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Field Guide to Sprawl


Sprawl, as a process of excessive development driven by coalitions of business and political leaders who favor unlimited growth, expresses the values of 19th-century townsite speculators. A broad political lobby pressing for unrestricted real estate development has been powerful in the United States since the 1920s.

Social scientists Harvey Molotch and John Logan define this lobby as the national expression of many "growth machines" operating locally. A growth machine is a political alliance of boosters that includes land owners, developers, realtors, banking and insurance companies, construction companies, energy and utility interests, car and truck manufacturers, technical firms and subcontractors in engineering and design fields, and the political figures who receive campaign contributions to facilitate projects.

It also involves corporations such as supermarket chains, newspapers, discount retailers, and fast-food franchises who mass-market their products locally. Elected officials who object to sprawl are often compelled to work with growth machines because local governments in the United States rely heavily on real estate taxes to fund essential services such as schools.

Edge Nodes

Growth areas of commercial real estate have been called "edge cities," "edgeless cities," and "edge nodes." They usually appear outside of older downtowns near interstate highways, and they may also include residential and industrial areas.

Journalist Joel Garreau coined the term "edge city" in 1991 to refer to a rapidly developing office and retail center with a minimum of 5,000,000 square feet (465,000 square meters) of leasable office space and 600,000 square feet (56,000 square meters) of leasable retail space, a place with more jobs than bedrooms. Garreau defined three types of edge city greenfield, uptown (built over an older city), and "pig-in-the-python" (extended from a strip).

Planner Robert Lang coined the term "edgeless city" in 2002, after he discovered that loose groupings of office buildings (or office sprawl) at many highway exits were more common than large edge cities like Schaumberg, Illinois or Tysons Corner, Virginia.

In Building Suburbia, in 2003, I suggested that the term "edge nodes" covers both types and should be considered one of seven types of suburban development rather than a new kind of city, because the use of "city" is misleading to describe growth nodes dotted around a metropolitan region.

These areas usually lack the public space, transit, pedestrian amenities, and overall density of a traditional downtown. Geographer Peirce Lewis calls an urban region with a number of edge nodes a "galactic metropolis." Regional city, suburban city, and pepperoni-pizza city are similar terms.

Impervious Surface

Built environments interfere with natural processes. An impervious surface asphalt, concrete, or some other paving or roofing material that keeps stormwater from penetrating the ground causes heavy runoff that erodes the soil adjacent to the surface.

Runoff may contain toxic gasoline and oil spills from parking areas, toxic wastes from construction sites, and chemical fertilizers from lawns. In cities, impervious surfaces include rooftops, parking lots, and streets. In suburban areas with much lower densities, big box stores surrounded by on-grade parking create up to 450,000 square feet (42 square meters) of impervious surface, an area the size of ten football fields.

Such areas transform the natural world around them into an asphalt nation of inexpensive parking. Design guidelines can require more permeable landscaping, including pocket parks in downtowns, planting strips between rows of cars and between sidewalks and streets, and roof gardens or rain gardens to help catch runoff.


Like the children's game where one player crouches down and another player vaults over the first, leapfrog development skips over empty land. It may move beyond existing town boundaries to avoid local land use regulation. Leapfrog development usually lies beyond the existing infrastructure such as water lines, sewer lines, utilities, and roads, so it is expensive to service.

When leapfrog development is both remote and dense, it may be called a "ruburb." "Rurban" was coined by Walter Firey in 1946 for an urbanized rural area.

Federal tax policies allowing accelerated depreciation for greenfield commercial real estate development encouraged leapfrogging from 1954 to 1986. The opposite of leapfrog development is infill, new construction within developed areas. To discourage leapfrogging, Oregon has established growth boundaries, while Florida has developed requirements for concurrency, so no building permits are issued in areas without adequate infrastructure.

Mall Glut

The United States has about 40,000 shopping centers holding 19 square feet (1.8 square meters) of retail space per citizen, twice that of any other country. This excess cannot be sustained. Shopping malls developed rapidly after the introduction of tax breaks for accelerated depreciation of commercial real estate in 1954. As of January 2000, journalist Timothy Egan reported an increase in the number of dead (failed) malls.

A super-regional mall may include over 1,400,000 square feet (130,000 square meters) of retail space, multiple anchor stores, and theme-park attractions, such as the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Down the scale is a regional mall with at least one store of over 100,000 square feet (9,300 square meters) , a total of 400,000 square feet (37,000 square meters) of leasable space, and a site of 30 acres (12 hectares) or more.

Smaller still, a strip mall includes a few stores along a shopping strip. An outlet mall contains only discount stores. All have tended to cause the economic decline of older main streets, but retail malls themselves are in trouble because of competition from outlet malls and big boxes as well as Internet shopping (e-tailing). New forms are emerging, such as the stretch mall composed of big boxes along a one- or two-mile (1.6- to 3.2-kilometer) strip.


A community-of-interest development (CID) where residents are legally bound to obey the covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs) of a homeowner association may be called a "privatopia." Author Evan McKenzie coined the term to emphasize how these associations assume many of the powers of private governments, providing such basic services as police, fire protection, or trash collection. They may use CC&Rs to regulate paint colors, landscaping, and tenant behavior. Some are gated communities, where all persons entering must pass a security gate.

Privatopias appeal to many different income groups. According to planners Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder, lifestyle communities focus on retirement and leisure, with amenities such as golf courses. Elite communities protect social status. Security zone communities are composed of worried inner-city residents fearful of crime.


Americans do not have to tolerate sprawl. Instead, learn about tire dumps, mansion subsidies, dead malls, and edgeless cities. Probe the logic behind the material world of sprawl. Acres of bad building in cities as well as suburbs have blunted perceptions. Decades of accepting the ugly as inevitable have taken their toll, but American cities, small towns, and rural areas have much to offer besides examples of careless development.

Learn what natural features make your neighborhood unique. Appreciate the historic buildings, pedestrian scale, and charm of older places. Challenge the economic forces behind sprawl in order to pursue a balanced, integrated built environment where social interaction and sensitivity to the natural landscape have not been sacrificed to mindless growth machines.

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Architect Dolores Hayden writes about everyday cultural landscapes where Americans live and work. She is a professor of architecture, urbanism, and American studies at Yale University. Her most recent book is Building Suburbia.

This article is excerpted from A Field Guide to Sprawl, copyright 2006, available from W. W. Norton and at



ArchWeek Image

An urban intersection in Denver, Colorado shows impervious rooftops, parking lots, and streets.
Photo: Airphoto-Jim Wark

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In low-density suburban areas, big-box stores or malls surrounded by on-grade parking create vast expanses of impervious surface.
Photo: Airphoto-Jim Wark

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Dead mall Villa Italia in Denver, during demolition.
Photo: Airphoto-Jim Wark

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A mall in Sun City, Arizona has room to expand, suggesting the developer hopes to build an edge node around it.
Photo: Airphoto-Jim Wark

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Golf condos in Palm Desert, California form a "lifestyle community."
Photo: Airphoto-Jim Wark

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Gated houses in Littleton, Colorado, form an "elite community."
Photo: Airphoto-Jim Wark

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A Field Guide to Sprawl by Dolores Hayden, with aerial photography by Jim Wark.
Image: W.W. Norton, photo by Airphoto-Jim Wark


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