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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

It doesn't have to be low-density to be sprawl

Kaid Benfield

Posted August 6, 2012

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  sprawl, somewhere in America (c2012 by FK Benfield)

On my flight home from California last week, I took the photo above.  It's not the greatest photo, but I captured the image to illustrate the edge of suburban sprawl in some place or other, I'm not sure where.

Reviewing it later, one of the things that struck me is that the development protruding onto the landscape in the photo is actually relatively high-density, as single-family residential development goes.  Those are small lots, and my very wild guess is that we could be looking at 15-20 homes per acre, enough to pass the density prerequisite of LEED for Neighborhood Development and maybe even earn a density point or two.

But everything else about that development looks SO wrong - leapfrogging across opportunities for contiguous development, fragmenting the landscape, extending the footprint of the region, lacking connectivity, in an area that looks seriously short of water supplies.  It's not really low-density, but it's definitely sprawl.  I'm sure its transportation characteristics are horrible.

  sprawl near Tucson (by: Daniel Lobo, creative commons)

Likewise for the photo above, of development somewhere in the vicinity of Tucson.

Search for almost any definition of suburban sprawl and you will likely find a reference to low-density development.  For a lot of people, the terms are synonymous:  if it's sprawl, it's low-density and, if it's low-density, it's sprawl.  Among many urban advocates, the corollary is that, if low density is bad, then high density is good, the higher the better.

  Houston suburbs (by: Nelson Minar, creative commons)

But, for quite a while now, I've been thinking that it's much more complicated than that.  Higher densities by themselves don't cure sprawl, and sometimes even create new problems that muct be dealt with.  Density is important, but it isn't enough and must be approached with sensitivity.  The image above is of a Houston suburb; those lots are tiny, especially in the upper portion of the photo.  But it qualifies as sprawl in my book.

  agriculture, somewhere in America (c2012 by FK Benfield)

Finally, I can't resist posting another photo I took on the same flight.  If there is such a thing as agricultural sprawl, this may be an example.  Does that look like a great place to be drawing groundwater from the aquifer or diverting it from a waterway so you can grow irrigated crops?  I don't pretend expertise when it comes to agriculture, but to me this looks like a remote, dry location intrinsically undersuited for farming.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Ken FirestoneAug 6 2012 10:17 AM

Los Angeles overall is very high density.

Howard BlacksonAug 6 2012 11:17 AM

As Leon Krier said upon landing in San Diego in 2009, "When I flew in over the desert, I could not imagine that such a large city as San Diego would appear on the horizon in an ecology for which it’s clearly not made.”

MCAug 6 2012 05:35 PM

Struggling to see what is new here ... sprawl has long been defined to include leapfrog development, poor connectivity for autos, transit and pedestrians, separation of land uses, and related factors.

I would guess these developments, if they are primarily single-family, are not 15-20 du/ac (which is on the dense end of traditional rowhouse development), but more in the neighborhood of 6 du/ac (true, about the same as many premier new urbanist subdivisions). If they are considered to be on the outer edges of the transect, this actually seems like it may be an appropriate density if they somehow fit into a larger urban pattern than includes transit, denser nodes and corridors... what they do illustrate is that density in and of itself does not make for a desirable place to live ... I assume people move here because its what they can afford.

Robert WatkinsAug 6 2012 06:00 PM

Yes, what you saw is 5-6 units per acre. Central cities are higher. For example, it has been estimated that San Francisco averages over 12 units per acre, which as you can imagine is not high compared to some cities. Such densities are essential to support transit and high economic productivity.

planthenorthAug 6 2012 08:53 PM

I'm not sure where you grew up, but not only does that development count as sprawl, it also counts as low density.

Can it support public transit? Not likely. Can you walk to the corner store? I couldn't make out any commercial in walkable distance.

Those lots are not "tiny"; there's only one dwelling unit per each and they still have room for swimming pools. This doesn't even qualify as medium density in my books.

jeffAug 7 2012 09:18 AM

Without more context, I'm failing to see how the first picture represents sprawl. In the left side of the photo you see more or less the same level of density on the other side of the man-made boundary of whatever highway that is. To the right is a natural barrier of a small mountain. There appears to be quite a bit more land to build on before reaching that natural barrier.

Had the photo shown a gulf between existing settlement, a blasted-out mountain to make room for an extension of the highway and new development a ways beyond that, then sure that would be sprawl. Given the proximity to what was already there, this is simply, well, growth.

Roland BeinertAug 7 2012 10:40 AM

There's a free pdf on the internet called "Visualizing Density". Very helpful. Just google it. Those developments are somewhere between 2-8 DUA. Definitely not 15-20.
Low density is definitely not a requirement for sprawl. There are plenty of apartment complexes out there that qualify as sprawl.
I agree that people have latched onto density and talk about it as if its the only important issue for development. A lot of times this makes discussions about good vs bad development very simplistic and black and white.

MattAug 7 2012 11:21 AM

Your point about separating the conversations about density and sprawl is well taken. I would be careful when extending it to "agricultural sprawl." Using technology to feed more people is a good thing. If we are going to be able to live in dense cities, then we need all sorts of farms, which is where our food comes from.

Jeffrey JakucykAug 7 2012 12:59 PM

The previous commentators pretty much took care of my showing how this sort of development is still very much sprawl. What does bear repeating though is that density by itself does not equal urbanism or good placemaking. Rows of gargantuan skyscrapers separated by nebulous green space or parking lots are no more urban than these housing subdivisions. You could call that vertical sprawl. If the development does not enable walking, good street life, and mixed uses, then it's not truly urban.

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