Spreading too wide

By Ira Wells

Jordan Petty: How would you define “urban sprawl?”

Dr. Byron Miller: That’s a tough question. There are lots of different definitions out there, without much agreement on any one in particular. I would define it in terms of [an area] that is low density and automobile-oriented–automobile oriented above all else. In other words, development is planned with the automobile in mind, and then anything else such as pathways for pedestrians and bicycles, public transit, or emphasis on strong community interaction, is a secondary if not a tertiary consideration.

Ira Wells: So the drive-thru restaurant, then, might be a prevalent manifestation of urban sprawl.

BM: It’s a symptom of it, yes.

IW: How much is urban sprawl a Western, and in fact a West Coast American phenomenon?

BM: It is and it isn’t. It’s prevalent in the West, but not simply because it’s the West, and not because of any particular cultural characteristics of the West. The West developed later than the East [coast], and most Western cities were built in the automobile era. That said, some of the worst sprawl of the last couple decades is found in the Southeastern United States.

JP: So is urban sprawl capitalist in nature? If we were working within a different economic framework, or even a less consumerist capitalist framework, might urban sprawl be less prevalent?

BM: Well, it obviously takes place within a capitalist system, but I don’t think you can lay blame for urban sprawl at the feet of capitalism. Western Europe is capitalist as well, and the extent to which its cities sprawl is considerably less. So it’s not just capitalism, it’s how capitalism is being guided. There are certain policies in place, particularly in North America, that tend to promote sprawl. We can grow, and even consume in ways that are less destructive.

JP: It seems to me, though, that the way in which we consume is fundamentally disposable and insatiable, something encouraged by advertising to proliferate a sort of “crazy” capitalism. I think that has an impact on urban sprawl, because it is just unstoppable consumption, eating up land and eating up resources.

BM: That plays a significant role, but I don’t think it explains everything. You could spend $300,000 on a large suburban home that requires extensive commuting, or you could spend $300,000 on a nice condo downtown, and they’re both consumerist to a certain extent, but one is certainly more environmentally sound than the other. So I think it’s the impact of specific forms of consumption, rather than consumption itself. Again though, the extent to which we place emphasis on how much stuff we have is connected to our high rate of resource consumption.

IW: Do cities build on the regular–the nineteenth century grid–pattern anymore, or is it all just pseudo-gated communities?

BM: It’s a mix. The grid pattern is still significant, although developers are getting away from that in new communities. Gated communities tend to be exclusive and related to high socio-economic status. There has certainly been a dramatic increase in the number of gated communities–particularly in U.S. cities–which has some pretty disturbing consequences for communities, segregation and social isolation.

JP: In that sense it would seem that urban sprawl is structurally coded–it sends a message to certain people. If you’re living way out in the suburbs, a place that can only be accessed by automobile, then that sends a message to other people that they don’t belong there. Do you think that’s an element?

BM: To a certain extent, although you can have gated communities anywhere. It’s just easier to build gated communities in the suburbs.

JP: In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore suggests the flight to the suburbs is a middle-class white reaction to the civil rights movement. Is there an element of that in Calgary, or is that more American, or is that the case at all?

BM: I think it is the case in the U.S. The phenomenon of white-flight is well known in the U.S., and there’s little controversy about that–at least among scholars. It’s less of an issue in Canadian cities–though I wouldn’t say it’s not an issue. There’s less social and economic inequality in Canada–it’s not as severe, and Canadian cities generally do a better job of providing a mix of housing across their metropolitan areas.

IW: Just to take a step back, where did our notion of the suburbs begin?

BM: In North America, suburbanization largely began with the development of street-cars. It was initially a way for the well-to-do to flee the centre of the city–with its crowding, pollution, class conflict, et cetera. It wasn’t until later that suburbanization became a middle-class phenomenon. In that sense it’s relatively recent.

IW: Do people want cookie cutter homes?

BM: No, but they are affordable.

IW: Is that a choice being made for people by developers to make their job easier?

BM: People don’t want cookie cutter homes, per se. However, what you’re seeing in suburbanization is the application of mass production techniques to the housing industry. By using those techniques to create houses that are essentially knock-offs of each other, you’re gaining economies of scale. That lowers the cost, and that has a lot to do with why people live in the suburbs: it’s where they can find affordable housing.

JP: Suburbanization and urban sprawl are created top-down rather than bottom-up, then? People don’t really have a choice?

BM: It’s both. The demand is not so much for suburbs per se, but for good quality affordable housing and good schools. It’s cheaperand easier for developers to build suburbs.

IW: Why the strict architectural controls then?

BM: That’s a matter of the social controls that send messages to people about conforming, expectations, et cetera. Large-scale suburban development is very profitable and that creates a certain conservatism in the way suburbs are developed. The development industry is largely conservative–developers are resistant to taking on new risks when the existing model already works for them. Other workable models of development aren’t being pursued because they don’t have to be pursued.

IW: Do you see that changing?

BM: If it’s going to change, it’s going to take a significant push from government.

JP: That’s fairly lacking in Calgary today–Mayor Dave Bronconnier just came out and said there is no such thing as urban sprawl in Calgary. How do you combat an ideology like that?

BM: If people start to organize and start to demand more choices, we’re going to see some movement in the way our city develops. But as long as people go along, we’re going to see more of the same. I think there’s a very important role for citizens in shaping the way our city evolves.

JP: It seems to me that consumerism is sold as allowing us to express ourselves through purchasing products. But if suburban developments and sprawl tend to push us toward conformity, is there a difference between the consumerism that supposedly allows you to express individuality and the one that forces you into a box? Will there be a backlash to this because people are tired of living in their cookie cutter home in the suburbs and driving their Ford Explorer?

BM: I think there is a backlash. You see it in little things–the way people feel isolated, hemmed in, in the ways they resist the pressure to conform. If we can somehow channel those frustrations into an organized movement to present alternatives, then we’ll probably see some change. But as long as it’s expressed in an individualistic way, then not a lot will be accomplished.

JP: Many environmental problems can be related back to urban sprawl–it affects wildlife movement, increasing greenhouse gas emission because of increased car use, et cetera. That said, is urban sprawl a major issue to get under control?

BM: I think so. Governments are starting to recognize that now. Recently, the American Medical Association argued that the high rate of obesity in America is directly related to urban sprawl because people rely on their cars and don’t get out and exercise enough. These things are all interrelated… health, environmental and social issues.

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