Sprawl Repair: From Auto-Scale to Human-Scale

June 29, 2011 · by Galina Tachieva

Leveraging design, policy, and incentives, sprawl can be transformed into complete communities with balanced uses and transportation options.
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Leveraging design, policy, and incentives, sprawl can be transformed into complete communities with balanced uses and transportation options.

In 1963 Constantinos Doxiadis published the book Architecture in Transition. No mere contemplation on architecture, the book boldly called for a transition from traditional urbanism to new settlement patterns that would accommodate the car, its movement, and its speed. Doxiadis recognized the contrast between human-scaled and automobile-scaled development. He observed that cars change our perception of the built environment because they move faster than humans, and they influence the city and its physical structure. Residences, shops, offices, schools, and other daily needs did not need to be close to each other when people moved around in cars.

Today we have achieved most of Doxiadis’ aspirations (and those of other utopian planners such as Le Corbusier) in the transition from walkable urbanism to car-oriented urbanism, from small blocks, narrow streets, and organic urban fabric designed for pedestrians to wide streets, big parking facilities, and highway interchanges designed for cars. This transition created a landscape dominated by suburban sprawl and has brought with it a gamut of unexpected negative consequences. It is clear that the transition was a mistake.

I propose and explain in detail in my book Sprawl Repair Manual, another transition — from auto-dependent, single-use, mega-block monocultures to complete and walkable human-scale communities.

We Need to Repair Sprawl

Sprawl is an outdated and dysfunctional form of development. Its gargantuan problems have been pointed out over the past few decades, but the recent economic and real estate calamities — with shopping centers, office parks, and entire subdivisions failing daily — have proven the urgent need to address these problems. The responsible and sustainable way to deal with sprawl is neither to abandon it nor to continue building in the same pattern but to repair, reorganize, and reuse as much of it as possible in complete, livable, robust communities.

Sprawl is inflexible in its physical form and will not naturally mature into walkable environments. Without precise 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.

In spite of the endless challenges posed by sprawl, many opportunities exist, and this is the right time to tackle them. Rising energy costs are making long commutes unaffordable. A changing climate compels us to pollute less. We need to increase physical activity to overcome the epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases.

Some reasons for sprawl repair are economic. Baby boomers and millennials are emerging as a new class of buyers and 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. According to AARP’s report “Home and Community Preferences of the 45+ Population,” aging baby boomers will prefer to retire in their suburban homes, which are their largest personal investments. If we provide nearby amenities, senior residents can potentially age in place and invest in existing neighborhoods instead of moving. We need to “amenitize” sprawling single-use developments to accommodate these growing needs.

Employment decentralization is a fact, and most businesses are located outside city limits. Existing single-use, auto-oriented workplaces and commercial hubs can be redeveloped into complete communities with balanced uses and transportation options. Existing jobs can be saved, and new jobs, many of them green, can be created in the process of — and as a result of — transforming sprawl.

The sprawl repair method offers a comprehensive strategy to accomplish these imperatives. Based on knowledge gained from built projects, the method incorporates the repair of the full range of suburban development types. It demonstrates a step-by-step process for the creation of more sustainable human settlements out of our wasteful sprawling landscape. The method provides a framework for designing the interventions, incorporating them into the regulatory system, and implementing them with permitting strategies and financial incentives.

The approach addresses a range of scales from the region down to the community, street, block, and building. The method identifies deficiencies in typical elements of sprawl and determines the best remedial techniques for those deficiencies. Recommendations for regulatory and economic incentives are also addressed.

Sprawl Repair Defined

Sprawl repair transforms failing or potentially failing single-use and car-dominated developments into complete communities that have better economic, social, and environmental performance.

The objective of the sprawl repair strategy is to build communities based on the neighborhood unit, similar to the traditional fabric that was established in cities and suburbs prior to World War II. The primary tactic of sprawl repair is to insert needed elements — buildings, density, public space, additional connections — to complete and diversify the mono-cultural agglomerations of sprawl: residential subdivisions, strip shopping centers, office parks, suburban campuses, malls, and edge cities. By systematically modifying the reparable areas (turning subdivisions into walkable neighborhoods and shopping centers and malls into town centers) and leaving to devolution those that are irreparable (abandonment or conversion to park, agricultural, or natural land), portions of sprawl can be reorganized into complete communities.

To identify the proper targets for repair, it is essential to understand the form and structure of sprawl in the American built environment. Sprawl and suburbia are not synonymous. There are three generations of suburbia that vary in form as related to urbanity and walkability: pre-war suburbs, post-war suburbs, and late 20th-century exurbs. Pre-war suburbs are often complete communities developed along railroad and streetcar corridors; they are compact, walkable, and have a mix of uses. The latter two types abandoned the pedestrian-centered neighborhood structure in favor of auto-centric dispersion and can be considered sprawl. Sprawl repair concentrates on these two tiers of suburbs.

The Method

Sprawl repair begins with analysis at the regional scale (Figure 1). Complete communities — cities, towns, villages — are identified for preservation and emulation, and unsustainable but salvageable sprawl elements are identified for repair. For sprawl elements that are beyond repair, the decision must be made whether to leave them as they are, convert them to farmland, or let them devolve into open space.

The sprawl repair method comprises urban design as well as regulatory and implementation techniques. The final products of sprawl repair are communities in which people live better, drive less, and as a result, save energy and resources, ultimately contributing to a healthier environment. The process leading from the state of sprawl to the state of repaired, sustainable urbanism is dependent on the specifics of the target and its site, including physical boundaries, regional context and connectivity, ownership pattern, demographics, politics, and economic potential, as well as different construction methods and available technology, materials, and work force. As a result, sprawl repair strategies take a variety of paths, some direct and expeditious and others gradual and slower. Regardless of its path, the final state of the repaired sprawl element is part of a complete community that needs fewer resources and provides a better quality of life.

Figure 2 shows the transformation of a sprawl repair target into a part of a complete community. The change of quality of life is represented along the horizontal axis, while the vertical axis shows the quantitative change in the reduction of energy, resources, and infrastructure use per capita after the transformation. The process of transformation is shown in multiple paths: direct (straight line), phased (stepped line) and indirect (circuitous line). The direct path represents a case in which economics and timing support one big-effort, single-phase, radical repair. The phased path includes several steps, with portions of the project developed at different times. The indirect path represents a sequence of changes that bring the project closer to the final repaired state but in a longer, incremental progression of trial and adjustment. No matter which path is chosen, the final result is a positive qualitative change from sprawl to walkable urbanism.

Figure 3 compares selected urban indicators before and after sprawl repair of a single-family subdivision. It illustrates the redevelopment potential of sprawl as expressed by changes of urban indicators. The density increases substantially — sufficient to support transit. It should be emphasized that transit works at a larger, regional scale, coordinated between retrofitted nodes. For example, a minimum density of 15 units to the acre can support a frequent local bus service. The case shown analyzes occupant density rather than resident or employee densities because the sprawl elements have single uses that are re-balanced in the process of sprawl repair. The occupant density (number of people residing and working in an area per acre) increases dramatically, showing the redevelopment potential of this repair site.

Two critical metrics shown in the figure are the length and surface of thoroughfares per capita before and after sprawl repair. The reduction of these measurements is substantial. Similar reductions can be expected for other infrastructure, meaning less infrastructure is required per capita when a sprawl element is repaired with the demonstrated techniques. In the long run, such repair is less expensive and more efficient than continuing building sprawl in far-flung locations.

In addition, a series of performance criteria are used to provide metrics of the benefits of repairing sprawl. Carbon footprints per person are dramatically reduced when sprawl elements are repaired into mixed-use, walkable patterns that are the basis for a post-carbon, low-energy future. Together with the qualitative urban design tools, these quantitative tools make a case for policy changes to incentivize sprawl repair (Figure 4).

The Techniques

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. When focused on retrofit and redevelopment, these tools transform the existing physical environment from sprawl to complete communities.

As sprawl has eroded the built environment, it has also corrupted common conceptions. Terms such as “neighborhood” and “center” once had clear and commonly understood meanings. But developers of sprawl have created so many single-use housing pods that they called neighborhoods and so many strip malls that they called town centers that the terms have lost much of their value. Another benefit of sprawl repair is reclaiming the meanings of terms such as these and making them useful again. A center is a focal point (and often a gathering place), not necessarily a geographic mid-point, where a variety of housing and commercial and civic amenities are provided for surrounding suburban developments. The sprawl repair method identifies rural centers (hamlets that serve rural communities), neighborhood centers (repaired commercial and residential nodes with potential for transit, serving several suburban communities), town centers (repaired, larger-scale commercial nodes with potential for transit, serving several suburban communities) and regional urban cores (repaired employment and commercial hubs, serving a region.)

Sprawl repair techniques are dedicated to transforming:

Urban Design Techniques

Sprawl repair should be introduced at all urban scales, from the repair of a regional domain to the transformation of sprawl elements at the community scale down to the re-configuration of conventional suburban blocks and the reuse, expansion, and adaptation of single structures.

The urban design method at the regional scale includes several steps that produce a document mapping the structure of sprawl repair. The steps determine the physical boundaries of the regional domain, delineate the areas to be preserved and reserved, prioritize the salvageable commercial and employment nodes, determine the potential transit and infrastructure networks, identify the sprawl repair targets, and (after the transfer of development rights) assemble the final sector map.

Urban design at the community scale concentrates on restructuring sprawl into neighborhoods, transit corridors, and well-balanced districts that have short walking distances to daily needs and provide healthier environments to a multigenerational population. It has long been established that most people will choose not to walk if a destination is more than five minutes away (roughly a quarter-mile). The distance covered in this five-minute walk is commonly called a pedestrian shed and is usually represented in planning documents by a circle with a quarter-mile radius (Figure 5). Larger circles of a half-mile radius are used when the pedestrian sheds are centered on a transit stop, as people are willing to walk longer to such destinations. Delineating the pedestrian sheds for the potential neighborhoods and town centers happens at the regional scale, but their detailing and urban design happen at the community scale. The pedestrian shed is a simple but essential tool in the pursuit of order and walkability in auto-oriented suburban environments.

After the pedestrian sheds are determined, the neighborhoods and town centers are shaped using a range of urban design techniques. They include introducing new building types to allow a greater mix of uses, connecting and improving thoroughfares to create a pedestrian-friendly urban fabric, and rationalizing parking to accommodate future urbanization and eliminate underutilized parking.

Defining open and civic space is an essential urban design technique that involves the creation of a hierarchy of well-defined spaces for common use. The integration of local food production is becoming a predominant trend and is recommended for all repair sites, as they can easily accommodate gardens and allotments, even while their urbanism is being redesigned.

The repair at the community scale is closely interrelated with the redesign of the full range of suburban thoroughfares. Designed exclusively for cars, with only velocity and capacity in mind, suburban thoroughfares must be repaired into complete streets, meaning they safely and comfortably accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit, and vehicles. The urban design interventions are aimed to achieve specific character: Fast and dangerous suburban thoroughfares are redesigned into pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets where vehicular traffic is accommodated without sacrificing the built environment around it. In most cases, the existing rights-of-way are kept the same, as is the pavement width of thoroughfares, because the proposed design changes are handled within the existing parameters.

Urban design at the block scale deals with techniques for transforming blocks into smaller urban increments and preparing them to become part of a future pedestrian-friendly urban fabric. Large suburban mega-blocks are broken down into a finer grain of smaller blocks by introducing new streets and passages, thereby establishing a coherent pattern for further redevelopment (Figure 6).

Repair at the building scale complements the community and block scales, as it deals with the main building stereotypes that define sprawl: ranch houses, McMansions, drive-throughs, gas stations, and strip centers, among others. These emblematic structures, via modest urban design interventions, have the potential to contribute to a more diverse, harmonious, and walkable urban fabric. Rather than being demolished, existing suburban buildings are repurposed or lined with new structures, often taking advantage of suburbia’s typically excessive setbacks and parking lots.

Regulatory Techniques

Even though mixed-use, walkable, and diverse projects have proven to perform better than sprawl, it is still difficult to approve and finance them. Furthermore, it is impossible to repair sprawl using most existing zoning practices and policies, which encourage the creation of sprawl. A total overhaul of current zoning practices is required for an effective intervention in suburbia. As this is impossible to do in a single, sweeping motion, new codes must be adopted one municipality (or even one project) at a time, as overlay districts, in parallel, or in place of existing codes. In all cases, these codes must powerfully incentivize smart growth rather than sprawl.

To overcome the difficulties related to building and maintaining sprawl, a gradual process of adopting form-based codes has been started by some municipalities and cities. Form-based codes regulate the form of the built environment, allowing and encouraging good place-making. A model form-based code is the SmartCode, a comprehensive ordinance that enables smart growth community patterns and the transformation of portions of sprawl into walkable urbanism. The code includes a special sector (Sprawl Repair Sector G-5) that is assigned to areas that are currently single-use and have disconnected conventional development patterns but have the potential to be completed or redeveloped into neighborhoods and urban centers.

The Sprawl Repair Module has been created as a special “plug-in” to the SmartCode to activate the technology for repair as a part of the code. The module presents a sequence of techniques for retrofitting the sprawl elements into complete communities. It operates at the scale of the region, community, street, and building.

Some of the sprawl areas will be up-zoned to accommodate higher but well-designed density and allow the introduction of mixed uses and transit. This creates the regulatory basis for successional growth and the transformation of sprawl elements into viable neighborhoods with more transportation and housing choices. Conventional suburban blocks may be reconfigured to receive higher densities and additional uses.

At the scale of the building, the most important issues will be to allow flexible uses within existing structures (houses becoming live-work units, big-box retail becoming office space or civic buildings) and increased density within existing parcels and lots (mansions turned into multifamily housing or assisted living facilities, or the addition of accessory units).

Another important task is to create standards to calm and repair dangerous thoroughfares and make them safe for walking and bicycling while creating connections between residential areas, shops, workplaces, schools, civic buildings, and recreation.

The SmartCode and the Sprawl Repair Module operate according to the rural-to-urban transect, an organizational framework and planning methodology that enables the comprehensive and effective redevelopment of sprawling communities into more sustainable patterns. The transect is not a mandatory tool to be imposed on planners and local governments. A transect is a concept originally used by ecologists to describe distinct natural habitats but has been extended to cover the human habitat. The transect as it relates to the built environment organizes structural elements according to an increasing density and complexity, from the countryside to the urban core.

The lack of rural-to-urban logic in sprawl is one of the fundamental differences from traditional urbanism. The transect is broken into zones, each representing a complex habitat of different building types, streetscapes, and public spaces. This is in contrast to sprawl, in which each element is a single-use agglomeration, usually a monoculture of a single building type (Figure 7). The transect zones represent zoning conditions that are similar to the ones administered by conventional zoning codes, except they include not only the building use, density, height, and setback requirements but also how buildings relate to each other and how together they shape the public realm.

The Sprawl Repair Module indicates the proportions of Transect zones that need to be added or rebalanced to transform the sprawl repair target into a mixed-use, diverse, and transit-ready community. The zoning modifications together with the urban design adjustments (such as connecting streets and creating public space) are reflected in speciļ¬c regulating plans.

Implementation Techniques

Sprawl has been encouraged for decades through policies and legislation, and its repair must also be encouraged, even directly incentivized. The two main techniques to encourage and incentivize the private sector are easier permitting and infrastructure funding.

Permitting and incentivizing the repair of strategically located commercial nodes — malls, regional shopping centers, employment hubs, and edge cities — should be first on the list of sprawl repair interventions. Repair of these elements not only promises maximum return on investment but has the potential to galvanize the transformation of vast swaths of nearby sprawl development. These nodes represent the largest monetary and real estate investments in suburbia, and in most cases they are still under single ownership. If they are redeveloped as complete town centers with residential and office components to supplement the retail, then transit between these intensified nodes will become viable.

Smaller commercial entities are the next targets, and failing residential subdivisions are last. There are two choices for the latter: evolution into mixed-use neighborhood centers if they have potential for intensification and transit or devolution through abandonment or conversion to park or agricultural land.

The strongest incentive for repair of commercial nodes is public support for infrastructure, but it should be available for only the most environmentally responsible and well-designed projects because those will have the greatest positive and far-reaching effect on their larger contexts. In addition, public-private partnerships can be effective, and government funding programs are available for some projects (via tax increment financing, business improvement districts, energy efficiency and conservation block grants, etc). Some of these have already been used in retrofitting projects and can be helpful in the transitional time when such projects are still the exception.

To change the entrenched sprawl system, it is necessary to introduce legislation. Special sprawl repair acts may be developed for state departments that will provide a list of incentives to be implemented at different levels of government. No such acts have yet been adopted into law (though some have been written for states including Florida, South Carolina, and Texas), but they can be pursued as such and used as a template by other states. In addition to the legislative language, the documents contain protocols for repairing malls and suggestions for funding, management, partnerships, phasing, and implementation.

No Other Choice But Repair

The reconstruction of sprawl is inevitable. To continue building greenfield sprawl will be disastrous. To abandon existing sprawl will not be possible either, as the expanse of sprawl represents a vast investment of money, infrastructure, time, human energy, and dreams. The only valid option is to repair sprawl by finding ways to reuse and reorganize as much of it as possible into complete, livable, robust communities. However, sprawl repair will not be the instant and total overhaul of communities as promoted so destructively in American cities half a century ago. Sprawl repair will be the incremental and opportunistic improvement of our suburban landscapes and will happen first in places where economic potential, political will, and community vision converge.


Galina Tachieva is a partner at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. Among the preeminent experts in suburban redevelopment, Tachieva is the author of Sprawl Repair Manual. She received a degree in architecture from the University of Architecgture and Civil Engineering in Sofia, Bulgaria and a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Miami.

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