There’s Nothing Wrong with Sprawl
from Where We Want to Live
A kid growing up in the deep South can never really believe in the possibility of a white Christmas. In fact, the best you can hope for, realistically, is a nice sheet of black ice dusted with flurries, somewhere around mid-January. Schools close without hesitation. And since my childhood home was midway up one of the longest, steepest, and straightest hills with no cross streets, on the occasion that its surface was icy, our street was a destination for the neighborhood. Dads on sleds were piled high with all sorts of kids on their backs, and we spent the morning hours in our own sort of winter wonderland. Usually by lunchtime the hill had turned to unsledable slush, and after an ice ball fight and a cup of hot chocolate, everything had melted away.
In the summer, we spent our days at the neighborhood pool, whiling away our time with friends and eating flavored potato chips and candy. We explored the woods in our backyard, including a polluted drainageway and kudzu-covered embankment that buffered us from the industrial park beyond. When fall rolled around, our friends would drop by for snacks after school and spend the late afternoon swinging from a rope tied high to a tree in our front yard. In characteristic form for the emerging Generation X, my twin brother and I spent the latter half of the 1980s as latchkey kids with free range of the neighborhood.
Our quintessential suburban American life revolved around this seasonal rhythm of mild winters, springtime pollen, homegrown tomato sandwiches in the summer, and high school football games every autumn. I never imagined there was anything wrong with the place of my childhood. I didn’t know that the construction of my neighborhood played a bit part in a national drama that undermined urban communities. I didn’t know that suburbs and sprawl were different, or that “sprawl” even had a name. Despite today’s suppositions about life in sprawl, I don’t have a single memory of being stuck in traffic, or of my friends having asthma, or of my neighbors driving dreadful commutes to downtown. In an interesting twist, however, I only recently realized that my own family’s history helps to illustrate the story of sprawl.
My father’s sister Gerry describes their mother, Geraldine, as a “feisty young woman” who had moved from her tiny hometown to the big city of Alexandria in the 1930s to attend business school. She met my grandfather, a downtown banker named Samuel Gravel, while waiting at the bank with a friend. The staunchly Catholic Gravels of central Louisiana “weren’t at all sure about this Baptist girl from the country who had captured the heart of their primary breadwinner.” They married on a rainy day anyway, and in 1941, she became pregnant with my aunt, the first of four children.
To prepare for their growing family, a loan officer at the bank where my grandfather worked convinced him to purchase a home on Northview Drive in a new housing development on the edge of town. It was in Northview Annex, an extension of an older neighborhood, and our family photos resemble those classic images of postwar America where Levittown-style houses line streets without sidewalks. Each house had a driveway, a fresh lawn, and a little live oak in the front yard. My grandparents later upgraded to a three-bedroom house next door where they rented rooms to servicemen and their wives who were stationed at the military bases surrounding Alexandria.
As wartime innovation shifted to the private sector, a mechanized economy emerged that, aided by the GI Bill and other federal policies, would enable many Americans to leave behind the tragedy of war and, along with it, the sooty, crowded conditions and social complexity of cities. Countless soldiers who had fought for freedom abroad sought the prosperity promised by economic growth to support their growing families. Technology and policy supported the mass production of housing and automobiles that not only helped recast our sight to the edge of town but created an entirely new way of life in the process. In this sense, Northview Annex was a local variation of a national movement that would form the foundation for what today we call “sprawl,” but at that time we simply called “the future.”
Nearly three decades after the war, my parents bought their first house in a neighborhood called Huntley Hills in Chamblee, a small community swallowed by the metropolitan growth of Atlanta. It was built on the fringe of town, and its physical layout, architectural range, and public amenities were consistent with new communities organized anywhere in America between the late 1950s and the early 1970s. It was built around my elementary school, which had opened at the center of the new neighborhood in 1964. This school-centered arrangement represents a logical next step in neighborhood design, following Northview Annex.
While the streets immediately surrounding the school had narrow sidewalks, most of the neighborhood had none. Houses were exclusively single-family, but their size ranged from small postwar modern ranches to much larger split-levels from the 1960s, including a handful of classic “California contemporaries.” The least desirable lots in the neighborhood were at the bottom of that long sledding hill, and the handful of houses that finally got built there were big, multilevel structures in that modern 1980s style with diagonal cedar siding.
Huntley Hills had a single bus route that still serves the neighborhood, passing along its central drive on the way to other places. I only rode that bus once—for a field trip to the central library in downtown Atlanta that was led by an eccentric teacher in a class called “Discovery.” Eccentric old ladies were, I later imagined, the only people riding that bus. The rest of us chose automobiles to go anywhere beyond our community’s boundaries. In contrast to the sprawl of today, however, the neighborhood street plan had a loose network of interconnected streets with few true cul-de-sacs, and it had more than one exit to the world beyond. Even though most of the streets lacked sidewalks, I grew up walking or biking to school, and I had multiple routes to get there. Chamblee Plaza was also within a reasonable walk from most houses, and along with a couple of small office buildings, it was also on the bus line. “The Plaza,” as we called it, offered two major supermarkets, a Woolworth’s, Hancock Fabrics, and at least a dozen other stores. I don’t ever remember walking to buy groceries, but as a kid in the 1980s we made that half-mile journey almost daily to play video games at Razzle Dazzle or to get ice cream and Cokes at Sugar Bear.
The construction of Huntley Hills corresponds exactly with the large social, cultural, and political shifts taking place in Atlanta and across America, including the desegregation of public schools, white flight out of central cities, growing dependence on two cars per family, and massive public investment in highways and other roadway infrastructure. In fact, the development of Huntley Hills was almost certainly incentivized by the concurrent construction of I-285, Atlanta’s now-infamous perimeter expressway, which opened as a four-lane highway in 1969. When my parents moved our family to Georgia from Louisiana in 1974 following my father’s service in the Air Force in Vietnam, they were attracted to metropolitan Atlanta’s skyrocketing economy. My dad took a job with an engineering firm that prepared the infrastructure for that economy—wastewater treatment plants, pump stations, and dams that supported massive expansion well beyond the perimeter highway.
While the central city was just beginning to lose population, having peaked in 1970, the metropolitan region swelled by well over a million, taking the white suburbanizing middle and working classes from Atlanta, as well as migrants like us from all over the country and immigrants from around the world. There was no doubt at this time that the future of growth was out at the edge of town. In one direction from our house along the perimeter highway was Perimeter Mall, which opened its doors in 1971 with two anchor department stores, a movie theater out in the parking lot, and one of those Chick-fil-A’s stuck in a corner because the concept of a “food court” had not yet been invented. In the other direction, one of the very first Home Depots opened down the road from my father’s office, so we no longer needed to go to the lumberyard or hardware stores in order to fix up our house. These kinds of destinations meant that except for an occasional ballgame, we rarely needed to venture beyond those few exit ramps, and we rarely did. We lived our lives almost exclusively on the northern edge of the region. Like thousands of other communities across the nation, we were settled quite comfortably in the marriage between suburban life and automobiles that was characterized by Huntley Hills.
In retrospect, the reason that living on the edge was so comfortable at that time was that we weren’t stuck in traffic. When I was a kid, the full force of sprawl was not yet in effect. The roadways were not at capacity because the region was always building more of them. During my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s, the region grew by a little over a million people, and I-285 more than doubled its width from its original four lanes to 10 near Perimeter Mall. In the years since I left for college, however, only a single lane has been added in each direction to that same stretch of highway while the population of the metropolitan area has swollen by nearly 3 million. We built plenty of highways elsewhere, of course, spreading our neighbors over more than 8,000 square miles. So with almost no viable alternative to driving these great distances, we made Atlanta into one of the most sprawling regions in the world.
In addition to the greater burden of cars funneling onto corridors like I-285, the configuration of local roadway networks has also changed in ways that heighten congestion and define a truly new condition for living. Huntley Hills represents a midpoint in this transition, which did not happen overnight. It took time and was physically expressed in the layout of neighborhood plans as American cities evolved slowly from compact, transit-oriented, walkable urban districts at their centers to sprawling and isolated subdivisions around their peripheries. By the late 1980s, when the last houses in our neighborhood were being built on those undesirable lots at the bottom of the hill, somewhere out in the next county, at the new fringe of growth, the refinement of sprawl as a highly compartmentalized and fully car-dependent physical growth pattern was essentially complete.
A comparable neighborhood built there in the 1990s, for example, would most likely have only one connection to the arterial roadway, preventing cut-through traffic by avoiding direct links to adjacent communities. It would have houses of more uniform size and price point, increasing the isolation of people with different family incomes. There would be nothing at all within walking distance except neighbors, so sidewalks, even where they existed, would not likely take you anywhere. And rather than winding through the community on its way to somewhere else, if there was a bus at all, it would speed by an empty stop out by the subdivision entrance.
It’s hard to imagine not having the freedom that Huntley Hills offered me to roam around as a child. More refined versions of sprawl are marked by physical, social, and often cultural isolation, illustrating not only a fundamental difference in the way we build these communities, but also in the way that we live in them. They have unsettled that comfortable marriage between the car and Huntley Hills, defining an important nuance between communities that accommodate automobiles and those that are consumed by them. The difference from older urban districts is even more stark.
Sprawl has not only changed the way we build new places, however; it has changed everything. Our growing reliance on cars also destroyed the transit systems that had evolved to create and support older cities, suburbs, and towns. It facilitated population loss in virtually every central city across the country. And it contributed directly to the decline of communities that were bypassed by new highway construction or that struggled to adapt to the changes brought by the automobile, or that were simply out of fashion because they lacked big lawns and wide driveways.
Locally and nationally, as the private market began providing people with the auto-oriented communities they wanted, and as governments supported that development with subsidized home loans and publicly funded roadways, we began an astounding new chapter of city building in this country that has resulted in, among other things, the majority of Americans being dependent exclusively on automobiles not only for their jobs but for their very existence. In this transition we gave up more than just an outdated or unfashionable transportation network. We gave up a way of life.
I had never experienced that way of life until my senior year in college when, within weeks of my arrival for that year abroad in Paris, I had lost 15 pounds. I was eating fresh food from the local market, and I was walking wherever I went—two blocks to the Métro, two more from the station to school, four blocks to the grocery, two to the laundromat, seven to my friend’s apartment (split by a transit ride with one transfer), six more to dinner, four more from there to the Champ de Mars, 52 more for an evening stroll simply because I was living in the most beautiful city in the world. Suddenly I was in the best shape of my life, and the connection between our built environment and my personal health and well-being was undeniable.
What was less apparent was how much more connected I was to people, in a way that had not been conceivable for me in Chamblee in the 1980s. On an average commute from my apartment near the Gare de Lyon to my school near La Villette, I would watch strangers interact, catch someone’s eye, or overhear a conversation that I could at least partly understand. Leaving our building, my roommate and I would often encounter the building supervisor sweeping out front and children on their way to the school next door. The streets were full, but many were familiar faces. There was the owner of a big German shepherd waiting at a cafe door, the man behind the counter at the tabac, the guys setting up tables at the seafood restaurant that faced the train station’s tower, and the women at the ticket counter in the Métro station underground. There were musicians and mimes on the train. There were kids gossiping about friends, men in suits reading Le Monde, women with small dogs and dark hair, artists, couriers, lawyers, teachers, salespeople, and tourists.
When we departed the Métro at Corentin Cariou, we would buy a piece of bread or small quiche at the boulangerie with the clerk who had a higher tolerance for the American students, rush along a sidewalk past the rank smells of strange meats and urine, and finally step through an anonymous door into the courtyard of the school. The trip was not only healthy, affordable, and efficient, it was a social experience. Even though I rarely spoke a word on that commute, I participated for nine months in a social construct that included acknowledgment of and empathy for strangers. Upon later reflection and experience, I see how those feelings, sustained over many years, would consistently translate from the subway to the voting booth.
The lesson is not about the French or about big cities or subways. The lesson is that transportation infrastructure does more than move people. It builds communities, and it constructs our way of life. In short, it matters what kind of infrastructure we build, so we should think carefully about how we would prefer to live and make sure that the policies and projects we invest in are supporting those lifestyle goals.
When I got home from Paris in 1995, I lived with my parents for the summer and took an architecture job with a commute across the “top end” of I-285. The office was on an anonymous road in a virtually windowless office park, and my job was to design similar office parks in similar parts of town. Relatively speaking, the drive wasn’t bad, partly because I was going against the primary flow of traffic and partly because traffic is just something that I had grown to expect. In fact, before Paris, I never knew life without highways and parking lots, but having just returned from a year without cars, the contrast was jarring.
I found myself sitting in traffic, immobile even when my car was moving. My commute took about the same amount of time as my trip to school in Paris, but I barely had to move my body to get there. I wasn’t getting exercise, and I had no connection with strangers. I would leave my house having acknowledged my parents at breakfast. The next person I connected with was the receptionist when I walked in the door at the office. That’s it, even though I-285 carries over 250,000 vehicles a day. We don’t look each other in the eye while we’re driving, and we can’t overhear each other’s conversations. In a lifestyle dominated by sprawl, there is little shared experience, only similar experience with the traffic jam du jour—often the topic of chitchat with coworkers around the coffeepot or on social media, where our personal connections are more likely than not to be with people of similar income, education, and background.
These kinds of social, cultural, and physical barriers matter for a lot of reasons. They separate us from each other. They divorce housing from retail from office from recreation and worship. They divide people living in apartments from people living in houses. They even separate people living in expensive houses from people living in moderately expensive houses. They create a world where we spend the majority of our time living, working, shopping, and playing with people who are more or less like us, and where it is nearly impossible to live through each stage of our lives—as a child, college student, parent, and aging senior—all within the same community. In the process, they minimize the need for various groups of people to come into contact with each other day to day.
In this way, sprawl—or, more accurately, the free market framed by policies that deliver sprawl—favors social isolation and heightens our sense of difference between groups of people. And because we interact less as we move along our publicly funded infrastructure networks and do not experience each other’s lives, much less look each other in the eye, I believe that sprawl also contributes significantly to political polarization—to a lack of acknowledgment of and empathy for people who are different. This is true looking across any of our divisions, and it reinforces stereotypes about income, race, ethnicity, educational attainment, and even political party affiliation. It is also true across the geography of a region, heightening the perception of difference between urban, suburban, exurban, and rural populations. Looking ahead at the shifting demographics across our metropolitan areas, the assumptions we make about groups of people may change, but the reality of those physical dividing lines will remain, and as a result, we will continue to build a substantially degraded social construct.
This is what drove me back to school to study city planning. After I had lived in Paris, the kind of compartmentalization created by sprawl didn’t seem like a very interesting way to live. What did seem compelling was the challenge of transforming these anonymous suburbs of sprawl into anything remotely as diversified as my neighborhood in Paris, which was actually a rather ordinary collection of people and streets, businesses, homes, and schools under the watchful eye of the Gare de Lyon’s monumental clock tower.
I was naive and thought I might make a difference, but I never imagined that my formative years growing up in a kind of transitional sprawl, combined with my year abroad in an almost opposite kind of environment, would serve me so well professionally. Together they offered a moderated view, one able to recognize the real dangers and costs of sprawl without knocking it blindly as a total failure, a malicious conspiracy, or a cultural vacuum. I couldn’t ignore the fact that somehow sprawl works just fine for millions of Americans, including many of my own friends and family.
For many people, and by many measures, sprawl has real and clear advantages. It is easy, especially in comparison to the logistical challenges of living in cities that have suffered decline and might no longer offer essential services like grocery stores or reliable transit. Families can usually find larger and newer houses for less money in sprawl, and sprawl is often the location of better public schools. Because it tends to isolate people who are different from one another, sprawl also largely avoids the uneasiness of social and economic disparity. Not everyone wants the hustle and bustle of the city or the anonymity and confined energy of dense urban living. Where sprawl resembles the countryside, it can be quite peaceful. Long scenic commutes, if you actually have one, can even help moderate stress and depression by allowing you to decompress from the workday before engaging in family life.
The point here is that like any place, communities defined by sprawl have both advantages and disadvantages, both good and bad consequences, and we do ourselves a huge disservice if we don’t consider everything in this discussion. Love it or hate it, there is no denial that sprawl has been a successful physical structure for unprecedented economic growth in this country, and that, like my own family growing up in Chamblee, a large proportion of Americans were lifted by that prosperity as a direct result of our nation’s investment in it.
Besides, it’s hard to argue against the open road when the windows are down and the traffic is flowing fine. Culturally, our notion of the “open road” has embraced the mobility of the automobile to generate a distinctly American identity. And even though it is increasingly unrealistic for most people, the freedom that idea represents has immense value. It connects us with an earlier narrative, a kind of cowboy, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps brand of rugged individualism. Reflections of it can even be seen in some aspects of today’s hip-hop culture, creative capitalism, and empowered immigrant communities, suggesting that our interest in it is not likely to go away.
Nor should it. Our auto orientation has made many valuable cultural contributions. Sprawl set the stage for American life today as much as our vibrant downtowns did for generations before. Who can deny its influence on modern culture—in movies, music, food, travel, and the refreshing horizontality of midcentury architecture, furniture, and industrial design? The early stages of sprawl, much like my neighborhood of Huntley Hills with its International Style schools, modern-ish houses, and open roads, became the backdrop for an inspired future that for many people was brighter than the old, crowded, dirty city it left behind.
It’s important to remember that we were experimenting with this new way of living at the very same time that science was curing disease, exploring new energy, and lifting us to the moon. The sexual revolution was breaking down barriers, and the civil rights movement began its steady march toward the fulfillment of our nation’s promise. As the growth of new automobile-oriented suburbs exploded through subsidized highways and home loans, and as downtowns skinned over their old-fashioned facades and scrapped their trolley networks for wider roadways and free parking, the American dream was made manifest in an incredible array of cultural icons—forms that now, with a hint of sentimentality, have taken on the mantle of a forward, transformative, yet thoroughly concluded era.
Ensuring that conclusion, of course, is the destructive nature and obsolescence of sprawl. Its advantages, like cheap land and cheap houses, were also built on a less robust and less efficient network of infrastructure, leaving them now at a clear disadvantage. As the true costs of sprawl are being realized, characteristics like geographic isolation, demographic homogeneity, and visual uniformity that previously were considered advantages are now threatening the economic value of real estate stuck in sprawl. This territory is going to have a hard time adapting to new market conditions. The negative economic, health, and environmental consequences of sprawl are well documented elsewhere, as are the ways in which we subsidize it. Similarly, the demographic and generational shifts that suggest sprawl is not likely to be a competitive structure for our future economy are duly noted.
In light of these arguments, it is important that no matter how nuanced our view of it, we need to stop building sprawl immediately. We need to change regulations like zoning and land subdivision that actually require sprawl to be built in most jurisdictions, and we need to end the policies that subsidize it in capital improvement budgets and policy at all levels of government. This will not be easy, but it will also not be enough. We must figure out what to do with the vast regions of sprawl that already exist before they become an unmanageable burden.
These challenges for sprawl exist across almost immeasurable territories in every city and small town and in every corner of this nation. More than that, and at least for the foreseeable future, much of our current population and economy depend on its successful maintenance. If they are to survive and thrive in the long term, we’ll need to discover and invest in constructive strategies that can maintain a reasonable quality of life and economy in the face of what will almost certainly be the complete upending of regional real estate conventions.
As we do that, it’s critical for those of us who care to concede that there’s nothing wrong with sprawl. Really, I mean it. Across the vast geography of this celebrated democracy and within broad legal bounds, we get to choose how and where we want to live. Sprawl works just fine for millions of people. If I’m comfortable with a future where I drive an hour or more each way to work in traffic, losing time with my family and years of my life so that I can have a home so far removed from the store or park that I have to get back in my car to go there, that’s my choice, and America offers me that sweet freedom. Other kinds of trade-offs are made every day by people who live in downtowns, small towns, and rural areas.
The problem isn’t sprawl. The problem is that we go so far out of our way to incentivize and even subsidize virtually every aspect of sprawl as our dominant growth strategy—an investment that is clearly not in our best interest. Our addiction to sprawl is degrading our health and environment, and is straining our financial and natural resources. It is undermining the very set of social constructs that America was founded on. But while it’s important to understand these challenges, the fact remains that we are stuck with many of their consequences. We made those decisions a long time ago. We’re already vested in this way of life, and we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. The future of this country is tied directly to the destiny of sprawl. We need to stop arguing about whether it is a good idea or not. We need to do something about it.
Excerpted from Where We Want to Live by Ryan Gravel. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue.