Books — Us, From Above

A Field Guide to Sprawl, by Dolores Hayden, with aerial photography by Jim Wark, W.W. Norton, 2004, 128 pages.

Have you ever seen an aerial photograph of a tire dump? Holy rubber, Batman. It’s ugly. They look like little black Spaghettios. Or tiny nuts without bolts, in heaps of thousands. That’s just a distasteful amount of tires.

A Field Guide to Sprawl provides this in-your-face look at human civilization from above.

It’s an eye-catching book, like any glossy coffee-table book of nature photos or impressionist paintings. You find yourself drawn into A Field Guide to Sprawl the same way you’d be drawn into a book on, say, the world’s finest beaches or pine forests. You gaze with curiosity and wonder, squinting at the intricacies of such marvelous creations.

Like “pods”—areas zoned for a single use off a major road, often formed into cul-de-sacs.

And “privatopias”—residential developments beholden to restrictive rules set by their “homeowners’ associations,” rules like no cars up on blocks, no laundry hung in the back yard, no pink flamingos.

And “snout houses”—whose front doors are obscured by huge garages. These are houses that seem to be all garage.

And “litter on a stick”—billboards.

All of which are no big deal when you see them at eye-level, one at a time (except maybe the snout house), but are rather distressing when you see, from a wider perspective, just how sprawly they are.

Hayden and Wark show us what we’re doing to our world and clue us in to builders’ lingo. How about ball pork—that’s a pork-barrel ballpark, built with public funds for a privately owned sports team? (The authors direct readers to

And auto junkyards—almost as ugly as tire dumps but more colorful. And big box stores, and McMansions and landfills.

Look around.

Also, peruse It has aerial photographs (most a few years old) of the whole U.S., for your zooming-in and panning-around pleasure.

Hayden describes “sprawl” as careless land use. The problem might not be with the building itself as with the land it wasn’t put on. Case in point: the photo of a “Greenfield” on page 42. See the pretty houses lined up in neat rows; they’re so close together they’re the very antonym of “sprawl” in its original sense. Doesn’t this development deserve accolades for conserving space? Sure… except that it’s built on what was recently raw land—a farm (you can see the farmhouse way off in the background). Which means new water and sewer services and so on being dragged all the way out to this farm from the nearest city. And if, meanwhile, nearby suburban and inner city space sits unused—available space ignored, buildings quietly falling apart, infrastructure wasted—then we have here a careless use of space.

We live, we eat, we make waste, we’ve got to have the odd landfill here and there. And who would turn down a McMansion? But when everyone else wants one too…(population glut, anyone?).

Self-control is in order.

Hayden fears that by the time people realize sprawl is happening near them, it’s too late to stop that particular piece of it, and so part of her mission is to teach people what to look for.

“Learn what natural features make your neighborhood unique,” writes Hayden (note the word natural). “Appreciate the historic buildings, pedestrian scale, and charm of older places. Challenge the economic forces behind sprawl in order to pursue a balanced, integrated built environment where social interaction and sensitivity to the natural landscape have not been sacrificed to mindless growth machines.”

—Lisa Parsons


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