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The 1959 Warning of Sprawl.

30 Dec

Community Growth Crisis and Challenge – The Urban Land Institute and the National Association of Home Builders (1959)

Original Article: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/housing/2011/12/warning-urban-sprawl-1959/824/

When I came across this video via the article above I was so interested to know that the issue that I am most passionate about in my career was on the radar in 1959. The negative effects of urban sprawl are so horrifying to me I had assumed that it hadn’t been recognized as a problem before the 1960s and 70s when the worst of it was built. To know that it could have been prevented was a little disheartening to say the least. Another surprise were the origins of zoning. What from first impressions has always seemed like a rational way of dealing with land use (ie: we don’t want toxic factories next to schools), actually was also a statement in social class. In order to keep lower classes and poorer people out of their neighborhoods they raised the minimum plot land area to raise property prices. Of course I shouldn’t be surprised. Class warfare has played a major part in our land and population patterns for centuries – “White Flight” being one of the most influential occurrences in modern history.

The ULI’s 1959 proposed solutions to urban sprawl were actually quite enlightened. The Planned Unit Development, or masterplan, as we would call it ensured a certain level of mixed-use, mixture of housing types and densities. Despite the video’s condemnation of the Victorian townhouse, one of my favorite elements of the city, the reinvention of this housing type to encourage high densities and beautiful streetscapes was refreshing. Also, the suggestions of loop and circular streets supported the use of perimeter blocks, one of the most sustainable urban elements.

The ULI also proposed some pretty horrifying suggestions, including the Cluster Method, which is no more than a glorified cul-de-sac. We know now that this method of planning prohibits pedestrian activity and a connection with a neighborhood’s surrounding context. This encourages the use of the car and single-use development, which is one of the major problems urban sprawl has left us with. At least with the Cluster Method proposition, a higher density was taken into consideration. Another suggestion of separating car and pedestrian traffic, we know now, can lead to an unsafe and less active public realm. In time this can weaken the community and social inclusion.

The ULI concludes with a challenge to American planners, developers, builders, and the “American Community”…did we live up to it? I would argue not, but after the turn of the century we certainly have realized the mistakes of our past and have moved forward with solutions that far outshine the “before-their-time” thinking of some in 1959. As we move into 2012, I look forward to moving the ideas of our time ahead. See you in the new year!

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