Monday, September 21, 2009

Middle Class Sprawl -- Houses, Cars, Food and Peak Oil and Climate Change

By Paul K. Haeder

How we consume -- we being the middle class -- has helped to shape the crisis we are now facing: peak oil, climate change and the housing bubble.

Andres Duany was just awarded the second place honors in a Planetizen
[ ] poll for the Top 100 Urban Thinkers. He's also one of the Founders of the Congress for New Urbanism, which touts this as its main thrust:

Making Connections a Priority
Through grids of streets, transportation choices, and the siting of buildings along sidewalks, New Urbanism brings destinations within reach and allows for frequent encounters between citizens, in sharp contrast to sprawl (right). A key measure of connectivity is how accessible communities are to people with a range of physical abilities and financial resources.

These are what planners and others have been talking about for years -- how we house ourselves, transport ourselves, entertain ourselves, feed ourselves. That is, how we use and abuse land. Is it the middle class that has to take the blame for this current triad of major tipping points? Read his address to The Residential Architects' Sixth Annual Reinvention Convention:

Here is Australian Frank Reale's take on urban sprawl and urbanization in his country. He's a mechanical and electrical engineer and environmental scientist who specialises in energy conservation. He has a special interest in sustainable cities.

"Some efforts have been made to curb the urban spread. Amid backlash, there have been cursory nods in the direction of medium-density housing. Last week, Melburnians heard of plans to turn the 128-hectare former Department of Defence site in Maribyrnong into a new suburb. Such a move would absorb population growth that would otherwise settle on Melbourne's fringes.

The move is a temporary solution — Melbourne's growth cannot be directed into unused pockets of land for long, because such land is limited. Victoria and, indeed, the whole of Australia must think creatively and radically about directing growth away from our burgeoning capital cities.
About half of Australia's population is contained in five state capitals. The result is an over-urbanisation that is inefficient and requires the building of ever-expanding infrastructure, including transport, sewerage, water and energy supply, telecommunications and waste disposal.
Smaller planned cities make more sense. Ideas that might generally be considered too difficult suddenly, in the context of a smaller urban centre, become feasible: storm water harvesting for household and industrial use, water recycling, conversion of sewage and garbage into fuel, and greenhouse market gardens and aquaculture using low-grade waste heat. Smaller cities are efficient. Roads, sewers, water supply pipes, electricity lines and telecommunication links can be shorter and economical. Energy that would otherwise go to waste can be used by homes and industry.

When coal or gas is burned in a power station to produce electricity, a large proportion of heat energy goes into the atmosphere. If commercial and residential buildings are located nearby, this wasted energy could be used for a variety of purposes, including industrial processes and heating. At present, power is produced in places far away from the main glut of population. With the population living and working close to an energy-producing plant, annual efficiency of energy use could be raised from 35 to 70 per cent."

Ahh, the history of sprawl is not bedded only in North America, and a compelling book on Sprawl debunks many preconcieved ideas about density and Europe and what Europeans may desire housing wise compared to North Americans:

Central urban densities are dropping because household sizes are smaller and affluent people occupy more space. Like Americans, Europeans have opted for decentralization. To a great extent, this dispersal is driven by a desire for home-ownership.

"Polls consistently confirm that most Europeans, like most Americans, and indeed most people worldwide, would prefer to live in single-family houses on their own piece of land rather than in apartment buildings," Robert Bruegmann writes, author of Sprawl: A Compact History. He's a professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

So strong is this preference that certain European countries such as Ireland and the United Kingdom now have higher single-family house occupancy rates than the United States, while others, such as Holland, Belgium, and Norway, are comparable. Half of all French households now live in houses.


For a primer on the United States' progression from city to rural life, from dense to sprawl, read James Howard Kunstler's books, Geography of Nowhere & the other one, The Long Emergency. Here's a 12-year-old article in The Atlantic by Kuntster:

Both Duany and Kunstler see cities like living organisms. The hotel Duany spoke at in Seattle once was a sod house, then a wooden building, a much smaller brick building, and then the current larger composite and brick structure with parking garages underground. The fact is the parking lot and the current land use will change. Cities will change. It's just a fact of life. Both expect changes in the landscape quickly, due to all sorts of factors discussed here at PacifiCAD blog; and both see civic life fragmented by what has happened the past 50 years in land use and how we settle. These three colliding issues -- oil/energy; climate change; and economy -- tie into our fragmented social and civic life.


Human settlements are like living organisms. They must grow, and they will change. But we can decide on the nature of that growth -- on the quality and the character of it -- and where it ought to go. We don't have to scatter the building blocks of our civic life all over the countryside, destroying our towns and ruining farmland. We can put the shopping and the offices and the movie theaters and the library all within walking distance of one another. And we can live within walking distance of all these things. We can build our schools close to where the children live, and the school buildings don't have to look like fertilizer plants. We can insist that commercial buildings be more than one story high, and allow people to live in decent apartments over the stores. We can build Main Street and Elm Street and still park our cars. It is within our power to create places that are worthy of our affection.


If you look at the suburbs you will see that much of it [is] potential cities. That parking lot is real estate, and that real estate can be densified.

If sprawl truly is destructive, why is it allowed to continue? The beginning of an answer lies in sprawl's seductive simplicity, the fact that it consists of very few homogeneous components - five in all - which can be arranged in almost any way. It is appropriate to review these parts individually, since they always occur independently. While one component may be adjacent to another, the dominant characteristic of sprawl is that each component is strictly segregated from the others.

Housing subdivisions, also called clusters and pods. These places consist only of residences. They are sometimes called villages, towns, and neighborhoods by their developers, which is misleading, since those terms denote places which are not exclusively residential and which provide an experiential richness not available in a housing tract. Subdivisions can be identified as such by their contrived names, which tend toward the romantic —Pheasant Mill Crossing—and often pay tribute to the natural or historic resource they have displaced.

Shopping centers, also called strip centers, shopping malls, and big-box retail. These are places exclusively for shopping. They come in every size, from the Quick Mart on the corner to the Mall of America, but they are all places to which one is unlikely to walk. The conventional shopping center can be easily distinguished from its traditional main-street counterpart by its lack of housing or offices, its single-story height, and its parking lot between the building and the roadway.

Office parks and business parks. These are places only for work. Derived from the modernist architectural vision of the building standing free in the park, the contemporary office park is usually made of boxes in parking lots. Still imagined as a pastoral workplace isolated in nature, it has kept its idealistic name and also its quality of isolation, but in practice it is more likely to be surrounded by highways than by countryside.

Civic institutions. The fourth component of suburbia is public buildings: the town halls, churches, schools, and other places where people gather for communication and culture. In traditional neighborhoods, these buildings often serve as neighborhood focal points, but in suburbia they take an altered form: large and infrequent, generally unadorned owing to limited funding, surrounded by parking, and located nowhere in particular. The school pictured here shows what a dramatic evolution this building type has undergone in the past thirty years. A comparison between the size of the parking lot and the size of the building is revealing: this is a school to which no child will ever walk. Because pedestrian access is usually nonexistent, and because the dispersion of surrounding homes often makes school buses impractical, schools in the new suburbs are designed based on the assumption of massive automotive transportation.

Roadways. The fifth component of sprawl consists of the miles of pavement that are necessary to connect the other four disassociated components. Since each piece of suburbia serves only one type of activity, and since daily life involves a wide variety of activities, the residents of suburbia spend an unprecedented amount of time and money moving from one place to the next. Since most of this motion takes place in singly occupied automobiles, even a sparsely populated area can generate the traffic of a much larger traditional town.

The traffic load caused by the many disassociated pieces of suburbia is most clearly visible from above. As seen in this image of Palm Beach County, Florida, the amount of pavement (public infrastructure) per building (private structure) is extremely high, especially when compared to the efficiency of a section of an older city like Washington, D.C. The same economic relationship is at work underground, where low-density land-use patterns require greater lengths of pipe and conduit to distribute municipal services. This high ratio of public to private expenditure helps explain why suburban municipalities are finding that new growth fails to pay for itself at acceptable levels of taxation.
We'll look at land use and the changes that need to be made to transform our built and unbuilt envirnments in many future blogs. What's your take on sprawl? Here are some key documentaries: The Story of Sprawl

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