radio show, TV gabfest, or documentarian, for a sprawl-related project. That all ended abruptly on 9/11, as reporters and editors were quickly reassigned. I’ve had maybe two media calls about sprawl since 9/11.

A couple of points: First, don’t count of high gas prices curbing the urge to sprawl (that means YOU Deneen). European cities are actually sprawling faster than American cities, even with their $6 a gallon gas. My figures are a little old and need updating, but between 1970 and 1990:

Amsterdam expanded its developed area 12 percent while its population declined 12.4 percent;

Copenhagen expanded its developed area 10.3 percent while its population declined 14 percent;

Frankfurt expanded its developed area 33.3 percent while its population declined 5.4 percent;

Hamburg expanded its developed area 54.6 percent while its population declined 7.9 percent;

Paris expanded its developed area 54.3 percent (twice as much as Chicago) while its population rose only 15.3 percent; and

Vienna expanded its developed area 19.2 percent while its population declined 4.6 percent.

Second, while I am a big fan of the New Urbanism—and have done slide shows about Kentlands, one of Andres Duany’s best NE developments in Maryland—New Urbanist development does not save very much land. I can demonstrate this fairly easily, but not on a blog. By the way, anyone ever noticed where most of these heralded developments are located? Out on the suburban periphery.

Meanwhile, too many of the New Urbanists have become a bit thuggish about the whole matter, wanting to use the law to mandate the form exclusively. Even Duany has broken with most of these folks, and I know Philip Bess (a fine and thoughtful fellow of moderate disposition) has come to see this problem.

Lots more to say, but mainly—whoa there, folks.

Discussions - 4 Comments


I'd written a comment--apparently lost in the ether--to the effect that the availability of large tracts of relatively inexpensive and/or unencumbered land is what leads most "New Urbanist" developments to be "suburban." There are a few counterexamples in my backyard (though most of Atlanta--even that inside our Perimeter--could almost be described as suburban), but they're "exceptions"--a redeveloped industrial brownfield, a decayed apartment complex coming out of probate, and some school board-owned land. I had links to the site sites, but don't have the time to track them down now.

For the most part, however, I agree with the argument of your post, though one of the arguments for "urbanism" (which has long been made by J.H. Kunstler) can be given a post-9/11 spin: the less we need to drive, the less we're dependent upon oil pumped by people who don't like us, whether they be Middle Eastern, Venezuelan, or Canadian (though our Albertan friends are a remarkable exception to the general rule of reflexive Canadian anti-Americanism).

When this question of sprawl came up on NLT, I wondered about the correlation between sprawl and ...

  • Popluation
  • Gas prices
  • Income (or perhaps "wealth")
  • Urban factors, such as crime or the influx of immigrants

Mr. Hayward seems to suggest that in Europe sprawl takes place even when population is declining, and the opening comment seems to suggest there's no correlation with gas prices either. Does sprawl correlate with anything, except perhaps time?

With regard to the "New Urbanism" and how the new developments seem to be on the suburban periphery ... what might best explain this? Cheaper land? That's where the jobs are? Bureaucratic obstacles in the urban areas? Social or racial obstacles?

My post was composed and posted before I saw Mr. Knippenberg's comment. :-(


Read the Brueggemann book, or at least the review of it to which I linked in an earlier post. It makes the best case that I know for the ubiquity of "sprawl."

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