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Smart Sprawl

On balance, it's not too difficult to think up ways to make cities more sustainable if you're able to create something new. Figuring out the right combination of transportation, infrastructure, and services to promote livability, strengthen the economy, and keep efficiency up and resource use down is much easier when you can plan out the whole thing in advance. But such opportunities are rare -- and, as we see in New Orleans -- are themselves often fraught with tragedy. Building sustainable cities means working with what we've got; in most cases, that means working with sprawl.

The effects of sprawl can be confronted at the local level and at the regional level, and demand not just rethinking the transit systems, but re-examining how we want our cities to operate. But what would such a process look like? Walter Siembab, Principal of Siembab Planning Associates, has one approach: he calls it "Smart Sprawl."

Smart Sprawl combines some traditional urban theory with networked approach to systems. It's a technology-intensive model -- something we're not entirely adverse to here -- but focuses primarily on changing behavior in ways that both improve the sustainability footprint of communities and makes the inhabitants' lives better.

Smart sprawl is a suburb of any density that has been retrofit so that residents can shop, obtain services and work (at least a day or two a week) all within a mile or two of their home, and where those relatively short trips are completed using transit or vehicles that do not consume gasoline or other carbon-based fuels.

Smart sprawl is a way of reducing dependence on high performance automobiles while growing local economies in suburban neighborhoods and villages in every metropolitan area, regardless of density. Smart sprawl can be implemented in a short time frame at less cost than existing transportation and economic strategies. Unlike smart growth, smart sprawl does not require extensive new construction of buildings or rail systems. [...]

The idea is to retrofit suburban areas with a public network infrastructure that reaches existing bricks-and-mortar neighborhood nodes that can be programmed to shorten average vehicle-trip lengths and serve local economic development goals.

Siembab's presentation (an editorial at Planetizen) unfortunately spends more time on justifying the need for Smart Sprawl than on describing the process itself. In a way, he almost goes too far, pulling in references to James Howard Kunstler and to Jan Lundberg's collapse of civilization stories; if things get that bad, it's hard to imagine how the "Smart Sprawl" model would suffice.

But I think that Siembab's onto something when he expressly uses the distributed network model for how suburbia could be transformed into a more sustainable mode of living. We know that networks of smaller networks and computing systems can perform better than centralized information resources; is there some way those lessons can be reimagined with cities in mind? I don't have an answer to this, only a gut sense that something important might be there. Even if Siembab's "Smart Sprawl" concept isn't quite the answer, we do need to come up with a way to reinvent our suburban areas as places of greater sustainability and efficiency -- and looking outside traditional urban theory seems a good place to start.

Comments (5)

Ah, the sim city impulse! Build a fairly stable city, turn off disasters, run the simulator for a few days to build up a huge fund, then bulldoze everything in sight to remake the city in just the way you always wanted it!

Too bad (Or perhaps this is a good thing!) we can't do that in the real world. People grow attachments to old buildings and neighborhoods. And to a certain extent sometimes neighborhoods with great architectural character act to draw people and money to them to stay vital.

This is one of the reasons why suburbia seems so hollow to me, no historical character--no character of any sort really.

The same process that creates organisms - a process of gradual differentiation and repair - can transform sprawl into viability and health. It preserves what's whole and working in the existing situation, but keeps asking how to improve it. The process can't be done from one grand "master plan". It's fractal, the same fundamental process operating on multiple scales, but with no one operating above the scale of their competence. It's iterative, small steps and then taking stock, then taking small steps again. It's patient, thoughtful, studious, inquisitive, adaptable, ego-less.

It can't be done if a fundamental goal is short-term profit maximization, especially for absent developers. It just can't. It is very, very hard to do with transient people and temporary commitments to a place. People need to stick around and think long-term. (I call that "thinking in tree time" because I like to plant trees.)

In addition to feeling like you belong in a place, and to a place, you have to feel empowered to help shape it. Then you have to feel that what you're doing isn't just for your sake, but also for the betterment of your surroundings, your neighborhood, village, town or city, watershed, region, planet. You have to know your place and all your neighbors, human or otherwise. You have to cooperate. You have to think that for you to "win", what's around you needs to "win" too.

That fundamental process, endlessly repeated, can gradually turn sprawl from dumb to smart. But within our current way of thinking and acting, it's really hard.

it seems like most cities are evolving this way anyway. I mean Atlanta consists of many connected neighborhoods with resources fairly close by for daily life and almost any major city has millions of smaller neighrborhoods that are fairly self-serving. West U in Houston, TX has several small grocery stores, a library, baseball fields etc. Hongdae in Seoul has most of the cultural resources available in Korea compacted into one neighborhood with a lot of music to boot all with in walking distance. I'm sure the proposal here is a bit more complicated than the simple ammeneties I've mentioned here, but the advantage to this strategy that I see is that it can be enacted locally, have a neighborhood meeting or block party and get cooking on discussing how to implement this stuff instead of having to lobby citywide. And it seems like car-sharing could provide your local transit pretty easily or bike sharing. Is there a site that could provide people with easy and implementable ways to better their neighborhoods? kinda like a howtoons for urban planning.



ok actually read the article:

"nodes can be used to deliver training and counseling that will support the growth of small businesses and improve labor force skills"

Historically centers like this have been available all over the world. Paul Revere set up a vocational institute in Boston for training immigrants, in Shanghai businesses are taking collections from employees and sending the homeless to schools for job training. Secondly, we already have community centers all over the u.s. doing stuff like this. I took a course in building robots once at one, others have yoga, etc. most have some type of so you want to start a small business program. this is pretty normal and has been in place for awhile. Additionally this dude doesn't tell us why people should come to these nodes, how he would make them aware of them etc.

"telemedicine, e-government, e-commerce, e-retailing, distance education and so forth."

why can't you just do e-commerce and e-government from your home? it's easy and even if your poor internet is going down and wi-fi networks are springing up. telemedicine might work for vacinations and yearly check-ups, but not for consoueling cancer patients and other serious ills where a doctor in the room would be prefered.

"Once the network of nodes has been programmed so that neighborhoods and villages can increase their internal trip capture rate, neighborhood vehicles that are smaller, slower, oil-independent, and much less polluting than current gasoline-powered vehicles can be introduced on a broad scale"

what are these vechiles? and this seems like a really bad idea. if your wealthy and already own a car, why by a smaller more eco-friendly car? just make the original car more eco-friendly. This we have to confront what about areas where most people can barely even afford a car to begin with? they'll still need to make trips out of the state or city occasionally.

Tom Radulovich:

Thanks for this, Jamais.

David Foley is on the right track--the thing that will allow sprawl to go from dumb to smart is to let it develop in the ways that smart, resilient ecosystems and cities get smarter: by diversifying. "Old growth" cities are generally dense and diverse, with well-developed local cultures of place-based know-how. Sprawl is for the most part a monoculture, maintained at great cost in energy and complex infrastructure--the urbanist equivalent of golf course turf. As energy costs increase, maintaining dumb, energy-intensive sprawl will become less and less tenable. Part of the challenge is amending the planning and zoning codes that keep sprawl dumb, and allow the city-building processes--diversification, densification, concentration, mixed uses, pedestrian scale, import replacement, etc.-- to take place. This is not to say that there is no need for planning--creating efficient regional transport networks that link these suburban centers to one another and to the historic centers, and retrofitting the suburban streets to allow walking and cycling--will help these non-places become places, and become viable over the longer term.


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