High Density Sprawl Is Still Sprawl

Don't be fooled - sprawl is about much more than the number of homes per acre.

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Kaid Benfield

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On my flight home from California last week, I took the photo above. It's not the greatest photo, but I captured the image to illustrate the edge of suburban sprawl in some place or other, I'm not sure where.

Reviewing it later, one of the things that struck me is that the development protruding onto the landscape in the photo is actually relatively high-density, as single-family residential development goes. Those are small lots, and my very wild guess is that we could be looking at 15-20 homes per acre, enough to pass the density prerequisite of LEED for Neighborhood Development and maybe even earn a density point or two.

But everything else about that development looks so wrong - leapfrogging across opportunities for contiguous development, fragmenting the landscape, extending the footprint of the region, lacking connectivity, in an area that looks seriously short of water supplies. It's not really low-density, but it's definitely sprawl. I'm sure its transportation characteristics are horrible.

Photo by Daniel Lobo/Flickr

Likewise for the photo above, of development somewhere in the vicinity of Tucson.

Search for almost any definition of suburban sprawl and you will likely find a reference to low-density development. For a lot of people, the terms are synonymous: if it's sprawl, it's low-density and, if it's low-density, it's sprawl. Among many urban advocates, the corollary is that, if low density is bad, then high density is good, the higher the better.


Photo by Nelson Madar/Flickr

Houston suburbs (by: Nelson Minar, creative commons)

But, for quite a while now, I've been thinking that it's much more complicated than that.  Higher densities by themselves don't cure sprawl, and sometimes even create new problems that muct be dealt with. Density is important, but it isn't enough and must be approached with sensitivity. The image above is of a Houston suburb; those lots are tiny, especially in the upper portion of the photo.  But it qualifies as sprawl in my book.


Photo by Kaid Benfield

agriculture, somewhere in America (c2012 by FK Benfield)

Finally, I can't resist posting another photo I took on the same flight. If there is such a thing as agricultural sprawl, this may be an example. Does that look like a great place to be drawing groundwater from the aquifer or diverting it from a waterway so you can grow irrigated crops? I don't pretend expertise when it comes to agriculture, but to me this looks like a remote, dry location intrinsically under-suited for farming.

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.