6 Strong Towns Observations From a Map of Every Building in America

If you faintly heard a giant sucking sound last Friday from the direction of your local university or city hall, it might have been the productivity of every planner, GIS analyst, architect, or other land-use professional going down the drain. That’s because the New York Times released this: an interactive, scrollable, zoomable map that allows you to view nearly every building in the United States, on top of a bare-bones base map with faint grey water-body and street outlines, and little else.

My urbanist internet circles have been abuzz about it, so I thought I'd offer a specifically Strong Towns take on what kinds of things we can observe and learn from this map.

1. Building to a Finished State

One of the hallmarks of the suburban experiment on which almost all of North America embarked in the decades after World War II is that we stopped building cities to evolve incrementally, and started building them to a finished state.

Take a look at Boston, one of the oldest American cities. As Boston grew to the west, north, and south, encompassing suburbs like Cambridge and Somerville, it did so in an organic fashion, an individual building or block at a time. You can make out large institutions on the map, like Harvard and MIT, but the boundaries between neighborhoods and even cities are fluid:

On the other hand, if you look at much of modern suburbia, the role of large-scale master developers is evident on the ground. This is suburban Phoenix, in which development forms a patchwork of large enclaves, internally homogenous but externally separated from each other by stark dividing lines. These subdivisions were planned and built out a whole square mile or more in one go by a single entity:

These enclaves are poorly connected: virtually no streets are continuous over long distances except for the major arterial stroads (which, therefore, must absorb traffic from nearly every trip made for any reason, producing predictable traffic congestion).

This kind of planning is an enormous source of fragility. Fewer hands now shape the landscape upon which we live, whereas under the traditional development pattern, that landscape is the product of many hands. This means that the effect of one person's mistakes or lack of foresight—and all of us, inevitably, lack foresight—is greatly magnified.

It is also a source of fragility at the level of the individual neighborhood. When all the houses are built at the same time, they will all start to experience problems at the same time. A strong neighborhood needs to be able to incrementally renew itself, bit by bit, through the seamless flow of people, ideas, and economic activity with the rest of the city. The pod-like nature of neighborhoods under the suburban experiment makes it much more difficult for this to occur: each is built to be a little unchanging world unto itself.

This map also provides a little fun in examining the extreme examples of the suburban experiment run amok—the ones you could probably see from space. Recognize any of these locations?

Looking at the spread of these extremely artificial layouts, you can get a sense of the boggling scale of modern development: just how large a land area was master-planned by a single entity.

These places are built this way because they met some aesthetic criteria. It might be aesthetics on the ground (the curvature of streets and sight lines, for example), but in these cases, one suspects it's about the aesthetics of the plan itself: the lines on paper

Cape Coral, FL; Rotonda West, FL; and Sun City, AZ (the examples above from left to right) were certainly not built around functional criteria, such as the ability of residents to actually meet their needs in a variety of ways. Whenever we find a place that was shaped by the constant feedback loop of millions of people making millions of decisions, instead of by the hand of a master developer, it tends to look a lot more like Boston than like Cape Coral. 

2. Metropolitan Development Patterns: The Vagueness of the Word "Sprawl"

We're critical of the term "sprawl" at Strong Towns, because it's overused and imprecise. Here's a nice example of why, in the form of two sunbelt metropolitan areas famous for being, purportedly, sprawling. This is the Las Vegas metropolitan area: 

And at the same scale, here's Charlotte:

In Las Vegas, the "hard edges" of the suburban fringe are a function of the desert climate: there is no legacy of agricultural communities in the area to predate suburbia's expansion, and intense irrigation is required to make the land attractive and livable. Water infrastructure is massively expensive.

Where Las Vegas ends and the desert begins.

In Charlotte, on the other hand, the edges of the metropolitan area "blur" gradually into the landscape of rural North Carolina, resulting in a large hinterland in which many exurbanites live lives totally tied to the urban economy, but with long drives to access urban amenities.

A zoomed-in look at Charlotte’s exurban patchwork.

Which is more "sprawling"? The answer depends on your definition of "sprawl."

Which development pattern is more fiscally sound? Which is more resource-intensive (for various types of resources, such as water and fossil fuels)? Which development pattern entails more driving per capita? Now those are questions we can empirically try to answer.

The word "sprawl" simply encompasses too many types of radically different places.

3. Places vs. Non-Places

This map is visually reminiscent of the "place vs. non-place" maps that our longtime contributor Andrew Price has featured on the site before, color-coding the land on which humans spend time and do productive things, versus land devoted solely to infrastructure or buffers between human activities. (Andrew's maps themselves resemble a form of Nolli Map.)

Of course, there are a lot of meaningful "places" that aren't accounted for on a map of only buildings. Parks, private yards, and gardens are places in which people spend time and from which they derive value (both economic and otherwise). For example, here’s San Francisco on the New York Times map:

The amount of white in this image of San Francisco is misleading: the city's predominant pattern (a phenomenally productive one) is a block of row houses surrounding an internal grid of backyards, hidden from the street. I can attest, having lived there, that SF residents make very resourceful use of these small, private spaces—as well as of the city's public parks.

Farms, too, occupy a huge share of America's land surface and are the site of essential economic activity, yet appear as empty space on the New York Times map. Wetlands and forests are of not just recreational and aesthetic, but also immense economic importance, on account of the ecosystem services they provide. I don't mean to suggest that such places are not places, or that they’re not valuable.

But we can still glean place vs. non-place lessons from this map, in conjunction with a more detailed land-use map or aerial footage. For example, one striking thing visible on these maps is the difference in that place-non-place balance between early suburbia and later suburbia. Let's explore:

4. Changing Suburban Development Patterns Over Time

In the first big wave of suburban expansion—the 1950s through roughly the 1970s—some of the hallmarks of the Suburban Experiment were already there. The hierarchical road network made its debut, and with it the superblock bounded by arterial stroads. That shows up clearly in this image of postwar development in Orange County, CA:

In terms of the place-to-non-place ratio, though, older suburbs are not always in striking contrast to the traditionally-developed neighborhoods that existed before WWII. Can you spot the boundary between the city of Chicago and the suburb of Oak Park on this map? Unless you are intimately familiar with the area, you probably can't:

Farther west of Oak Park, postwar suburbia is distinct from the traditional development and early streetcar suburbs:

But it's not nearly as dramatically distinct as the newer generation of suburbs, built from roughly the 1980s through the present:

In those new suburban areas, a much larger amount of land goes seemingly unused. Those with firsthand experience of these neighborhoods will know that much of it is landscaping or water features.

This pattern gets enshrined in local development codes. In the predominantly suburban county where I live, new planned developments are often required to leave an enormous percentage—up to 50% or more—of the land as "green space.” This is a practice that destroys the financial productivity of our places and rarely leads to truly valuable public amenities.

5. What Failure Looks Like

At the extreme example, you have places that went bust in the Great Recession—the famed "zombie subdivisions." I wrote about Lehigh Acres, Florida before. In that article, I compared its scattershot settlement pattern, with only a few houses on every block interspersed with vacant lots, to what is left of much of inner-city Detroit. (This prompted angry emails from a number of Lehigh Acres residents.)

Here's Lehigh Acres, which looks this way because the rest of the lots have never been built upon: 

And here's Detroit, which looks this way because so many homes have been demolished: 

This is what collapse looks like. In both cases, you have a place that isn't coming even close to the kind of productive land use needed to pay its own infrastructure bills.

6. What This Map Can't Tell Us

There's a lot this map doesn't do. The outline of a building tells us nothing about how tall it is, or the quality of its architecture, or how it interfaces with the street, or what is happening within. We can't easily distinguish the fine-grained pattern of the French Quarter of New Orleans from the hulking federal office complexes of Washington, DC:

Nonetheless, it's an exciting tool for understanding how humans occupy the landscape. And for evidence of how our financial and regulatory arrangements leave their mark—very literally—on the way we live.