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TinotopiaLog → Sprawl (13 Mar 2003)
Thursday 13 March 2003


Water Makes Things Wet
Sky Blue, Say Researchers
Tonight Expected To Be Dark

All headlines from the Washington Post. Just kidding. The Post did, however, recently have a story headlined Density Limits Only Add To Sprawl, which is in about the same class.

I shouldn’t make fun; writing headlines is hard work, and most of the dumbest headlines are the result of someone trying to find something that’ll fit and that can be written in twenty seconds. But still, this one is quite a doozy: Density Limits Only Add To Sprawl. Every definition I can find for sprawl involves the phrase ‘spread out’, and it seems rather obvious that regulations requiring houses to be built on 5-acre or larger lots would cause them to spread out.

The people who make the laws aren’t quite that stupid. The more cynical of you are shaking your heads and laughing ruefully right now, but trust me, they’re not that stupid. It’s just that sprawl is a euphemism for what they’re trying to put an end to. I’d say that what they’re trying to put an end to is suburbia.

Unfortunately, requiring that people live on five-acre plots is exactly the wrong thing to do. The suburbs originally promised escape from the crowded and inconvenient cities. We now see, though, that once enough people live in the suburbs, they’re just as crowded-feeling and a lot more inconvenient than the cities were.

And what’s worse, while we’ve got technology to mitigate some of the problems of the cities — mass transit, mainly — there’s not much you can do with the suburbs. The suburbs’ main problem is one of transportation. While you’re at home, the ‘burbs are relatively pleasant, and while you’re in the big-box store, they’re convenient. The experience of getting between the two gets worse and worse. The suburban density is far too low for walking or mass transit systems to be viable means of getting around, and it’s too dense to get around by car — unless you don’t mind a net speed of about 10 mph as you sit in traffic. Most people mind.

The current political wisdom is that the suburban nightmare can be cured by leavening the mix with Open Space — conveniently ignoring that the current suburbs have plenty of open space, mostly in the form of parking lots, and they’re already problematic.

The Open Space that the politicians seem to favor, though, involves trees and lawns on private property surrounding houses. While trees and lawns (and even Open Space) can all be very pleasant, has it not occurred to the Powers What Be that the people living in the midst of all this open space will still have to work, shop, and go to school? Do they believe that offices, stores, and schools will scale themselves down and intersperse themselves nicely among these 5-acre homesites? Do they propose to even allow these stores etc. to do this, in the extremely unlikely event that they’d want to? Of course not. The non-residential uses will still be smeared out along an awful commercial strip that’ll be no less horrible than the commercial strips of today. And the strip will be clogged with cars, much as it is today — except that the people in the cars will have spent far more time in them before encountering the traffic jam. Ah, progress.

Posted by tino at 23:42 13.03.03
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