If Not Sprawling House Plans, Why Sprawling Cities?

By: Timothy Hullihan

If we designed our homes the way we design cities and suburbs – around the convenient use of automobiles – our homes would not be as comfortable and intimate as we know them to be. Our homes are sanctuary-like places in which we draw closest to those we love and hold dear.  Our car-centric cities are places we drive to, through, and away from, but are unlikely to experience deep sanctuary-like “placemaking” there.  It wasn’t always this way, and can’t be in the future if we are to grow healthy communities, and conserve the land we need for sustainability.

Let’s dissect this hypothetical home designed with an internal transportation system, golf carts, for example. The rooms could be more spread out with sleeping pods, cooking pods, dining pods, bathing pods, and entertainment pods zoned remotely from each other to enhance logic and order, increase privacy, and eliminate conflicts.  Glass enclosed corridors, wide enough for 2-way golf cart traffic, would link the pods efficiently.  Each bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room would be large enough to include a couple of parking stalls for golf carts.  Walking from room to room would no longer be necessary.

As novel as this sprawling house plan may seem, for all its conveniences and partitioned privacy, it would not be very homey. It would also be very wasteful of land, something that we have to be increasingly vigilant in guarding against because there is surprisingly little left.

The homes we are all familiar with derive hominess from the overlapping and close juxtaposition of uses, and in fact, many have open plans that blur the lines between kitchen, dining, and entertainment spaces creating wonderfully causal and comfortable places to dwell. A similarly organic development pattern for communities once created convivial urban neighborhoods and towns that used land very efficiently.  But today, densely organized, pedestrian oriented systems of delightfully overlapping uses are forbidden in most zoning codes.  It wasn’t always this way, and can’t be in the future.

In fact, zoning wasn’t really a thing until about 70-years ago. Before zoning, cities grew organically and incrementally.  Narrow streets with a broad mix of uses made urban living extensions of our private sanctuaries, and, consequently, there were fewer distinctions between private and public space.  Neighborhoods were, therefore, more open, people were more friendly and cooperative, and the densely organized system of overlapping uses that created comfort inside our homes also created a character and charm to our small towns and urban neighborhoods alike, and everything we needed was a short walkable distance away.

The car and the roads to accommodate them slowly changed this. A 10-minute drive versus a 10-minute walk became a practical choice in the 1950s, and many chose to spread out their lives over many, many miles of open road.  Gas was cheap, cars were cool, and the novelties of a suburban home or office were intoxicating.  We never stopped to consider the high cost to the environment and humanity sprawling lifestyles would have.  That needs to change.

If the typical 2,500 square foot suburban home were reimagined as the sprawling hypothetical example, it would require approximately 7,500 square feet of enclosed space to provide the same 2,500 square feet of living space. Parking at every room, and two-way pathways between the pods would approximately triple the required footprint.  Even more wasteful, the sprawling layout would spread out inefficiently over its plot of land increasing its inefficient consumption of land even further.  

The car has had a similar impact on urban planning over the last 70-years, and this is one of the greatest environmental oversights of a car-centric world.  We have been gobbling up land to accommodate growth at 3 to 4 times the rate that organic pedestrian-oriented growth patterns require.

Within typical suburban developments, the land used for roads and parking lots (pavement) is at least equal to the enclosed area of the buildings (habitable spaces) they serve. A quick look at an aerial view of any regional mall in America will show that this ratio can be 3 to 4 times in favor of pavement over useable / habitable space.  The impact over the last 50 years of consuming land in huge wasteful chucks is hard to know, but the foolishness of this practice extends beyond the loss of communities with a strong sense of place.  A future that slows expansion onto developable lands, and accommodates population growth by repurposing the wastefully developed or forgotten urban/suburban landscapes of our past becomes more likely from a world view.

Smart people that study these types of things estimate that all of Earth’s land presently being used to create the food we eat – a shockingly low 2.7% of the Earth’s surface, or 3.4 billion acres, cannot be expanded meaningfully, and is only large enough to feed a world population of 10-11 billion people. The U.N. projects a population of around 9.7 billion by 2050 and reaching 11 billion before this century ends.  The good news is, world population plateaus at 10-11 billion by some estimates due to declining birth rates.  The bad news, feeding the world population we are projected to have in just 50-years will require us to gradually transition away from eating meat, and to adopt entirely vegan lifestyles.  Because food energy is wasted in the production of meat – since it is first used to grow the animal and then transferred to humans inefficiently – grazing lands must slowly transition into crop lands as our population continues to grow.  Fruits and vegetables, by contrast, transfer food energy to humans far more directly, so, faced with a finite land area available for the world’s food production, increasing the efficiency of its use is the only solution.  Yes, rainforests are plowed under to create more agricultural lands, but this has a negative environmental impact, and does not fully replace arable lands that are lost to desertification and erosion each year at increasing rates.

So, yes, land on Planet Earth is surprisingly scarce and precious. Understanding this should make the prospects of converting farmland to housing developments seem foolish, but this is still a common practice.  Recognizing that grazing lands represent the inefficient creation of food energy, and having the wisdom to increase the efficient utilization of these lands to feed a growing world population will take courage and adjustments.  A similar adjustment of our appetite for land development is equally important.  And, while changing our diet will not happen without discomfort, retreating from suburban sprawl and car-centric living to increase land-use efficiency in the realm of human habitation would come with many positives.  Pedestrian oriented communities are physically and mentally healthier places, according to a growing body of research.  They are also more financially stable places to live as their efficient land-use translates into efficient infrastructure utilization and tax-base development.

A sprawling house with an internal transportation system seems foolish because we know what a home should feel like, and its intimacy is part of what we crave. Sprawling cities are equally foolish for the lack of intimacy they create, and cause us to accept as normal.  But, as we more fully appreciate the preciousness of land, and couple that appreciation with the opportunities to live in convivial places that use land very efficiently, it is encouraging to know that we have the knowledge to create, reinvent, and repopulate healthy pedestrian communities.  We just need the will to retreat from the sprawling edges of civilization where land is cheap, and return to where happy, healthy, places can be found, and life is rich and sustainable.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect and freelance writer from North Palm Beach, Florida.  He is also a board member of Sustainable Palm Beach County.

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