Modern sprawl: The “crack cocaine” of economic development

By Michael Mehaffy
January 2, 2015

Here is a website that offers a remarkably revealing demonstration of how cities (in this case in the USA) have changed over 60 years.  You can drag the "wipe line" back and forth to make detailed comparisons:

60 Years of Urban Change: Midwest

Notice the change of grain, from fine to coarse, and the intrusion of vehicular structures (freeways etc) as well as a more broadly mechanical way of ordering cities (i.e. machine-like functional segregation).  You will recognize this as the CIAM model, implemented to a breathtaking extent. 

I think we need to recognize that it delivered an economic boom, a middle class, enormous wealth, benefits of mobility and choice, and other benefits.  But on the minus side of the ledger, it is leaving us with one heck of a hangover...  and horrendous urban challenges.

In that connection, here is a startling point.  If present projections for population and urbanization continue, we are set to produce more urban fabric, in the next 5 decades, than humanity has produced in history.  A look at this website shows how much happened in the last 6 decades, and what sis likely to happen in the next 5 if we don't reverse the disaster of CIAM planning, in China, India, Brazil, and many other places around the world.

So why are people in the developing world still embracing the sprawl model?

I believe that we have to be mercilessly realistic about what sprawl does offer to those who are desperate for economic development – with serious issues of poverty, lack of health care, lack of quality of life, and lack of choices that most of us in the West enjoy.   If we are going to offer an alternative, we cannot be glib about the difficulties.

First, let's recognize what cities have going for them, even without sprawl.  Cities have their own inherent dynamics of social and economic interaction, spillovers, innovation and growth.  That's how a city like New York was able to take penniless immigrants and turn them into prosperous middle class people with much higher quality of life: better nutrition, healthcare, arts, education, life choices, etc. And remarkably, without a higher per-capita impact on natural ecosystems, and perhaps even a lower one...

More remarkably, they were able to do it without huge injections of fossil fuels, or the functionally segregated mechanical planning that we can see in the website.

One of the most exciting things going on in economics and related urban fields is a much clearer understanding of how this all works.  (It is really at the core of the hubbub over the so-called "science of cities.")  And one of the many fascinating aspects of this is that cities perform best, all other things being equal, when they feature social inclusion and equity.  Cities naturally promote this feature, and their economies also benefit from it.  It's a virtuous circle, you might say.  And it happens spontaneously, as a result of people living together in the connected systems we call cities.

On the other hand -- it IS possible to inject massive amounts of resources, including fossil fuels, and get a huge amount of growth and innovation too.  You can effectively replicate those natural catalytic and spillover networks of cities, and make the needed connections with cars, telephones, computers, corporate office buildings and campuses, etc.  That's what many sunbelt cities do today.  That's what China, India and many other countries in the world are going after -- and getting, to astonishing degrees.

The trouble is, this is the crack cocaine of economic development.  It gives us a powerful economic high, followed by one hell of a health crisis.  And so we have.

But we must recognize the complicity (if not the origin, as some might claim on both sides) of CIAM modernist planners in this regime, then and now.  They were, and are, the cheerleaders of this formula, packaging it as a heroic struggle for political liberation and human progress, symbolized in great art.  That's the delusion -- or the con.  In the words of Le Corbusier, 1935:

“The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, and consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work… enough for all."

I think we must admit that this regime “worked.”  But it worked in the same way that crack cocaine works.  It carries an unacceptable toll in the end. 

So our urgent work is to get back to the inherent dynamics that still work to create human development -- aiming for better-quality human development, by the way -- but without massive and unsustainable injections of resources.   That's the challenge of our age, I think.

The difference between GDP and real wealth

Why is it so important to look at the kind of growth?  From the models that are now emerging about urban economics, it seems safe to conclude that the sprawl formula did "work" to create "more and faster growth" than would have occurred otherwise -- in sheer volume of urban fabric, dollars exchanged, GDP etc. 

But the next question of course is, what kind of growth, for whom, and with what impacts? 

We have ended up with a very lopsided, hypertrophic model, requiring a huge safety net -- all of which was fueled, literally, by cheap hydrocarbon energy.  As we see now, it was a very uneven and problematic result, both socially and environmentally.  Would a more fine-grained, "natural urbanism" have been more equitable, and still have delivered the wealth?  My own tentative conclusion is that we would have been less wealthy in some respects, but more wealthy in others -- and more to the point, that economic "slow burn" would have been more sustainable than this current "bottle rocket" economy.... 

The conclusion I take away is that economic growth is a complex phenomenon, which we tend to simplify into a single variable, namely tradable wealth and currency.    This is an abstraction, which as Whitehead noted, can be dangerous -- for it is an omission of part of the truth.  A critical part, in this case!

The difference between growth and wealth

Another important point is that the emphasis on economic growth ignores the question of the worth of our capital – economic, social, environmental and otherwise.  In terms of the way we measure things now, burning down cities would produce economic growth from all the rebuilding that ensued.  Cutting down all the forests would produce economic growth.  The value of what's left to us (as real estate assets, and as places that promote our quality of life) is obviously far lower, of course.  But the point is that his is not growth, but rather a fixed capital asset.  Meanwhile, in the rebuilding process, people are given jobs, and work is generated, and there is economic growth – that is, as we measure it now.  And there's the trouble. 

Yes, it provides something that benefits people.  But it leaves us all markedly worse off.  That's why the analogy to crack cocaine is relevant.

This is why I think it's critical to question "what kind of growth."  Where does it leave us, better off, or worse off -- and in what ways?  (If we have a lovely city but no one is working and earning money to pay the doctors, and people are dropping dead, that's not an answer either, of course.)

This IS our model of economic growth -- and yes, it's deeply flawed, and we need to shift it, before it kills us.  But I think to do so, we are going to have to be mercilessly realistic about what it gives us, and what it takes away -- both sides of the ledger.  And the ball is in our court to show that an alternative economic engine will produce an acceptable level of prosperity.  This is where I think talking about a different kind of growth -- more sustainable, more capable of delivering on human development goals instead of just GDP -- is essential.