The discussion we're having on the word sprawl this week feels like a learning moment, both for you -- the audience -- and for me. Most of the great intellectual leaps forward in this movement have come from me putting something out there, you all reacting in ways that help me further reflect on my initial thoughts and then me following up with what is hopefully some clarity.
Let me start by clarifying a few things and then I'll address the broad categories of response to Monday's post, Sprawl is not the problem.
First, the headline was "sprawl is not THE problem" (emphasis added). I actually suggested that sprawl -- however one may define it -- is a symptom of a larger problem, but I certainly was not implying that Strong Towns is a pro-sprawl organization. I'm not sure how some of you took that away from the piece, yet some did.
A review for those of you that are new to our conversation (our audience has doubled again in the first quarter of this year, which is astounding, so that means a ton of you are new): I'm an engineer who built frontage roads, cul-de-sacs and all the related types of development. I'm also a planner who wrote thousands of permits for construction of the same. Growing up in small town America, I don't have the visceral and caustic reaction to the form and aesthetics of "sprawl" that many of you have. I've come to appreciate some of those critiques, but my entry into this conversation was through the door of finance.
The stuff I was building didn't make any financial sense. I would run the numbers, look at it in many different ways, and could not find how this all ended well. I assumed that I was wrong, that other people smarter than me had this figured out and that somehow I had overlooked some complex relationship or another. Over time, as the case studies have piled up and the data has become overwhelming, I've come to understand that we've collectively made a huge mistake. That's rather understating it, actually.
So "sprawl" -- and we're going to get into some of your definitions here in a moment -- was never the problem I was trying to address. The problem I've been trying to solve is different: Why, despite all the growth we've experienced, are our cities, families and neighborhoods going bankrupt? Why the persistent decline despite our great affluence?
In trying to understand the answer to that question, I've come to appreciate how our current approach to growth and development operates like a financial ponzi scheme, providing quick growth and high immediate returns in exchange for enormous, unpayable long term liabilities. I've come to understand how our pursuit of growth has prompted us to culturally obsess over things like efficiency instead of embracing a far more complex, and resilient, way of achieving prosperity. I've noted how orderly but dumb (top down) systems perpetuate the worst of these problems while they simultaneously resist change, even when change is broadly demanded by the culture, and how chaotic but smart systems (bottom up), while scary to an affluent society, are the only way real progress can be sustained.
This has all helped me discern that the two primary characteristics distinguishing successful development patterns from destructive ones are (1) the scale at which things are built and (2) whether or not there are opportunities to adapt over time. I've called this the difference between the Suburban Experiment and the Traditional Development Pattern, the former of which builds in large blocks to a finished state and the latter which is more incremental with continual adaptation. This is a simplification, of course, but it is a clear expression of the defining characteristics that tend to create long term success or failure.
Complex adaptive systems grow incrementally and use continual feedback to refine their approach and adapt to new realities. The leap of faith for our movement -- the assumption behind all of this -- is the belief that cities are complex adaptive systems. Many of you that are pushing back on my insights about sprawl and smart growth give passive acceptance to this assumption, but you don't really believe it. You still think that the right set of policies, programs and investments -- especially when organized by a centralized and intellectually superior authority -- can make things work. That's not how complex adaptive systems function.
I used a Google search to find a definition of sprawl. Many of you took issue with that definition and provided your own. I'm going to react to them in a Strong Towns context. Here's the first one:
Sprawl is defined by three characteristics: (1) strict segregation of land uses; (2) growing out, not up; and (3) putrid and incoherent streetscapes.
This was probably the most technical definition provided which, of course, makes it absolutely impossible to defend. There are places in the far suburbs and exurbs where zoning classifications are a patchwork of different uses next to each other just like there are large swaths of completely viable urban space that is single use. Travel to any European city and you will see examples of places that, for centuries, grew out more than they grew up because they lacked the technology to grow up the way we can today. Likewise, we can argue over whether or not something is "putrid" or "incoherent" but, however you personally define those terms, America's urban areas have plenty of them and few call them sprawl.
And if we're going to say we must have all three characteristics for something to truly be sprawl, well then, I've seen many terrible suburban places that have built with mixed use, many attempts at artificial density and lots of bling on streetscapes where no person will ever tread.
Worse yet, if we go with this technical definition of sprawl and we're the technician sitting at a desk wanting to fight sprawl, our charge is clear: Mix uses, build up and make our streets pretty. While I'd agree that this would be an improvement for most places, it's not going to address the fundamental problem we, at Strong Towns, are trying to solve. You're still going to go broke.
Here's another critique I received:
I'm not sure where you got your definition, but I think its not very accurate. The best definition I find is "Urban sprawl or suburban sprawl describes the expansion of human populations away from central urban areas into low-density, monofunctional and usually car-dependent communities."
When we look at historical cities we see that all the successful ones expanded outward from areas of higher density into areas of lower density. All of them. This expansion was primarily residential; the density and services weren't high enough for viable commercial. I don't see this as bad or destructive unless that expansion is done at a large scale and to a finished state. When it's done incrementally on a continuum of improvement, it's an opportunity for people to find their place, to experiment with new ideas and to -- in the most economically inclusive way -- get a start at improving their position in life. If sprawl includes either of these two components, then sprawl is essential.
That leaves us with car-dependent. With a few notable exceptions, every North American city forces a family to own at least one automobile. Even in those exceptions, travel by automobile is common and perfectly acceptable. If car dependency is a defining characteristic than the term sprawl has no meaning as a way to describe one place in contrast to another since it pretty much defines the American experience.
Here's another critique:
At least from my perspective, the fundamental flaw of "sprawl" is its inherent lack of sustainability over the long-term.
I'm an adherent of Steve Mouzon's concept of the Original Green and, without putting words in Steve's mouth, I tend to be more than a little skeptical of the way in which people throw around the word "sustainable" today. Not a single one of us lives in a way that is truly sustainable, particularly Americans. Since the sample size of people living a truly sustainable lifestyle is zero, any public policy discussion with sustainability as a goal has a particular challenge.
For me, a path to true sustainability -- if that is your goal -- will only come about through systems that receive feedback and are able to adapt in complex ways. There is a reason our ancestors (I use that term in the largest sense of the word) had many sustainable practices and were the Original Green: they had to be, because their prosperity, and often their survival, depended on it. They discovered these practices by trial and error, by incremental growth on a continuum of improvement.
Who is more sustainable: The person who drives the electric car charged by solar panels or the person who lives in the older home in a neighborhood where they can walk to most things they need? I could argue both ways, but the latter has more optionality to adapt to changing circumstances. To me that is the critical difference.
Here's a final critique I received:
Sprawl is exactly the right word. It connotes the ever-falling density of new developments, which is the root of the fiscal issues you focus on. A city that is expanding in area much more quickly than it is gaining population. Lower density = more miles of roads and utility lines per capita, more police/fire services needed per capita, and ultimately more liabilities per capita. This might be sustainable if Americans could tolerate European levels of taxation, but we obviously cannot.
This is kind of the old school smart growth definition. Low density = bad. High density = good. It completely overlooks the reality that all of our urban cities used to be far denser than they are today and only a tiny number of people want them to return to that level of density. It also overlooks the fact that incremental, low density development on the edge of our cities is how every pre-Suburban Experiment city in the history of humanity has grown.
In many ways, this definition is the most scary. It reacts to a snapshot of America without any context or understanding of how that reality came into being. It begs us to solve this problem -- fix this snapshot -- by correcting the variables that seem to be amiss, specifically density and the rate of taxation. While many of you don't see it because you read a different set of intentions, this is the kind of definition that gives rise to Agenda 21-type fears. I have long found those fears impractical, but not wholly irrational.
Again, for those of you that are new here, density is not at the root of the fiscal issues we discuss. You can have -- and throughout human history we have had -- very low density development and be very successful with it financially. What you can't have is low density development with very expensive public obligations, which is essentially what a modern American suburb is. Our American suburbs were built in large projects to a finished state; miles of pipe and road all at once with a building pattern that has no vision of a second life cycle or subsequent use.
I'm not arguing semantics throughout this discussion. Decades of fighting sprawl has done nothing to actually curb the worst development practices we see today. Only a financial reset -- which we have culturally resisted in a bipartisan way -- along with some demographic shifts, dampened our enthusiasm for low density development on the edge of our cities. If that's your definition of sprawl, then declare victory and move on. You've essentially won; these places are imploding and, where they aren't, they are so financially fragile that another recession is going to finish many off. Certainly their ability to continue low density expansion on a meaningful scale is seriously impaired.
If you're like me, however, and don't believe that sprawl -- however defined -- is THE problem but that a larger set of problems exist, problems that begin with the lack of humility our affluence has wrought and continue on through the myriad of simple solutions to complex problems we're prepared to indebt the next century of Americans to try, then you're seeing the same things I am. Most importantly, you're realizing that this set of circumstances impacts urban, suburban and rural areas alike -- red and blue places alike -- and that we won't solve them with the same kind of thinking that got us here.
Nassim Taleb, the Patron Saint of Strong Towns Thinking, suggests that incremental change is the way to probe uncertainty. When we study historical development patterns, we see that success involved thousands of years of such probing. In contrast, when we look at modern America, we see an approach that lurches from grand solution to grand solution. After all, today's sprawl was yesterday's cure for economic depression and social injustice.
We have a lot of uncertainty -- no civilization has ever transformed a continent and an entire economy in such a short time the way we have -- and so to fix this mess, we have a lot of probing to do. A lot of little steps. If you can humble yourself to acknowledge that, while the destination may have some clarity, the path does not, then you are an invaluable part of solving our nation's problems. Please share those insights with those around you and help them realize that we all have got a lot of work to do.
As always, I welcome your thoughts in response and will do my best to keep up with them. And everyone is invited -- members and non-members alike -- to chat with me Thursday on Slack.
(Top and bottom photos by Johnny Sanphillippo. Athens photo by Rachel Quednau.)