Kaid Benfield

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

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

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    What the New Urban Anchors Owe Their Cities

    Corporations like Google and Amazon reap the spoils of winner-take-all urbanism. Here’s how they can also bear greater responsibility.

  2. Rescue crews and observers on top of the rubble from a collapsed building that fell in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.
    Environment

    A Brigade of Architects and Engineers Rushed to Assess Earthquake Damage in Mexico City

    La Casa del Arquitecto became the headquarters for highly skilled urbanists looking to help and determine why some buildings suffered more spectacularly than others.

  3. Transportation

    Why Are Little Kids in Japan So Independent?

    In Japan, small children take the subway and run errands alone, no parent in sight. The reason why has more to do with social trust than self-reliance.

  4. A LimeBike is pictured next to a Capital Bikeshare dock.
    Transportation

    Bike Share, Unplanned

    Three private bike-share companies are determined to shake up the streets of D.C. But what, exactly, are they trying to disrupt?

  5. Amazon's Seattle headquarters is pictured.
    Life

    The Ultimate List of Top Contenders for Amazon's HQ2

    We sorted through the longshots and likely contenders so you don’t have to.