From Terrain:

by Galina Tachieva

Editor’s Note: This article has been excerpted from the Sprawl Repair Manual, by Galina Tachieva, with permission of the publisher (Island Press) and author. This excerpt is the book’s first chapter and introduction.

Author’s Note: On IMAGE: The Sprawl Repair Manual makes a clear distinction between sprawl and suburb. Sprawl represents auto-dependent, single-use patterns that occur at every level of urban intensity, from the rural edge all the way into the heart of urban cores. On the other hand, not all suburbs are sprawl. There are three distinct generations of suburbs in America, and it is only the developments built after the war that are sprawl. The manual proposes a toolkit for the repair of sprawl. A key technique used throughout the book is to juxtapose images of existing conditions in sprawl and how they would look if they were improved. “Before and after” pairs of plans and three-dimensional illustrations demonstrate the possibilities for better place-making. Most of the watercolor perspectives in the book were done by the talented duo of Chris Ritter and Eusebio Azcue.


Sprawl is a pattern of growth characterized by an abundance of congested highways, strip shopping centers, big boxes, office parks, and gated cul-de-sac subdivisions—all separated from each other in isolated, single-use pods. This land-use pattern is typically found in suburban areas, but also affects our cities, and is central to our wasteful use of water, energy, land, and time spent in traffic. Sprawl has been linked to increased air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of open space and natural habitat, and the exponential increase in new infrastructure costs. Social problems related to the lack of diversity have been attributed to sprawl, and health problems such as obesity to its auto-dependence.

In contrast, complete communities have a mix of uses and are walkable, with many of a person’s daily need—shops, offices, transit, civic and recreational places—within a short distance of home. They are compact, so they consume less open space and enable multiple modes of transportation, including bicycles, cars, and mass transit. A wide variety of building types provides options to residents and businesses, encouraging diversity in population. This mix of uses, public spaces, transportation, and population makes complete communities economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.

The promise of suburbia has been eroding for decades, but reached a critical point with the mortgage meltdown of 2008. A record number of homes went into foreclosure and entire subdivisions and commercial developments began to fail. Yet the expanse of sprawl represents a vast investment, and cannot be simply abandoned or demolished. Pragmatism demands the reclamation of sprawl through redevelopment that introduces mixed uses and transportation options. It must be acknowledged, however, that portions of sprawl may remain in their current state, while others may devolve, reverting to agriculture or nature. The design and regulatory strategies and incentives shown in the Sprawl Repair Manual are intended for the places that are best suited to be urbanized because of location or existing investment.

Left: Sprawl — fragmented, car-dependent single uses. Right: Complete community — balanced, connected, compact.
Left: Sprawl — fragmented, car-dependent single uses.
Right: Complete community — balanced, connected, compact.

Photos courtesy Google, Map Data, and TeleAtlas.

The history and consequences of suburban development, specifically sprawl, are well documented. Numerous books articulate the trajectory of sprawl within its historical context—from the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgages for new construction, the subsidies of the interstate highway system, and the tax laws allowing accelerated depreciation of commercial development, to the evolution of Euclidean zoning’s separation of uses and the cultural mandate for separation by race. Recent publications put forward the need to redevelop sprawl and what specifically should be repaired; among these are Greyfields into Goldfields and Malls into Main Streets, reports by the Congress for the New Urbanism. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, explains why we need to retrofit sprawl and documents successful examples of retrofits through illuminating and comprehensive analysis.

The Sprawl Repair Manual seeks to expand the literature as a guide that illustrates how to repair the full range of suburban conditions, demonstrating a step-by-step design process for the creation of more sustainable communities. This is a framework for designing the interventions, incorporating them into the regulatory system, and implementing them with permitting strategies and financial incentives.

The proposed approach addresses a range of scales from the region down to the community, street, block, and building. The method identifies deficiencies in typical elements of sprawl, and determines the best remedial techniques for those deficiencies. Also included are recommendations for regulatory and economic incentives.

Lessons learned from history guide this methodology. Rather than the instant and total overhaul of communities, as promoted so destructively in American cities half a century ago, this is a guide for incremental and opportunistic improvement.

Left: Commercial sprawl. Right: Complete community.
Left: Commercial sprawl.
Right: Complete community.

Graphics courtesy Galina Tachieva.

There are two primary options for growth: conventional sprawl development and complete communities.

Sprawl abandoned the neighborhood structure in favor of car-dependent patterns. When driving is mandatory for almost all daily activities, carbon emissions are higher. With the price of gasoline rising, long commutes to or from exurban locations become economic disadvantages. Because sprawl developments are not compact, they consume excessive amounts of farmland and valuable natural areas.

Studies have shown that sprawl is damaging to both physical and social health, isolating people in car-dominated environments where they are deprived not only of the physiological benefits of walking, but also of the natural human interactions typical of complete communities.1 This is especially relevant to aging residents, who lose their independence when they can no longer drive, and need to leave their suburban houses for retirement communities. Children and younger adults are also vulnerable to the car-dependence of sprawl. In 1969, 90 percent of all children walked to school, as schools were part of complete neighborhoods, but in 2002 only 31 percent walked to school.2

Sprawl developments, particularly in exurban areas, suffered some of the highest foreclosure rates, and many have also seen dramatic increases in crime rates, some greater than 30 percent.3 Many homes, and even entire subdivisions, have been abandoned, creating the effect of sporadic and dispersed occupancy typical of the consequences of natural disasters. Christopher Leinberger, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, predicts that the suburbs on the fringes, poorly served by public transport, will suffer a very visible decline as low-income populations move in and these areas become “magnets for poverty, crime, and social dysfunction.”4

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