By Dom Nozzi
June 21, 2001
In my opinion, we need to identify sprawl lynchpins if we are to effectively and efficiently control sprawl — particularly because we don’t have the time or money to mis-identify the critical causative agent that we have some control over.
It seems clear to me that suburban sprawl is not possible unless sprawl is enabled by car travel (through near universal ownership of reasonably affordable cars, free and abundant parking, and high-capacity urban roads). Without such a transportation environment, I don’t believe that sprawl is possible.
By contrast, sprawl IS possible without population growth. Therefore, transportation is a sprawl lynchpin and population growth is not.
Granted, sprawl is worse due to population growth, but in theory, we could have population growth without sprawl. In contrast, we cannot avoid sprawl in an auto-enabled environment.
As an aside, I would point out that in theory, population growth can be beneficial if we insist that it happen in helpful ways (i.e., through proper infill that delivers us the density increases we so desperately need). Auto dependency is not beneficial in any ways I know of, even theoretically.
This is not to say that I believe population growth is not generally a problem. I think it is an enormous problem. I just don’t know of any effective ways to slow it meaningfully and humanely.
Finally, my degrees in environmental science and urban planning inform me that it is much more feasible for us to control urban design, development patterns, and our transportation system than to control worldwide population (I’m assuming that we must control worldwide population because I know of no humane way to control immigration).
Even if we do not have the wisdom and courage to intentionally, through planning, control worldwide population or transportation, I believe that we will much sooner be forced by environmental and financial conditions to substantially change to a transportation choice system (as opposed to a “no choice” car system) than the time at which worldwide population growth will be forced by natural conditions to stop. Both will inevitably stop. I just think auto dependency will stop WAY before worldwide population growth.
Given all this, my work and advocacy focuses on addressing transportation and development patterns. I remain intellectually supportive of population control, but don’t believe it is possible for us to build a better future with that tool in my lifetime.
And I also worry that if we focus too much on population control, we’ll be wasting time and money that could be better spent on correcting the bad urban design being built all around us each day. And it will be too easy for us to scapegoat “others” instead of accepting personal responsibility for our own unsustainable behavior.
Many of us seem to have given up on controlling unsustainable, excessive auto dependence. I’m not willing to be pessimistic about this, in part because we are aware of effective tactics to address this, and just need the leadership to use those tactics. And by “giving up” on trying to rein in auto dependence, many have conveniently latched on to the handy scapegoat of population growth, which, again, allows us to blame other people and “wash away the guilt and sins” of our own unsustainable lifestyles.
Before the emergence of auto dependence at about the time of WWII, sprawl (as we know it) did not exist. Since WWII, we built up a lot of fuel for the sprawl fire by building crappy, auto-oriented cities. This was the fuel of widespread American dislike and discontent for the dirty, unsafe, unpleasant cities, and the dream of fleeing it for life in the pastoral “nature” of outlying areas — Kunstler’s cabin in the woods.
Yes, the sprawl fire is more intense if we pour the population growth gasoline on it. But I am convinced that we must set about the task of not using the auto dependency matchstick to light the sprawl fire in the first place.
We can look upon population growth as a bacterial epidemic that can uncontrollably spread across our landscape like a cancer. But this population growth bacteria can be made harmless and benign if we use the proper antibiotic: walkable design and transportation choice.
By contrast, an auto-dependent community will inevitably spread like a cancer. THERE IS NO ANTIBIOTIC OR CURE for the auto dependent bacteria, once the infection sets in. When we do everything we can to make cars happy, the sprawl cancer spreads REGARDLESS of whether we control population or do not.
As a quality-of-life doctor, then, my prescription is to use walkable design and transportation choice, rather than population control, to cure my urban patient.