Friday, November 26, 2010

When Pigs Fly, Disaster Happens: Urban Sprawl Theory

Urban Sprawl
The consequences of urban sprawl are so far and wide reaching that one would have a hard time finding a place to start educating on the subject. Petroleum is a good place to start, for it has the hardest impact, longest reach, and has caused immeasurable damage to the world.
As long as man has been on the face of the earth, he has found a distinct advantage in massing together for the common good. Not only did massing help provide security at first, but eventually other benefits followed such as community hunting, agriculture, and later, the ability to combine labor in the quest to manufacture goods and provide services. Large businesses have long favored cities for their dense work forces and people have long favored moving next to those businesses in hopes of finding work.
The word next in the previous sentence takes on a completely new meaning with the introduction of petroleum and the automobile. A new scale is created in the wake and next no longer means two miles but tenfold that amount. Man’s new legs can carried him faster and farther than any other person thus far in history. This new freedom spurred yet another evolution in the human experience at the cost of a blink of the eye in the timeline of our race. Comparatively speaking, it would be like the next generation of pigs growing wings to fly. The consequences of the ham evolution are best felt by the pig who, being the first of his kind to have this new adaptation and with no one to teach him to use the wings responsibly, would most certainly harm himself sooner rather than later as he fell out of the oak tree looking for acorns. (It's what the pig didn't know that killed him.)  Poor pig.
We too fell into the same boat as that damned pig. We invented for ourselves wings to fly and carried ourselves in the wrong direction. Unlike the pig, however, our consequences effect every species in the world. So be it. We screwed up. It’s done.
What now?
Now we must stop and examine the damage we have caused and learn how not to inflict that damage again. We must take inventory of the damage. 
A critical mass must be achieved before public transportation can take root. Until then, and even after then, most every house will depend on their private automobile to carry them to and fro their every whim. This problem is multiplied when the family needs multiple cars to carry them in multiple directions. Less public transportation means more cars on the road which means more pollution and energy consumption.
Speaking of roads, they comprise a lion’s share of the infrastructure required to build farther out. These and other utilities come at a cost to the customers, or residents, who build so far out. These resources when developed in high density can be constructed at a fraction of the cost. Urban sprawl consumes valuable resources in inefficient ways.
Ask any experienced businessman where he would locate his business, and the answer will usually be the same… Where the people are. Likewise urban sprawl presents challenges to regional planners who wish to provide medical, fire, and police services to the public. These services become more efficient at larger economies of scale, hence it would be hard to justify a high tech trauma center in every one horse town in America. Services to the public are harder to provide when sprawl prevents density from achieving critical masses.
Man and Nature
However, the real question is not weather man should densify the city or move to the suburbs. The real question is, ‘Can man live in the city under such densities and what effect does that have on his psyche? Can he adapt to the stresses of living without the rivers and trees, birds and wildlife, and the songs of nature, and does he even realize he’s missing something which he never had? If he is to manage these stresses and bend himself to the queer circumstances of his synthetic environment, if we are to get more out of the land, if we are to find and convert lost space, then Landscape Architects will most certainly have an increasingly important role in the sustainability of the human race and urban densification.  Packing everyone into the cities is not the sustainable effort, it is the lesser of two evils. -Jason

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