The Truth about Sprawl

October 2, 2007 16:28

Written by Rick Harrison

It is not necessarily a dirty word.

We do not have a sprawl problem rapidly consuming our lands as you might believe from reading most books and articles on the subject written by a variety of experts. What we have in America is unprecedented growth. Let me explain:

At the turn of the century, over 100 years ago there were only 76 million Americans. Today there are over 300 million. One of the reasons is that life expectancy in the same time period grew from 48 years to 75 years. One third of our population growth is because of the advances in medicine and health care. Without those advances our population would be only 200 million people.

According to information from Scott Templeton of the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics from Clemson University, backed by data from Demographia, our suburban and urban cities encompass about 100 million acres of land, or about 155,000 square miles. The continental land of the United States is 2,870,084 square miles – not including Hawaii or Alaska (population approximately two million). Simply put, our sprawling cities and suburbs consume only 5.4 percent of the available lands.

There are 300 million people that live on 100 million acres. This equates to only three people per acre. The 100 million acres include non-residential uses, like shops to buy things and places to work, and parks to play. This also of course, assumes the entire population lives in cities and suburbs. Factoring rural population in America we are somewhat less than three persons per acre in our cities and suburbs.

To put this in another perspective, the entire American population can all live within the State of California at the same average density (three persons per acre) and leave the rest of the country untouched and natural. There would still be almost 10,000 square miles left to develop within California alone. Of course those areas left would likely be in mountainous terrain, difficult to inhabit.

Now let’s take this scenario further. What if we actually did all move to California? Would that completely solve our sprawl problems?

Concentration of huge populations in one area guarantees traffic congestion. Selling goods and services from San Diego to customers in San Francisco, according to MapQuest, is a seven hour and 45 minute drive of 503 miles. However, when we all move to California, the already over-loaded highways will become far worse, so flying would make more sense. But then our national 5,300 public-use airports (Bureau of Transportation Statistics) will be reduced to only California’s approximately 300 airports servicing 8,100 aircraft owned by airlines and the 217,500 private aircraft all trying to avoid each other in the limited crowded airspace. Since land would be extremely hard to come by, the price for housing would be prohibitive. People would not in fact be equally spread out at three persons per acre, as low income families surely would live in dense, high density “projects” with only the rich upper class enjoying any sense of space. Where this theory of the mega city breaks down is that all this population must be served by goods made with raw materials from somewhere…

Raw materials and goods could be serviced from Pacific ports – good news for Japan and China, not so good for European Markets. Florida oranges? Just use the ones grown in California, but wait… there’s no farm land left to grow these products… they will need to be grown elsewhere (Florida?). There will need to be some people mining raw materials in various states that are rich with them. Others will need to be in the states best for growing cotton, corn, soy, etc.

People will have to live in regions best for raising cattle, chickens, and other animals. Others would need to catch fish that live in various coasts around the perimeter of America. These small settlements would need products and services from other regions. This would require a minimum of high speed rail and highways. Airports should also serve these outposts. Families would need housing and clothing. Perhaps the majority of those living in congested California may hear of these wonderful new outposts offering space and fresh air and more affordable land and housing. They may decide that there are opportunities to open businesses where living would be better. Perhaps some of these outposts would be run by people who would want their area to have the benefits that only a larger town could offer and create incentives for people to move. Eventually more and more cities and towns would be established offering advantages and incentives for business to open there. These towns will need skilled people for construction, engineers to design, police to keep order, cooks, teachers, etc.

If we all moved to California, eventually, over time, America would not be all that much different than today.

Migration Patterns of the Homo Sapiens…

For the most part the “Americannus Humanicus “ is a migratory species. Unlike the “Apis mellifera” (Bumble Bee) that lives within a single hive, its nine month life – working daily only for the good of the community, the Americannus is more aware of its self being. A mere hole in the comb will not satisfy this beast. The Americannus has evolved rapidly. Just 60 years ago the average nest was 1,200 square feet, today the Americannus consumes on average 2,600 square feet of nest. But even then that is not enough. Offspring, not satisfied with the nest of their parents, strive for new nests. When food supplies run out (employment), they quickly seek new locations where the supply is more plentiful. Unlike the Bumble Bee, the Americannus seems to prefer space, not wanting to be intimate with the living patterns of neighboring nests of its own species. As Americannus age coming to the latter part of their life cycle, they appear to be moving toward warmer climates, leaving existing nests for younger offspring. Today there are growing swarms of aging Americannus migrating to the southern climates. In particular the states of Florida and Arizona have been infested, and it seems that the Carolinas are becoming prime locations for infestation.

Scientists, politicians, and focus groups have named this phenomenon “sprawl.” Many, if not the majority of them, think that to control this breed, they must be gathered in tighter spaces… they call this pattern “New Urbanism.”

Is New Urbanism the Answer?

Sprawl is a by-product of growth and choice. New Urbanism will have very little (or nothing at all) to do to influence the overall impact of sprawl. Put another way, if all of our cities were built to higher densities, they would still exist at the same distances apart. Highway miles, air travel, rail transit would be no different. Within the communities, in theory residents would live in harmony, strolling through tree-lined streets gathering at destinations just a five or ten minute walk away. Living, working and shopping at locations just minutes from their mandatory porch. Everyone essentially listening to the same tune, day after day, in densities guaranteed to make sure everyone will know each other’s “business.” Locals will shop at the same store where limited exposure will make discounts nearly impossible to stay in business (if they can actually survive without arterial road exposure), all get their hair done at the same place, eat at the same restaurants, etc.

This design theory dates back to the days when women did not vote, where families owned but a single car (maybe). Transportation was scarce. Not everyone was happy back then, people struggled much more than today and life was much shorter. Where are all of these turn of the century neighborhoods? Many of these cities that have the identical pattern of New Urbanism today have become crime ridden slums that are a blemish on the American landscape. Think alleys are safe? Minneapolis, Minnesota recently tried to pass a law making it illegal to walk in an alley because they are perceived as being dangerous due to an increase in alley-based crimes.

Sure there are many articles written of taking blighted locations in our cities and making them flourishing gentrified meccas for upscale urbanites. Where is one single article showing how the living standards of the poor who were displaced as their buildings were torn down were improved. What exactly happed to all those people? Certainly they would no longer be acceptable residents to these newly formed communities. Where are all the investigative reporters following the lives of the displaced? Where exactly do they go?

The architectural and landscaping detail needed to successfully pull off the higher density New Urbanism far out-spends the savings in land (raw land costs per unit) to make it a viable (affordable) solution. The mass of rooftop and paved surfaces everywhere leaves very little green-space or “pervious surface.” This means as rain falls onto all that concrete and rooftop it runs off the land in massive volume creating terrible environmental impacts – yet it’s embraced by virtually every environmental organization!

The fact is only a small portion of our population buy into the promises that New Urbanism makes, and fewer yet can afford it. New Urbanism is a solution to a select group that represents a small percentage of home buyers, and will remain so. New Urbanism is a design solution among many other possible solutions for a localized area (for some reason ignored by politicians, organizations, and focus groups), not something that can even remotely be viewed as a solution to mitigate sprawl.

If New Urbanism is Not a Solution, What is?

Today we need to create design solutions that offer far more efficient traffic systems with better flow, as well as safe pedestrian systems designed to encourage taking a stroll instead of a drive. We do need to recognize that we live in a weather chamber where it will not be practical to walk everywhere – every day. The car is not some evil contraption created by the Devil… it gives us our freedom that would have been unimaginable just a century ago. As fuel cost rise, we will simply buy much more efficient vehicles which will spur huge sales for the industry that makes them. Home heating and air conditioning costs will surely be a major factor, especially when we start plugging in our vehicles to the already loaded electrical grids in the next decade. This will require more innovation with new products and solutions. All the solutions must be priced so that not just the restaurant owner, but also the restaurant workers can afford them. Space is not an evil thing, we can deliver solutions that provide the space that the typical home buyer (or renter) desires by using new and efficient designs in our homes and neighborhoods.

Transportation systems need to be expanded to keep up with growth with practical solutions that people will actually use. Instead of pointing to the car as the root of all evil, we need to thank our lucky stars we were not born a century ago, where traveling from Detroit to Chicago was a huge event for most, not an afternoon drive that could be taken on a whim. Will the vehicle companies respond? If they want business they will. In theory, more and more people will be working at home, but the reality is that employers like to know that employees are spending their time working, instead of mowing the lawn or watching soap operas.

There is one thing for sure, the same ‘ol, same ‘ol won’t cut it anymore. SLDT

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