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NY Times Article: Defining Sprawl A to Z

[Thanks to Glowlab friend Kate Armstrong for finding this article.]

ShoppingcartJune 19, 2004

The 51 Species of Sprawl - A sprawl dictionary describes the many types of sprawl.

DOLORES HAYDEN, a professor at Yale, was driving north on Interstate 95 into the chaotic blitzkrieg of Americana that has become her turf.


"There's a toad!" she exclaimed, referring not to a warty amphibian but to a defunct Toys "R" Us (Toad: Temporary, Obsolete, Abandoned or Derelict site). In her green Passat wagon, she zoomed past a profusion of "litter on a stick" (billboards) before spotting some "ground cover" (cheap, easily bulldozed buildings, often self-storage units, put up to generate income while a developer waits to build something more profitable).

"When you see self-storage units, the most important thing to ask yourself is, what's next?" said Ms. Hayden, a Yale professor of architecture, urbanism and American studies, whose new book, "A Field Guide to Sprawl," will be published next month by W. W. Norton. "Ground cover is a way to avoid an alligator" (real estate scheme gone belly up).

Conceived as a dictionary encompassing 51 species, from alligator to zoomburb (a city in the suburbs growing faster than a boomburb) the guide may well establish Ms. Hayden as the Roger Tory Peterson of sprawl.

"I was struggling for words to describe places like Tysons Corner," she said of the Virginia suburb one recent morning while driving among local examples of development gone haywire. "If you don't know what to call something, you don't know how to criticize it."

Ms. Hayden, 59, is perhaps best known for "The Grand Domestic Revolution" (M.I.T. Press, 1981), a groundbreaking study of the "material feminists" of the 19th century, who sought to liberate the home and workplace from isolation and drudgery. This time around, Ms. Hayden is playing the role of reformer herself, taking aim at invasive species like the snout house (dwellings with jutting, full-frontal garages). "They fail the trick-or-treat test," she said, paraphrasing Portland, Ore., planning officials who thought children should be able to find the front door. (Portland banned snouts in 1999.)

The idea for a field guide grew out of Ms. Hayden's own frustration as a scholar and a citizen. She moved to Guilford, 12 miles east of New Haven, in 1991 after 11 years teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles. With its pristine New England village green and one of the largest collections of 18th-century houses in the country, Guilford, on the rural fringe about 100 miles from Manhattan, "is a very typical battleground for preserving the sense of place," she said.

Several years ago, Ms. Hayden, who wears a silver and gold ring in the shape of a three-dimensional courtyard with a stair and a bridge, wound up serving on a citizens advisory committee examining encroaching development. "The town's zoning code was so convoluted nobody could read it," she recalled. "After a while I got to see that a lot of it was designed to frustrate discussion rather than enable it." At the same time, she noticed that her graduate students at Yale, who came from different disciplines, including American studies, architecture, planning and anthropology, had difficulty describing the everyday American landscape without resorting to impersonal jargon. "I began to see that one of the most useful things to do might be to develop a common language," she said.

To probe the dark, semantic recesses of sprawl, Ms. Hayden combed planning glossaries, newspaper columns and Web sites for trade groups like the National Asphalt Pavement Association, and she went through slang dictionaries and real estate manuals. Along the way, she unearthed the origins of now ubiquitous terms like "gridlock," coined by two Manhattan engineers in 1980, as well as unwieldy euphemisms like "nonattainment area," plannerspeak for impermeable smog that fails to meet federal clean air guidelines.

Her personal favorite is boomburb, a word that "gives the feeling of a place that's growing double-digits when you say it," she said. (As a published poet, she is particularly attuned to nuances of language.)

In addition to naming names, Ms. Hayden critiques a landscape based on unrestrained growth, one, she writes, championed by federal policies since the 1920's, when Herbert Hoover, as commerce secretary, encouraged bankers, real estate agents, builders, automobile manufacturers and road builders to form a lobby to promote real estate development.

Four years ago, she and her graduate students created a Web site that used aerial photography to document growth around Guilford, a technique she also employs in the book. Like language, she said, aerial photographs have the power to demystify abstract or hidden aspects of the landscape, including garbage dumps and gated communities.

Ms. Hayden grew up in a six-story apartment building in New Rochelle, N.Y., Her father, J. Francis Hayden, was a lawyer; her mother, Katherine, a social worker who re-entered the work force in her 50's. Ms. Hayden originally trained as an architect at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the 1970's, where she studied with the cultural geographer J. B. Jackson, "the guy with the motorcycle who came to tell us we'd better look at America."

The politics of design are a continuous presence in her work, from the 19th-century activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who criticized private houses as "bloated buildings, filled with a thousand superfluities," to Latina garment workers in Los Angeles, whose lives and experiences were part of a public art and history project she spearheaded while teaching at U.C.L.A.

Ms. Hayden's decade in Los Angeles, she said, influenced her more than her childhood in suburban New York: returning to the East Coast, she kept noticing apparitions of Los Angeles appearing on the horizon, like industrial parks bearing names like Concept Park ("no concept, no park,"). Her interest in the culture of cities and historic preservation led her full circle, back to the suburbs. "It became clear to me as an urbanist that if I didn't understand what was going on in the suburban fringes, I couldn't keep writing about the city," she said. "Historically, city centers are where the action is - where the men were, where the culture was. It was always considered less significant to be writing about `the metropolitan area.' "

In "Building Suburbia," a history five years in the making published by Pantheon last year, she writes about suburban growth as a series of seven historical layers, an evolution that began with the borderlands and picturesque suburban enclaves of the early- to mid-1800's before changing into mass-produced urban-scale "sitcom suburbs" of the 1950's and eventually into big boxes and category killers in the 1990's and beyond.

She advocates preserving the best aspects of each layer, even the numerous, once-derided sitcom suburbs around Guilford, which are dense enough to support neighborhood stores and local bus lines.

"She is a socially engaged scholar who sees sprawl not as inevitable but a byproduct of ongoing political decisions," said Christopher Wilson, professor of cultural landscape studies at the University of New Mexico.

Ms. Hayden's field guide joins a wave of new scholarly devotion to sprawl, including "20th Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape" by Owen D. Gutfreund, director of urban studies at Columbia and Barnard and recently published by Oxford University Press. In his forthcoming book "Sprawl: A Compact History," to be published next year, Robert Bruegmann, a professor of architectural history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, will take a counterstance to Ms. Hayden's, emphasizing the positive aspects of sprawl as an urban form.

"It gives a lot of people the mobility, choice and privacy that once only wealthy people enjoyed," he said in a telephone interview. "The same sense of highbrow outrage leveled at semidetached houses in Victorian London and suburban stockbroker Tudors of the 1920's are being leveled at McMansions today. Every generation sets an aesthetic standard based on what they knew when they were younger."

Ms. Hayden, who lives in a restored 1893 general store with her husband, Peter Marris, a sociology professor at Yale and a novelist, and their 16-year-old daughter, Laura Hayden Marris, continues to discover new sprawlisms practically weekly, among them, "slurry stricken," a British term for those who have encountered agricultural waste.

Alone, perhaps, she curates the language of the lulu (Locally Unwanted Land Use), the banana (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near) and nope (Not on Planet Earth).

If citizens wind up identifying rare "life Lulus" the way birders might a mottled duck or a worm-eating warbler, Ms. Hayden will consider her mission accomplished. "This is the U.S.A.," she said. "This is the stuff."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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