display | more...

Dolores Hayden. A Field Guide to Sprawl. With aerial photographs by Jim Wark (Norton, 2004) Pp. 128, US$ 24.95.

'Ruburb' is a satirical name applied to a pocket of suburban development far detached from its urban nucleus. This suburb is so far out there, it's where the rubes live. With good humor, Hayden has collected 51 of these terms and acronyms in this fun little book. Each term is illustrated by a pointed aerial photograph, and refers in some way to "sprawl," that is, the tendency, usually for profit, to overdevelop or misdevelop the landscape.

The book is organized as a series of photoessays which serve as brief homilies about the dangers, stupidities, or discomforts of sprawl. Never bitter, overlong, or tiresomely polemical, Hayden has hit upon a congenial way to educate the general public about the sometimes invisible problems associated with sprawl. I say 'invisible' because at human-head height, the eye is apt to miss the forest for the trees; but from an airplane, the gross macrostructures characteristic of debatable development choices pop out vividly. The attractive and interesting photographs keep the reader's attention, and it is difficult not to make your way through the whole book once you've started.

Not everyone views sprawl--or rather, all of the things called sprawl by activists--as entirely bad. When, for example, Hayden lists "Interstate," i.e., the highway type, as an element of sprawl, I'm unconvinced, because I have long enjoyed the freedom that roads bring. Clearly roads are not unmixed blessings, because they tend to fill to capacity with commercial users which take much of the pleasure out of driving. But those pain-in-the-ass trucks--coupled with the excellent road systems in the first world--are an important reason food and commodity prices are lower now than they've ever been. You can grow as much food, or build as many widgets as you like, but if you have difficulty getting them to people who want them, they're going to be out of the reach of regular people.

But even if you are unpersuaded by some entries, the cumulative effect of 51 case studies presented in short succession carries great weight. And it's hard not to be offended by "Category-killers," vast decorated sheds like Home Depot which "compete with smaller stores--independent hardware stores, lumberyards, garden centers, pharmacies or bookstores--and in retail jargon, cannibalize them." "Gridlock" will find no defenders, nor is "Ground cover"--crappy easily demolishable junk (like self-storage units) which sits on as-yet undeveloped land earning a few bucks before being torn down and replaced by some high-ticket item. And I cannot imagine anyone going out of her way to defend "Litter on a stick": billboards.

Where the book really shines is in its exposition of the standard terminology employed in the debate over sprawl. It is fair to say that you don't really understand everything you're looking at unless you can put a name--and a concept--to each of its parts, in increasingly fine terms. This is as true of sprawl as of anything, and you can learn a great deal about how the "Growth machine" (self-evident) operates by learning to identify and name its practices. I learned a lot from this book.

Here are a few terms that are both interesting and not self-evidently explained:

Duck: a building whose exterior reflects the occupation within, like a trading post shaped like a teepee.
Slug: in "Gridlock": from the counterfeit coin, a person picked up at random to give a driver access to HOV-3 lanes on the interstate.
Logo Building: McDonald's is the prime exemplar--a heavily themed decorated shed which obtrudes on the surrounding environment.
LULU: Locally Unwanted Land Use. Rich folks can push nuclear power plants into poor people's back yards, or way out into the country.
LULUs are also called NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard; BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near; NOPE: Not On Planet Earth.
Ozoner: an outdoor, often derelict site, like a disused drive-in theater.
Putting parsley round the pig: using strategically placed landscaping to disguise (or hide) unpleasant features.
Sitcom suburb: derived from Beaver Cleaver's neighborhood, it might now be called a "Pleasantville" neighborhood.
Snout house: grotesque houses with garages hideously taking up the whole area fronting the street.
TOAD: Temporary, Obsolete, Abandoned or Derelict site. Often grotesque relicts of industry, but even includes dead malls.
Tract mansion: giant houses built by architects with no training for people with no taste (but wads of cash). "McMansions."
Valhalla: Not tourist destinations, as you might think, but nice places to live which get ruined by rich scum who move in.

I disclaim any animus against rich people per se. It's the dumb ones with no taste who deserve censure for leveraging their bad taste on nice places through their money.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.