Why Tackling Urban Sprawl Is More About Proper Planning Than Eco-Towns & Green Buildings

paris suburb aerial photo

European cities have continued to expand in area, even though population growth rates have fallen. Paris suburbs photo: Aube Insanité via flickr

I purposely live in New York City because I hate suburbia, hate it. I'll admit that part of it is that I'm rabidly hostile to the idea that I need a car to go about my daily business. Apart from environmental problems, more personally, the only way I really feel like I know someplace is if I've walked through it: Even a bicycle (for all its virtues) is too fast. Suburban sprawl and I don't blend well. Which is why a new piece in Yale Environment 360 on efforts to rein in urban sprawl in Europe caught my eye: After going through a brief overview of the rise of new urbanism in Europe as a response to American-style suburban development and Corbusier-inspired high-rise housing blocks, author Bruce Stutz brings up an important observation about the character of EU sprawl: It has happened during a period of declining populations.

European Urban Growth Outpaces Population Growth
In the past 20 years European cities have expanded their built areas 20%, while population has only increased 6%. New car ownership has outpaced new babies born by four times. Part of this is an expanded highway system, encouraged by EU policy. As an example of what this has caused Stutz cites Madrid: Since the 1990s Madrid's built area has increased 50%, but the population has only grown 5%.

Green Buildings Don't an Eco-Town Make
As for the challenges that building new walkable and bikeable places that are the antithesis of sprawling, low-density housing, Stutz says,

"Townmaking," one planner assured me, "is a complicated business. Without a guiding authority you're not going to get the necessary level of sophistication. It's necessary to have a long-term master plan that over time continues to add value to the development."

For the new urbanists, building an eco-town is not a matter of building "green" buildings. For some, in fact, green buildings are non-starters, taking 25 to 65 years to recoup the energy used to build them; and once built, they can become quickly obsolete, saddled with already out-of-date technology.

"Everyone gets seduced by the 'green bling,'" Stephen Platt of Cambridge Architectural Research told me. "Making the houses energy-efficient is the easy bit. The key problem is making this a long-term socially acceptable place where people will want to live and prosper."

More: The New Urbanists: Tackling Europe's Sprawl
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