Curing Cancer of the City

subdivision encroaching on farmland in Idaho Falls, Idaho

   Sprawl is Cancer of the City, as we’ve discussed earlier. But what’s the cause? And what’s the cure? The answers might shock you. It all begins with the things we’ve been doing to the city for years:

ancient car spewing oily exhaust on the streets of Havana

   We’ve polluted the air with our factories, our powerplants, and our cars. We’ve polluted the water not only with our factories, but also with things we spill from our cars and trucks, the detergents we use to do our laundry, and the chemicals we spread on our lawns. We’ve even polluted the earth when our chemicals seep into the soil.

deserted shopping center that's apparently less than ten years old, judging from the size of the trees

   We’ve trashed it building places and buildings that are so unlovable that they’re quickly abandoned, like this failed shopping center. Look how small all but one of the trees here are... this place probably isn’t even ten years old! This is the worst way to trash a city: by building places and buildings that are quickly discarded, left as a scab and then a scar on the city.

New Orleans urban highway interchange

   We’ve damaged the built environment by ramming huge highways through it. This used to be someone’s neighborhood. We’ve also damaged it by tearing down entire neighborhoods in our cities because we wanted buildings that were shiny and new, even if it meant losing thousands of buildings that were like old friends.

car wreckage lying by the side of arterial (Universtiy Drive) in Huntsville, Alabama

   And we’ve made the built environment much more dangerous, primarily because of our cars. Most wild animals have long since either left places like this or become road kill. The one’s we’re killing and injuring now are ourselves. Cars kill tens of thousands of people every year and injure many more. Can you imagine trying to cross this street on foot? It’s even dangerous if you’re riding in a car!

   Matter of fact, we’ve damaged the built environment so much that lots of people say “I can’t live there anymore.” And so they leave. But in doing so, they create the thing that spoils the environment worst of all: sprawl, or Cancer of the City. For fifty years, we’ve built our suburbs in a sprawling way, leap-frogging across the landscape, taking up far too much land. Here, you can see sprawl at the top of the picture about to gobble up lots of farmland. Other times, it gobbles up wetlands. Why is sprawl so bad? Let’s take a look:

   Sprawl puts all the houses in subdivisions by themselves and spreads them out. If you’re at home and want to visit a friend at their house, it’s probably too far to walk, so you have to drive. Sprawl puts all the shops together in one district, then it spreads them out, too. Ever walk from Barnes & Noble to the Old Navy? Sprawl puts all the offices together in another district, then it spreads them out, too, with huge parking lots and landscaped berms in between, so that you have to drive everywhere. Think about the lunch-hour traffic jams. Sprawl puts places to play together in huge recreation centers. Because you have to drive there, and because there are usually several types of sports there, the parking lots in front of them separate them from everything else. And of course, the schools are in their own district, too, normally out on the highway at the edge of town. They’re so big today that kids have to ride in from miles away.

traffic jam in Huntsville, Alabama

   By separating all these things, we’ve gotta drive everywhere. At home and wanna go shopping? Gotta drive. At work and wanna go home? Gotta drive. At the rec center and wanna get something to eat? Gotta drive. So whatever you’re doing, if you want to do something else, you’ve gotta drive.

   So why does sprawl spread everything out? Here’s why: If you’ve just moved out of a city that’s been spoiled, then it’s probably because you’ve felt the pollution, the trash, the damage, and the danger of the spoiled city closing in tightly around you. You want out, towards the country, where the air is clean, and everything is neat, tidy, and safe. And you want more space. A lot more space, where you can kick up your heels. So everything gets spread out, like we’ve already seen. It’s the natural reaction we should expect to the pollution, the trash, the damage, and the danger.

brown colt kicking up its heels in a green field outside of Cerro Punta, Panama

kicking up our heels may
be an illusion

   Why is it bad to spread & separate? Because when things spread out like this, you have to drive everywhere. This pollutes our air and water like we’ve already seen. Sprawl is already trashed before it’s even fully built by unlovable buildings and places. Ever seen a lovable Wal-Mart? Sprawl damages the land by disturbing far too much of it, and leaving useless strips of undeveloped land in between. And it’s a very dangerous place, because it’s filled with streets and highways that are big and fast.

sidewalk where nobody ever walks, between arterial highway and parking lot with no shade trees on a hot summer afternoon

   It’s all a cruel joke because when we build sprawl, the things we fled the spoiled city to escape will soon spoil our suburb, too. And so we move out of those suburbs to new suburbs we build even further out. And on and on it sprawls, eating up our land like cancer, leaving discarded, unwanted places behind. But we can’t go on this way, because we’ll run out of land someday, eating up the natural environment. What then? Sprawl is Cancer of the City... and it doesn’t just eat up the city, but it eats up the land for miles around it, too. And we all know how cancer ends.

   Suburbs aren’t evil; sprawl is evil. Cancer and sprawl are unhealthy growth. There’s also such a thing as healthy growth, which we’ll talk about in a minute. it’s only bad growth when the wrong thing grows. And for many years, we’ve been building our suburbs in a sprawling pattern.

aqueduct running across the entry to Segovia, Spain

   What’s the cure? There’s a light around the corner now. The cure for Cancer of the City is to build a sustainable city, and not let it get spoiled by pollution, trash, damage, and danger, or heal it if it’s already spoiled. What does it mean to be sustainable? It means “keeping things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future.” What is a “healthy way?” It’s a way that’s free from illness or injury, which for a city, are things like pollution, trash, damage, and danger. What’s an “uncertain future?” It’s one where we don’t know what the price of gas will be, or when we might run out of it. In an uncertain future, it’s much better to rely on things nearby rather than things further away.

   So a sustainable city is a healthy city. And precisely because it is a healthy city, people don’t feel like they need to flee to sprawl. This means that countless acres of the natural environment are preserved instead of gobbled up with endless sprawl. Put another way, we can’t have a healthy natural environment around us if we don’t have a healthy city. This means that we need to design and build cities differently than how we’ve been building them recently, if we want to cure Cancer of the City.

CNU 18 logo (Congress for the New Urbanism, in Atlanta

   If you’re serious about helping cure Cancer of the City, then you need to be at CNU 18 in Atlanta next month. The Congress for the New Urbanism has for years been leading the charge to find a cure for sprawl, both in the new places we build and in the repair of sprawl that’s already there. This year’s CNU focus is New Urbanism: Rx for Healthy Places. Come help us find the cure!

   ~Steve Mouzon


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020