Sprawl Repair


The majority of DPZ’s projects are set within incomplete or damaged urban contexts. DPZ has worked for more than three decades planning and coding for places fragmented by automobile-oriented, segregated-use zoning, and has created a toolbox of techniques completing and retrofitting dysfunctional sites. Repair is possible at all scales, from the region to the neighborhood, and from the block to the building. Beyond reconfiguring a site’s design, DPZ’s expertise also includes regulatory frameworks and implementation strategies. In tune with the 21st Century ethos for sustainability and resource conservation, DPZ's Sprawl Repair initiative accepts the challenge to salvage, repurpose and transform even the most poorly conceived and disconnected existing urban fabric. Most importantly, this pragmatic, step-by-step, multidisciplinary approach can be applied incrementally, with the goal of steadily contributing to a more compact, diverse, pedestrian-oriented, transit-friendly, and resilient environment.

The Sprawl Repair initiative grew out of the lessons learned in the revitalization of existing dysfunctional or incomplete built environments, in suburban or urban locations. DPZ sees any tract of developed land, however distressed or ill-planned, as a repository of embodied energy that, rather than being discarded, should be reclaimed, re-urbanized, and transformed into a more livable, economically functional, and ecologically sound habitat.

DPZ has been heavily involved in the CNU Sprawl Retrofit Initiative, collaborating with a diversity of professionals to address Sprawl Repair from physical design through policy, financing, and infrastructure. Toolkits addressing the Sprawl Repair problem are in development through the initiative. More information about the initiative can be found in the resources at the bottom of the page.

Suburban Shopping Mall Retrofit Animation
The animation above shows how a typical suburban shopping mall can be converted into a human-scale walkable mixed-use community.

The Problem

Sprawl is malfunctioning. It has underperformed for decades, but its collapse has become obvious with the recent mortgage meltdown and economic crisis, and its abundance magnifies the problems of its failure.

Let us be clear that sprawl and suburbia are not synonymous. There are many first-generation suburbs, most of them built before WWII, that function well, because they are compact, walkable, and have a mix of uses. Sprawl, on the other hand, is characterized by auto-dependence and separation of uses. It is typically found in suburban areas, but it also affects the urban parts of our cities and towns.

Sprawl’s defects are not limited to economics. Sprawl is central to our inefficient use of land, energy, and water, and to increased air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the loss of open space and natural habitats. Because it requires a car to reach every destination, it is also to blame for time wasted in traffic, the exponential increase in new infrastructure costs, and health problems such as obesity.

Sprawl developments, particularly those in the far-flung exurbs, have recently suffered some of the highest rates of foreclosure. Many homes, and even entire subdivisions, have been abandoned.

Sprawl’s future, if current patterns continue, appears no better. Its built form does not serve new and developing markets, providing neither the diversity and stimulation desired by the younger Millennial generation nor the convenience needed by their parents, the Baby Boomers. The party is over.

But we need to house the additional 100 million souls expected to populate this country by 2050.

So what do we do?

Neighborhood Sprawl Repair Animation
The animation above shows how an auto-dependent suburban subdivision can be converted into a walkable mixed-use neighborhood by connecting its streets and giving meaning to its leftover open spaces, creating neighborhood centers that foster community interactions.

The Options

The first option is to continue building greenfield sprawl, but that is how we got ourselves into this predicament, and one would hope we have now learned our lesson.

The second option is to abandon existing sprawl. This will not be possible either, as the expanse of sprawl represents a vast investment. It also offers opportunities for reuse, and cannot be simply discarded or demolished.

The only valid option is to repair sprawl – to deal with it straight on. Pragmatism calls for the repair of sprawl through redevelopment that creates viable human settlements that are walkable, with mixed uses and transportation options.

Pragmatism also demands we acknowledge that portions of sprawl may remain in their current state, while others may devolve, reverting to agriculture or nature.

Why Sprawl Repair is Imperative

We need sprawl repair because change will not happen on its own. Sprawl is extremely inflexible in its physical form, and will not naturally mature into walkable environments. Without precise design and policy interventions, sprawl might morph somewhat but it is unlikely to produce diverse, sustainable urbanism. It is imperative that we repair sprawl consciously and methodically, through design, policy, and incentives.

We need sprawl repair because, in spite of the endless challenges, many opportunities exist. The time is right to deal with sprawl now. Energy costs are rising, meaning long commutes are becoming unaffordable. A changing climate compels us to pollute less. We need to increase physical activity to overcome the epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases. Entire residential and commercial developments are failing. These are the obvious justifications for sprawl repair. But there are other reasons that, while less obvious are equally compelling.

Some of these reasons are economic. For decades, the common wisdom was that exurban development was good for municipalities because of increased property tax revenues. The truth, however, is that municipalities spend much more to expand and maintain suburban infrastructure than they receive in increased revenues. Walkable urbanism, on the other hand, is a much better deal for municipalities.

The development industry also has few incentives to continue exurban expansion with lending stalled, property values plummeting, and commuting costs increasing. The market, fortunately, is heading in another direction.

The Baby Boomers and Millenials are creating a major shift in the housing market. Together they represent more than 135 million people, many of them with an orientation toward diverse, compact urbanism.

Sprawl repair also provides the opportunity for economic development. Employment decentralization is a fact, and most businesses are located outside of city limits. Existing single-use, auto-oriented employment and commercial hubs can be redeveloped into complete communities with balanced uses and transportation options. In addition to economic reasons for sprawl repair, the regulatory environment that supports sprawl has already begun to change. Form-based codes have been approved in hundreds of municipalities around the U.S. This shift in the regulatory framework makes smart growth development legal again and assists sprawl repair initiatives.

Regional and statewide planning practices can provide discipline and coordination on a large scale. Many counties, whole regions, and even entire states have already embraced policies that do not foster sprawl, making the repair of sprawling suburbs more feasible, as public resources are channeled to incentivize sustainable growth. Even at the federal level, agencies have come together to address growth in a holistic, multi-disciplinary manner that should help with sprawl repair.

Market forces, policies, and incentives, however, will not be sufficient to achieve the regeneration of our unsustainable suburbs. We also need specific strategies and design techniques.

Sprawl Repair Big Box Retrofit Animation
The animation above shows how a standard suburban big box commercial strip can be completed with additional commercial and residential uses to form a main street that better serves its businesses and still accommodates parking requirements.

How to Repair Sprawl

Sprawl has been aggressively promoted and encouraged, and the approach to repair must be the same. It should start soon, because despite the severity of the building industry meltdown, it is urgent that future activity be redirected to places that have potential for redevelopment – defunct malls, failing office parks and residential subdivisions, empty parking lots, abandoned golf courses – rather than to building more sprawl.

Sprawl repair should be pursued using a comprehensive method based on urban design, regulation, and strategies for funding and incentives – the same instruments that made sprawl the prevalent form of development. Repair should be addressed at all urban scales, from the region down to the community and the building – from identifying potential transportation networks and creating transit-connected urban cores to transforming dead malls into town centers, reconfiguring conventional suburban blocks into walkable fabric, down to the adaptation and expansion of single structures. And rather than the instant and total overhaul of communities, as promoted so destructively in American cities half a century ago, this should be a strategy for incremental and opportunistic improvement.

Sprawl must be fixed. The good news is that we have the tools to do it. Instead of focusing on the problems, let’s get to work.


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