02 July, 2009

Notes From the Sprawl #2

The Sprawl is the flabbiest of all civil structures. It represents the ultimate in chaotic decentralization driven entirely by the profit motive of land developers who raze forest and farm alike to plane the earth and replace them with rows of standard plan houses and pear trees*. Cloned subdivisions with timber frames and false brick facades spring up from the Caterpillar wreckage of the land. Many have argued that decentralization increases resilience of almost any system, including the suburbs, but I strongly disagree with this. In order for decentralization to have a net positive effect upon the structure in question, adequate infrastructure must first be in place. Suburbs are spawned on old county roads that once only served farms and light traffic, suddenly jammed full of SUVs and minivans as people wend about on their daily multitudinous commutes. Developers benefit from this tangibly, consumers nominally, and society pays the remaining negative balance through the continual development of catch-up infrastructure: new roads and new schools, new strip malls and parks to accommodate the shifting needs of an ever-pancaking population. Fundamentally, barring the development and implementation of efficient and unlimited energy, The Sprawl is entirely unsustainable.

Living in The Sprawl, one must drive everywhere. There are no other options. Sidewalks and bike lanes are rare; the logistics and cost of trying to implement mass transit in the landscape of streets designed to maximize profit through over-indulgence in cul-de-sacs and curving lanes is an absolutely Sisyphean nightmare. The creation of this curiously inefficient arrangement of society has been enabled and perpetuated by the development of the personal automobile. Without dependable, affordable personal transportation, people would never have been able to sever their dependency upon centralized mass transit in the more densely populated cities and begin to commute. Without relatively cheap energy, the absolutely massive scale of material trafficking required to sustain suburban patterns of consumption would be untenable. Even with cheap energy from gasoline, the traffic of the wheat from field to factory to face is fragile and easily disrupted. This is not resilience, this is absurdity!

With a city, the population is concentrated, and so are the infrastructures that distribute solutions to their needs. The environmental footprint, as quantized in gross inputs and outputs, is easily measured and containable. Suburbia spreads out over the farmland that once fed the city it is creeping out of, over the forest that once purified that city’s waste. Suburbia replaces these with new needs, spread thinner and spread farther. And through it all, the personal automobile reigns supreme. We’ve come to view driving as a right, and not an economic privilege. The reality of it is that driving is massively subsidized by the public through the creation and maintenance of roads, and this is one of the truthisms that lies sharp behind the seductive veil of the American Dream. It ain’t nearly so cheap as we’d like to believe, not for our wallets our the surrounding environment.

*Pear trees seem to be a favorite in the Midwest because they grow quickly and make a nice, dense shape. However, the most popular variety planted doesn’t even bear fruit and has a common habit of falling apart in a strong storm. It also doesn’t even have the decency to smell nice.

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