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Sprawl Exposed

December 11th, 2008 by dk

Why do communities sprawl? We’ve been told the question is unanswerable because the contributing factors are too numerous. Citizens say they prefer white picket fences and surface parking. Developers find land acquisition is cheaper than multi-story construction. Bankers will lend for what the market demands. Municipalities double down on existing infrastructure construction. Financiers speculate that fuel and lumber have been deemed to be limitless resources, undervaluing the externalized costs. Politicians are unable to give voters anything but what those voters claim they want. The circle of causality closes itself.

But what if all those players are unconsciously conspiring together to build an idealized community that refuses to update itself?

It used to be said that you can’t fight City Hall. That remains true on matters of licensing and laws. But since the tax revolts began thirty years ago with California’s Proposition 13, market forces have slowly dwarfed the power municipalities once wielded.

Market forces have proven themselves fallible when it comes to urban planning.

Los Angeles discovered that highways share the “field of dreams” dynamic: if you build it, they will come. Increased road capacity entices more driving. There’s never “enough” pavement.

Atlanta reasoned that commutes eventually would become too long and housing appetites would be slaked. Subprime mortgages made homes affordable and cell phones made commutes tolerable, but now money and fuel are not so cheap and a collapse looms.

Boston attempted to control its region’s lending practices and credit markets, but the “New England Experiment” collapsed when banking conglomerates challenged the rule and local authorities found themselves outgunned by market forces.

The folly spreads to a polluted haze over Shanghai, chronic labor strife across India, and shrinking ice floes in the arctic. We now know enough to know better. But we haven’t learned.

Planners and politicians and academics who study the complexity of urban planning invariably throw up their hands and say they can’t save us from ourselves. Each city is tinkering with ways to accommodate citizens, investors, commuters, visitors, and voters. But each is its own experiment.

Scientifically speaking, what all this experimentation lacks is a control group. Everybody is changing in a myriad of ways, but nobody is staying the same.

If only there was a prototype —an America Town — where things stay the same, where all the factors are controlled by a single entity, where absolute control is exerted. Kudos to University of Oregon assistant professor Mark Gillem for finding it.

America Town exists in scores of different places. Gillem found them overseas, in 140 different countries from Central America to western Europe to the Middle East. They are military bases.

The U.S. Department of Defense controls every aspect of these settlements — supply, demand and everything in between. Nobody in these places is looking for work, shopping for a mortgage, or comparing location opportunities. These places offer single-payer health care, along with single-payer employment, single-payer housing, and single-payer banking. Market forces are not in play.

Free of all the complexities of urban planning, Americans still build sprawl.

Gillem visited and analyzed these carbon (but not carbon-neutral) copies of mini-America and wrote a book called “America Town.” Since it was published last year, Gillem has been jetting around the world helping military leaders and their local hosts re-imagine how these outposts can be designed for a new, post-imperial era.

Gillem discovered and argues persuasively that the America Town prototype is not in fact driven by economic, governmental, or popular forces. Remove them all and America Town emerges only more purely. That sprawl-friendly model of development turns out to be rooted in a shared psychosis that is uniquely and pervasively American. It’s drawn from a sitcom-style image of family and community that no longer exists, if it ever did.

That’s both the bad news and the good news. It means we can change the paradigm on our own, just as soon as we choose. The world waits.


Don Kahle ( is executive director for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, but these opinions are only his own. He writes for The Register-Guard each Friday and blogs.

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