Sprawl Recovery - A 12-Step Program

search the Original Green Blog

street scene in Levittown, New York

Levittown, New York was the birthplace of postwar sprawl

   America has descended far into the strong darkness of sprawl addiction, and while much of the future lies shrouded in more uncertainty than usual, one fact shines clear: we can no longer afford to sprawl. Cities can't afford to service sprawl's low-density pattern that consumes huge chunks of land and demands more infrastructure investment per unit served. Citizens soon won't be able to afford to live in sprawl's furthest outposts as gas edges closer to $5/gallon. How much sprawl will be uninhabitable on a median salary when gas gets to $10/gallon? And again at $20/gallon? Gas is 20 times higher than it was when I was a kid, and I'm not old. $20/gallon is less than 5 times higher than gas I bought yesterday, so it's not a matter of if, but of when.

aerial photo of sprawl subdivision in countryside outside Atlanta

for homeowners, sprawl began with the dream of
a house in the 

   Sprawl became an addiction in the same way most addictions start: by providing a huge rush of perceived benefits early on. It became the biggest money-making machine ever known to humanity, and you didn't really even need to think very much in order to participate because of its reductive simplicity. Zoning ordinances, financing mechanisms, and appraisal standards all conspired to grease the skids for the developers of sprawl, with an unspoken side-effect: every other way of building became intolerably laborious by comparison.

aerial view of suburban subdivision outside Atlanta with another subdivision under construction nearby

…but then everyone else moved out there as well,and
so it wasn
the country anymore

   But like other addictions, sprawl burned through our resources at a staggering rate. Cities all over the US, addicted to tax revenues from sprawl construction, grew by countless acres while their populations remained constant or even shrank. Inevitably, all those one-time benefits of new sprawl construction that created such a rush at their beginnings have left the cities with infrastructure they must maintain every year forever… or until the city goes broke. Cities have sold the future for the thrill of the moment, just like any other addict would do.

aerial view of expressway outside Raleight, North Carolina with surrounding sprawl

expressways fuel sprawl

   These aren't sprawl's only problems. I'll be blogging shortly about the Demographic Bomb, but here's the upshot: since the end of World War II, the US housing market as a whole has contained more buyers than sellers, resulting in upward pressure on home prices. We now appear to be entering a decades-long period when there will be more sellers than buyers in the market, resulting in downward pressure on housing prices. Subdivisions that do not dramatically change their character are likely to ride this huge ebbing tide down to the rocky bottom.

   This is all really bad news. But there are reasons for hope. Some of the smartest and most optimistic people I know have been working for years to figure out how to recover from this sprawling addiction. Andrés Duany and dozens of colleagues authored the SmartCode, and his partner and wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk authored its biggest implementation to date in Miami21, a code for millions of Floridians. Their business partner Galina Tachieva authored the Sprawl Repair Manual about a year after colleagues Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson wrote Suburban Retrofit. Chuck Marohn, Hazel Borys, and Nathan Norris all call for cities to consider the ROI on each municipal investment, a strategy that would have disinherited sprawl years ago. Andrés wrote recently of a much larger cast of characters dedicated to the feat of sprawl recovery.

aerial view of sprawling subdivision near Atlanta

sprawl uses land very inefficiently

   This post begins to lay out a route to reclaiming compact, mixed-use, and walkable places from the very bowels of sprawl. It sounds gross… and it is. Mile after mile of subdivisions, strip malls, and office parks. How is it possible to turn this into sustainable places? Here's an even better question: how is it possible not to? Sprawl, you see, is the largest investment of the modern era, from the personal level to the municipal. We can't just walk away. We've got to make this stuff work… long before gas gets to $20/gallon.

   This series of posts follows older addiction recovery paths by planning sprawl recovery in twelve steps. But before we get to the steps, we will explore the game-changers. These are broad principles that, when applied, have virtuous cycles across a number of sprawl recovery steps. We'll also look at the silver bullets. We need silver bullets because not every sprawl recovery measure measures up. Some produce only incremental benefits, so we need others that create radical benefits.

citizens debating issues in Bologna piazza

citizens debating issues in a civic space

   The twelve steps are next. 1. They begin with civic space, without which civilized society cannot exist. Humans need both the public and the private to thrive. Civic spaces may not be fully furnished for years, but neighborhoods cannot thrive without establishing their locations early. 2. The second step is the regeneration of a healthy system of thoroughfares, from the avenue to the alley. 3. Accessory units are third, because neighborhoods need to quickly begin to build more customers nearby for the businesses that are to follow. 4. Gifts to the Street are next, because it's never too soon to make a street more walkable. Gifts to the Street also highlight the fact that sprawl recovery is an act of enticement, not one of contrition. We should be able to entice people to live better. Scolding never works for long.

New Orleans French Quarter restaurant at night

neighborhood restaurant

   5. The fifth step is the encouragement of edible gardens, because if you can't eat there, you can't live there. We've been able to bring in meal after meal that needed a passport to get to our plate, but what happens when gas hits $10/gallon? Or $20/gallon? 6. Restaurants and third places are sixth on the list, and first of the commercial uses because they're so resilient. 7. Once you've established places to eat in your neighborhood, the next step should be a bed & breakfast so that future homes aren't burdened with the necessity of guest suites. 8. This means you can more easily subdivide larger lots into smaller cottage lots which better serve a broader swath of the American housing market.

live-work (live-above) unit in Over-The-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio

classic live-work unit

   9. The ninth step is the creation of what I believe will be the hottest unit type in the American housing market over the next several decades: the live-work unit. It comes in many flavors, from the venerable live-above (shown here) to the live-in-front (workshop,) the live-behind, the live-beside, the live-nearby, etc. 10. Step ten is the creation of a neighborhood market because you're not living in a truly sustainable place until you can walk to the grocery. And if you can walk to the grocery, chances are good that you can walk to other necessities as well. 11. Dedicated office and retail are the next-to-last step because they need a thriving neighborhood to ensure their survival. 12. The final step is the creation of civic buildings, which are the crowning achievements of a mature neighborhood.

   ~Steve Mouzon

   Other Sprawl Recovery posts on the Original Green Blog:

   Walk Appeal

      Walk Appeal Measurables

      Walk Appeal Immeasurables

      Walk Appeal Impact

   The Sky Method

   The Transect

      Fried-Egg Cities?


Subscribe to get Walk Appeal book updates

* indicates required

You'll receive an email from me with the subject line "Mouzon Design: Please Confirm Subscription." Click Yes to confirm your subscription for Walk Appeal book updates.

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Here's a new way of looking at sprawl repair... see what you think. Comments?

Mar 5, 2012 10:16am

Matthew Hardy

What about steps 9-12 Steve?

Mar 5, 2012 11:00am

Andy Sisk · Georgetown University

Your caption under the fourth illustration notes that expressways fueled the sprawl type of growth. Likewise, ought not one of your twelve steps be the transportation-type that fueled walkable growth: rail? A network of streetcars, commuter trains and intercity trains freed people to walk in those desirable public spaces.

Mar 6, 2012 10:16am

Christopher Burd · Trent University

Surely there has to be another side to this. If some sprawl areas densify and become more like real towns, then, assuming low general population growth, won't others have to "ruralize"? Don't we need to plan for what software designers call "graceful degradation"?

Mar 6, 2012 11:03am

Thomas Dolan · University of Pennsylvania

Thanks for this post, Steve. Step Nine will be covered in my new Book, Live-Work Planning and Design: Zero-Commute Housing, to be published by Wiley four weeks from today. In it, a standard lexicon of terms is put forth (including live-nearby, which you cite above) that will help us all to more accurately converse about live-work.

Mar 6, 2012 4:04pm

Andy Sisk · Georgetown University

As in "The Wizard of Oz", it's usually best to start a long journey from right where you are. That translates into use of the rails we have as a focus for new growth nodes. You are right, that the community must have a mindset towards creating a new type of (walkable) development. It must be strong enough to be manifested in urban growth boundaries and new zoning. However, to encourage that mindset, the passenger rail network we have must be made credible. Permanent funding for ("downtown to downtown") Amtrak is a start. Good, expanding experiences on Amtrak might help people believe in the horse of a different color and a walkable community of their own.

Mar 6, 2012 4:56pm


Could you please explain point three and "third places" in point six?

Mar 8, 2012 2:24pm

Andy Sisk · Georgetown University

Steve, I agree that they CAN develop concurrently; my point however is that development-walkability and rail-connectivity MUST develop concurrently. Here in St Louis we have a great light rail system with less new walkable development (except for the downtown rehabs) than hoped. We also have a great walkable development (New Town) built completely off the transit grid, and its wish for its streetcar connection was dashed. Meanwhile, St Louis' neighboring (and State's largest) county is devoid of transit. My Masters project is a proposal to repair its significant sprawl with a three-part plan: use existing rail for a shuttle, develop node stations, and connect them to the surrounding County also with trails and paths. When I introduce this publicly soon, I will say that unless all three are part of the plan, the results will be disappointing. Am I realistic to hold to that standard?

Mar 13, 2012 3:52pm

Perry Sponseller · Memphis, Tennessee

How do the boots get on the ground and these ideas get traction in local areas? I think about organizations who go into other countries to implement what is a good idea and end up failing due to not doing the marketing research that applies. I like these ideas. In your work what do you see as causes for failure in implementing better development to reorient the suburban sprawl?

Jan 6, 2014 11:39am


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020