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Guest Editorial
by Dr. John Holtzclaw, Sierra Club

Why is Sprawl Such a Disaster?

Environmentalists are behind initiatives around the country to curb sprawl. Last November, we won 124 of 148—84 percent!—of them. We seem obsessed with urban and suburban design. Why? Because how much we consume—and pollute—depends to a great extent on where we live, upon our neighborhoods.

Start with the land on which we live. We've already covered nearly five percent of our country with urban-suburban sprawl—that's more land than all of New England, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia combined! A million families living in sprawling New York suburbs, for instance, at one unit per residential acre, occupy one million acres—1,560 square miles. That's 400 times as much as a million living in Manhattan at 400 units per residential acre—less than four square miles. Or 100 times more per family than we average in the Russian, Nob and Telegraph Hills, North Beach and Chinatown neighborhoods of San Francisco, where I live.

Consider how we construct a housing tract in suburbia and beyond. We plat the land with perhaps eight lots on each side of the block. Then we trench down the middle of the street and lay our water pipes, with branches off to and within each home. The same with pipes and wiring for sewer, gas, electrical, phone and cable service. In two blocks we build 32 houses. If, instead, we constructed those 32 units as a three- or four-story apartment building on the first lot, we would use 1/32 as much land, while saving most of this pipe and wiring. We find similar road and driveway pavement savings. The multi-family housing requires much less construction material because its units share walls and ceiling-floors. And sharing walls cuts solar and wind-chill loadings, saving heating and cooling costs. The extra utilities and the new public buildings required to serve brand-new communities drive up local taxes. The Sierra Club's The Dark Side of the American Dream:  The Costs and Consequences of Suburban Sprawl reports lay out the additional taxes required to support low density development. This and other sprawl- and transportation-related materials can be found on our website.

Furthermore, density begets convenience. I have more than 700 restaurants within an easy one-mile walk of home. Even more markets. Plus many of that necessity of modern life, video rental stores. Shopping for produce as I walk home through Chinatown costs me perhaps three minutes and 20 additional steps. Consequently, I don't need a car, or have a car. Nor do many of my neighbors.

Getting stuck in traffic congestion is a burden we're willing to forgo. Nor do we have to remember insurance or registration due dates. Or worry about whether our car's sharing the parking lot with demolition derby drivers. Nor breathe toxic fumes while refueling our cars.

Within a quarter-mile of home, I'm offered hundreds of buses or cable cars an hour. You don't have this quality of public transit in sprawling areas, where destinations are much further away and fewer homes are within walking distance of the bus stop. Empty buses are expensive to run, so bus service is cut to one per hour. Consequently, the average resident of a sprawled suburb in the Bay Area seldom uses public transit, and drives four times as much as my neighbors and me. As researchers, we've found the same type of pattern in every metropolitan area we've studied.  Must be a law of nature: sprawl = driving + driving + driving.

America's most sprawling cities.
America's most sprawling cities,
according to the Sierra Club's recent study.

Graphic courtesy of Sierra Club.

My neighborhood's sidewalks are lively with neighbors and other walkers. As we pause to chat, we not only make friends, but also build a sense of involvement in the community. Our "home" is much larger than the house or apartment we live in.

Some sprawl apologists equate urban density with overcrowding and mental illness, citing a study of overcrowded rats 30 years ago. True, if you crowd 8, 12 or 20 people into a 4-room apartment they'll keep running into each other and develop "attitudes." That's overcrowding, not density. Density is the number of homes to the acre. It says nothing about the household size, or people per room. In most dense urban areas apartments are smaller than the average bloated suburban house, but so are the household sizes. I have a 4-room apartment to myself. Hardly overcrowding. And in 1977 researchers reported 20 percent higher mental problems in U.S. cities with a population less than 50,000 than in those more than 50,000.

Americans find the isolation and alienation of sprawl unappealing, as is shown by the Sierra Club's Tours de Sprawl, where we take decision makers on tours of what they have wrought, as well as tours of attractive denser, mixed-use infill neighborhoods.

Residential sprawl.
Residential sprawl.
Photo by Olive Mayer, courtesy of Sierra Club.

Visual preference surveys show that most Americans prefer these kinds of neighborhoods:  Narrow streets lined with mature trees and wide sidewalks. Curbside parking. Housing of varied styles and heights fronting the sidewalk—three to five stories allures, even an occasional high-rise is fine. The quality of the architecture and construction is important. Miniparks, seating, bus shelters and occasional fountains add to the ambience. And, of course, corner markets, sidewalk coffee shops and restaurants. This is, after all, a city—the seat of culture, museums, orchestras, bands, haute cuisine and cheap ethnic restaurants. We've got choice—where to shop, what to do, and how to get there. Density equals convenience and choice.

What can we do with the endless miles of sprawling areas we have already constructed? Prudence suggests we should make them more livable. A few blocks of three- to five-story apartment houses, built out to the sidewalk—with ground-level markets and restaurants and very limited parking, along many of these suburbs' major streets could make these areas much more convenient and shorten trips. These reforms require modernizing our zoning laws to once again allow commerce along suburban residential streets, to narrow our streets and return to grid layouts, to require sidewalks, to eliminate the front and side-yard setback requirements and to reduce the off-street parking requirements. Each of these reforms is crucial. The first allows restaurants and markets to locate nearer to where we live—reducing the lengths of many of the 75 to 80 percent of trips that are non-commute. The others reduce land consumption, make our neighborhoods walkable and reduce the costs of housing.


Dr. John Holtzclaw studies the impacts of land uses on transportation, materials and energy consumption, and pollution. He is chair of Sierra Club's Transportation Committee and on its Challenge to Sprawl Campaign. Much of his research has also been for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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Sprawl is low-density development beyond the edge of service and employment, which separates where people live from where they shop, work, recreate, and educate—thus requiring cars to move between zones.

The Dark Side of the American Dream:
The Costs and Consequences of Sprawl




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