Friday, July 20, 2007

Extreme Sprawl

Robert Steuteville has an excellent opinion piece in the current New Urban Newspointing out just how extreme suburban sprawl is in the United States:

"The suburbs of Phoenix and Atlanta have 1,600 to 1,700 people per square mile, according to the book Boomburbs by Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy. .... US urbanized areas now consist overwhelmingly of sprawl, which contributes to a low average density of 2,670 per square mile - less than two units per acre. This US suburban development pattern is the main reason why we use twice as much energy per capita as European countries that enjoy the same standard of living as ours. Energy use is the driver of greenhouse gases, which is why the US is the cause of a disproportionate share of global warming."

Imagine how different the country would be if we had built streetcar suburbs instead of all this sprawl. The average density of all our urbanized areas is 2,670 people per square mile, which is very slightly over 4 people per acre. By contrast, streetcar suburbs typically average 10 people per acre, and if we averaged in cities, the overall densities of our urbanized areas would be over 12 people per acre even if almost everyone lived in suburbs.

Urban areas would take up only about one-third of the land they do now. People would still have their own houses, but they would also have farmland or parkland nearby, instead of drowning in an endless sea of suburbs. We would consume much less gasoline than we do now, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and our dependence on imported oil. The financial savings would let Americans work shorter hours and have more time for theirfamilies and their own interests.

We would get all these benefits by living in streetcar suburbs rather than sprawl - on top of the fact that streetcar suburbs are more livable than sprawl.

Steuteville's opinion piece is at


Blogger susannaheanes said...

sorry. life would be better if living in the country and riding horses were seen as a serious lifestyle choice instead of anathema to sanity, not worthy of consideration. some of us suffocate at a density of 4 lots per acre. some of us need to air to breathe, cows to watch, hummingbirds to talk to.

i do agree that if our cities weren't surrounded by sprawlivisions perhaps my rural lifestyle wouldn't be seen as the threat that it is to modern urbanity. however, there will always be those of us for whom the 1-acre homesite is the best we can do, and is the closest to rural living that may be afforded. and too, many of us do work at home, and aren't really contributing to the traffic and air quality woes sprawl begets. i speak in generalities, not of my own situation. but given living in a 3rd floor flat in a 600-unit apartment building downtown and the 1-acre lot in the burbs, i know the flat would suffocate me, and so we have to continue to allow at least some of these for country mice who can't afford the 60 acre family farm.

just my 2c - from a career land-use planner contrarian.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

Thanks for your comment, but please note that an apartment building downtown is not the only alternative to one acre in the burbs.

The point of my post was that the real alternative to sprawl for most people is a one-tenth acre lot in a street-car suburb, which can give you a private yard and other benefits of suburbia at much less environmental cost.

Even if you work at home, you have to drive long distances for shopping and visiting if you live in a neighborhood of one-acre lots. In streetcar suburbs, you have services nearby.

I live in one myself, and from my deck, I can see a nest of hummingbirds who I talk to regularly.

11:46 AM  

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