Over the past few years, many writers have confused urban development sprawl with population density – the lower the density, the greater the sprawl. Others have simply used sprawl to describe any type of urban development they personally find distasteful. The word has become a cliché for a wide variety of urban conditions without specific definition.
Webster’s Dictionary describes sprawl as “to spread or develop irregularly” — a definition that applies to a great many urban areas at any density. The linear blight caused by major city streets suffering from unregulated peripheral development, both old and new, is likely to be accepted by most observers as fitting the negative image of sprawl. On the other hand, a pleasantly wooded subdivision of well-maintained homes and lawns does not deserve the same designation just because of its low density. Yet, the latter often is classified by this negative term simply because it is part of a low-density suburb that generates traffic to employment, schools and shopping centers.
Few urban planners would argue with the public efficiency of servicing urban areas of high-density in comparison with suburban areas of low-density. And fewer still would argue with the private efficiency of living in a neighborhood sufficiently dense to support shops and other facilities within walking distance. And a significant segment of our society (recent estimates suggest about one-third) appear to prefer to live in these more efficient higher-density neighborhoods. But an even larger segment appear to prefer lower-density housing locations, despite the annoyance of higher utility costs and the inconvenience of longer travel distances to support facilities. And, of course, an unfortunate minority has very little choice in living environment because of limited resources (and we have both high-density city slums as well as low-density rural slums).
“These are choices open to a majority of Americans. Public planners and other officials are free to influence persons to select more efficient lifestyle locations. And they can also attempt to influence developers to build more dense neighborhoods and housing. But they are not charged with regulating such decisions except as specifically defined in public legislation (and minimum density is seldom included in legislation, only maximum density).
“Therefore, whereas the term sprawl is a negative term for “irregular” development, planners and politicians should refrain from using it generically to describe urban growth that is equated to lower density. Higher rather than lower density does not equate to good and bad. It does equate to more efficient services and walking distances, but the value of these elements is judgmental for most persons. Americans will select the types of living environments they prefer, regardless of definitional inconsistencies from advocates of higher density environments.
Land developers and home builders, like politicians, often claim to know what Americans want, and they proceed to try and guide public opinion by their interpretation. We will see many unfinished developments in Florida developed on that premise, which leave behind committed land that is not used for anything, but reserved for a use that will never occur. At present, we have excellent and economic means of finding out what people really want. We do not need to rely upon one man’s or one company’s intuition. In sum, we can only hope that future urban developers will conduct continuing consumer research on needs and preferences as an integral part of the planning process.
Excerpt from David F. Parker’s new novel, “Searching For Innovation,” that describes a progressive urban developer’s hunt throughout Florida for the optimum site to develop his concept for a state-of-the-art new community. The two-week helicopter tour highlights the inefficient historic land development errors that defy correction in many parts of Florida.