Sprawled Out

Urban Sprawl
My guest writer is Derek Moss of Osmossis.

It has been asked, what are the problems with sprawl? There seems to be a lot of benefit from it and the suburban neighborhoods in which we live are quite desirable. What are the problems associated with our current pattern of growth? This is my attempt to answer these questions. Most of the material is taken from Andres Duany’s Suburban Nation (2000). Please note, I will clarify my position on most points in the conclusion.

Sprawl Defined

It consists of five parts. The defining characteristic of sprawl is that the parts are strictly segregated. The first is housing subdivisions. They are residential zones comprised of single, and if you’re lucky, double access. The second part is the shopping center. The third is the office or business park. The fourth is civic institutions, like public buildings. In Utah this is debatable simply because our churches, meeting houses, and town halls are often integrated into residential zones, contradictory to sprawl. The fifth, on the other hand, is quite prevalent, and consists of the roads “that are necessary to connect the other four disassociated components” of sprawl. Sprawl is the direct result of an idea, followed by the implementation of policies that made it inevitable.

What is Wrong with Sprawl?

Congestion. Roads in the suburbs are arranged in a street hierarchy, including feeders, primary and secondary collectors, and finally arterials. The system forces all or most of the traffic onto one or possibly two major roadways. Even in small towns, because we have designed the system this way, there are signs of congestion and overwhelming traffic. Do not confuse this with main street America, discussed below.

Accessibility. In relation to the system of roads that have been created is the idea that single access and cul-de-sacs means separation. City planners have decided that we don’t want to live near retail or office space, so we’ve created this illusion by allowing for single access only. Although the shopping center may be right next door, it is all too often inaccessible by walking and the user is forced to drive to the spot, which also happens to be surrounded by a sea of asphalt. Shopping and working has developed a stereotype of being large, busy, congested, and undesirable, therefore encouraging its separation from our residences.

Main Street

Shop Main Street. Photo Credit: SaffannaThis leads to the next topic. Main Street. The corner store has morphed into the convenience store, and main street retail and office has morphed into shopping centers and business parks. In each case, the former is considered contributory, small, convenient, accessible and so forth, while the latter, at least in the case of the convenience store, is considered a blight. The business park is solitary and uncomfortable. My wife, for example, works in a new office building, wonderfully designed, but in a very poor location. The old location was close to downtown, close to food, close to other destinations. Even on such a small scale (the new location is only 5 more minutes away –- 10 total minutes from where we live, by car of course) the difference is significant. Main Street, in most places, is really just a strip center for shopping. It doesn’t provide other necessities and is no longer a gathering place or town center. And in most cases has become abandoned (even in larger cities like Salt Lake). That takes us to our penultimate point, which is the Pedestrian. Sprawl is cutting us off at the knees. It eliminates the use of the legs. More often than not, we can’t even walk to the park. It’s no wonder the nation is becoming more obese. And finally, Income Segregation. The suburbs are becoming less affordable. Of course there are variations on the definition of affordable, and there are many income levels of suburbs. By definition then, certain neighborhoods become less desirable. Such a neighborhood is plagued with instability, struggles to overcome it, and soon becomes a blight. This might be great for the middle-class suburbanite who has separated himself/herself from such, but causes incredible grief when asked: “What are we going to do with that part of town?” “I’m glad we don’t have any of those people in our neighborhood,” it might be said. Those people will soon include your children, as housing that is affordable becomes less available.

The victims of sprawl are “the cul-de-sac kids, soccer moms, bored teenagers, stranded elderly, weary commuters, bankrupt municipalities, and the immobile poor.” I won’t take the time to explain how they are each victimized, but hopefully you can see that the design of our communities is what contributes to it. “Who else is victimized by suburban sprawl? Most obvious are the 80 million Americans who are either too young, too old, or too poor to drive.”


The traditional neighborhood is a pattern of design, different from suburban sprawl, that challenges its citizens to curtail each of the issues described above. There is a picture that illustrates the difference between sprawl and the traditional neighborhood on the Osmossis Blog. It works to disperse traffic by providing multiple accesses/routes. It provides a comprehensive main street. It is pedestrian friendly. And it provides for all levels of income. Planning policies that are currently in place make it nearly impossible to create the traditional neighborhood. It is my proposal that we start making changes in scale, and frequency. Smaller office buildings/shopping centers, more often. We can still have our back yards, but there should at least be a small grocery store within ½ mile (walking distance). Will we walk to that grocery store? Probably not, but it should be an option. Mixed use does not necessarily mean density. By scaling things down, their separation becomes natural as they are integrated into the neighborhood.

Telecommuting, as analyzed by author Anthony Downs in Still Stuck in Traffic (2004), does not necessarily decrease traffic. He writes: “Changing work hours, encouraging telecommuting, and encouraging ride sharing appears to have only limited potential for reducing peak-hour trips. None is likely to decrease such trips initially by more than 5-7 percent, although together they might cause a 10-15 percent initial decrease. But any initial reductions they caused would soon be partly offset by triple convergence. So their net long-run impacts on peak hour congestion would be even smaller.” Triple convergence, in summary, comes in three parts. When traffic is reduced for some reason, spatial convergence applies to those that previously took longer routes to avoid traffic will soon converge to the more direct route. Temporal convergence is those that previously traveled at different times to avoid traffic will converge onto the less congested roadway at peak hours. And modal convergence, as you guessed, are those that previously took alternate modes, like buses and rail, begin driving again. Unless it is on a large scale, there is little difference in traffic patterns. Telecommuting does not necessarily change our pattern of growth. It works well for those that participate, but sprawl still affects us in some of the ways listed above.

All in all, telecommuting may not offset the negative impacts of sprawl. It is a great idea, nonetheless. Telecommuting is cost effective. It opens up many hours of time each week. It can provide work opportunities for all income levels. It benefits both the employer and the employee. It has even been debated that telecommuters are more productive in some ways, being less distracted by other employees, and having a pleasant atmosphere in which to work. Telecommuters may even work more because the work is available all the time. Telecommuting may not offset the negative impacts of sprawl, but it sure is a great work alternative.

Related: Frank Lloyd Wright

Photo Credit: Mark Strozie

Los Angeles Sprawl. Photo Credit: PenMachine


  1. Thanks for being my guest writer and for putting this article together. It is interesting and informative to read through and it is well-written.