Sprawl and Serenity

Advocates of dense and sustainable urban form often have trouble appreciating how serene suburban sprawl can be to some eyes.  The Boston Globe has a marvellous collection of Google Earth images of Florida sprawl, including both complete developments and bankrupt, incomplete ones.

Fl sprawl

Look through them all yourself.  While many are confronting, some are quite serene, even to the aerial eye.  I’m not saying that I’m converting to sprawl-advocacy as a stress-reduction program, but I do think it’s important to notice how sprawl works on the mind.  This particular image — of a development that went bankrupt after two houses were built — is distinctly remniscent of Piet Mondrian, the early-20c painter who first explored gridded abstraction as a way to both tease and console the eye.

14 Responses to Sprawl and Serenity

  1. oscar October 12, 2010 at 7:58 am #

    you make a good point.
    i find it difficult to dispute the serenity of suburbia when visiting with friends/family.
    and if you don’t have to physically commute into the city every day, it becomes very tempting, so long as basic amenities can be walked to locally

  2. anonymouse October 12, 2010 at 9:29 am #

    Some actually do look serene, but I remember flying over Atlanta and thinking the sprawl being built looks like a cancer metastatizing across the landscape, as the unbroken forest gets carved up into a maze of twisty little streets, all alike. I think some of it may have to do with the way suburbs are built. Regardless of what the landscape looks like originally, it is first reduced to the american ideal: completely flat and treeless. Only then can the houses (or stores or parking lots) be built.

  3. John Bailo October 12, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    That’s funny, just this morning I was doing that in my own town of Kent (East Hill) Washington. I was reading an article about a developer here in this sprawling exurb and its car dominated culture (all of which I love) who is building a new style of “Cottage House” living. Small houses with a central green space and co-housing type community rooms.
    Cottage-style developments in Kent: Moving away from ‘cookie cutter’

  4. Alon Levy October 12, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    These really don’t look serene to me. The aerial photos sometimes look orderly, but they don’t look like the sort of place I’d find relaxing. On the contrary, suburbia only makes me more stressed, because I can’t really go anywhere.

  5. Julia Ringma October 12, 2010 at 11:58 am #

    We are two weeks away from municipal elections and I have been walking and biking door to door, delivering flyers. Some suburbs are beautiful, with mature trees, no traffic, lovely landscaping. But then you notice how eerily quiet they are, how very few people are outside, either in the front or the back yards, how there are no “eyes on the neighbourhood”, how even in the areas of very expensive homes, people don’t know each other as neeighbours and don’t engage. It’s interesting.

  6. Spudhead October 12, 2010 at 1:17 pm #

    They do look nice, however what strikes me more is how poorly laid out most of these communities are for human level transport, be it bicycle, walking or transit. The possibilities of kids walking to school or for adults to catch transit are small as they are (mostly) laid out as cul de sacs and will become car dependent.

  7. Wai Yip Tung October 12, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    I have studied the aerial map of Detroit. I’m really puzzled by the sparseness of house in the tracts close to down town. The dense street grid are definitely built to support a lot of residential development. But why is less than 30% of them are developed? Is it always this way? How does the economic downturn affect this pattern? I appreciate anyone familiar with the city illuminates.
    The residential plot further away from the downtown shows a lot more robust development level. So it is not like a nuclear bomb has set off in Detroit.

  8. K October 12, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    Wai, you might like to do some reading about Detroit. Those gaps did once contain development, they have long since been destroyed. Try to find a copy of the documentary “Requiem for Detroit” for an explanation of what happened.

  9. Ben Smith October 12, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    When coming back from Florida, I recognized Pittsburgh from the plane. And once coming back from the east coast, I pointed out my own house from the plane (being a map geek has its perks eh).
    While I can’t speak for all cul-du-sac neighbourhoods, but mine has a number of pathways which cut through the windy roads. This makes walking somewhat more manageable, and makes cycling almost as fast as driving.

  10. Wai Yip Tung October 12, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    @K, that’s what I long suspected. So I was looking for trace of previous occupation. There must be something left over like the foundation. I mean even Maya and Khmer left traces of their structures. But the Detroit plot looks pristine piece of green. At least that’s what it appears from the air and from the Google Street View.
    In anycase, thanks, I’ll check out the documentary.

  11. Peter Parker October 13, 2010 at 1:55 am #

    To my mind the most serene are when homes are dotted along one road between two towns.
    In other words being on the way!
    Even though residential density is low, bus service levels and patronage can be suprisingly high eg Melbourne Route 683 http://www.metlinkmelbourne.com.au/route/view/925
    As soon as there are multiple parallel roads between towns, or one can’t draw a ‘line of best’ fit that’s direct between A and B, can be driven by road AND is walkable from homes along it, then the effectiveness of public transport drops greatly.
    I wonder if this is one of the reasons for transit working in European mountainous villages where there’s only one road and villages dotted along it?

  12. jarbury October 13, 2010 at 2:50 am #

    Does anyone else get the feeling that these communities were often designed to look far better from the air than they do from the ground?

  13. Paul C, Vancouver October 13, 2010 at 3:22 am #

    While I didn’t look at every picture.
    One common theme I noticed is how in a lot of cases the roads are laid out. Then that is it. You might see 1 or 2 or 3 houses. It almost seems like a waste. Why not just tear the roads up. It seems like an extra cost to maintain those roads. For no apparent benefit.
    All I can say is I almost fell over laughing looking at the pictures.

  14. ffxiv gil October 13, 2010 at 10:35 pm #

    including both complete developments and bankrupt, incomplete ones.