Sprawl Anemones

Photos: Christoph Gielen
Photos: Christoph Gielen

Rarely would one describe sprawl as beautiful, but photographer Christoph Gielen managed to find some of the more incredible developments in the country and depict them in aerial photographs as a testament to the land use patterns he finds so distinctively and disturbingly American.

Gielen, born in Germany and living in New York City since 1982, laments both America’s obsession with automobiles and the environmental impact that obsession has had in constructing some of our cities.

“You have a terrific disconnect between place of work, place of living, place of shopping, a disconnect that manifested itself in the landscape,” said Gielen. “It was initially horrifying to me when I got here to spend two hours in a car to get from point A to point B.”

Gielen said his work is meant to provoke a discussion around the environmental impact of sprawl and he hopes it “triggers the reconsideration” of the trend. “I’m hoping to connect art with environmental awareness, so people contemplate what is sustainable and what is not.”

Gielen’s process for selecting the subject cities started by analyzing foreclosure statistics and areas with the highest rates of defaulted loans. He then studied satellite images of those cities, primarily in Florida, Arizona and Nevada, and then visited the areas in a car, sometimes even posing as a prospective buyer to get tours of the properties with real estate agents. After deciding on the developments he wanted to shoot, he would hire a helicopter to get the aerial perspective he sought. In several cases, he stumbled upon sprawl that wasn’t yet on a map or in satellite images.

Gielen’s sprawl series was featured in the New York Times last week and follows on two other photo essays he did for the paper, one on the destruction of a building in Scotland and the other on the rapid growth of cities in China. His next project for the Times was inspired by reading Bruce Babbitt’s book “Cities in the Wilderness” and will focus on how housing developments and agriculture in Florida affect the watershed and natural environment.

Though Gielen has no training in the planning field, he said he is fascinated by the debate around urban growth boundaries, automobility and sprawl. He also said he was baffled by protests over light rail systems in cities, such as one he witnessed while in Houston.

Gielen said he wasn’t as pessimistic as James Howard Kunstler, but argued Americans needed to embrace infrastructure investments that promote dense urban areas like New York City.

“There were federal incentives to grow this way. Cheap loans are responsible for car-centric growth,” he said. “Can’t we have a federal incentive to reverse this?”







  • I saw these and was equally torn between how beautiful the photos are and the ugliness they depict.

  • Sean H

    I recommend Dolores Hayden’s “Field Guide to Sprawl” if this interests you. She has captioned pictures that include lots of aerial photos. Also she coins lots of catchy nicknames like ‘litter on a stick’ describing interstate road signs.

    The most interesting phenomenon about these sorts of developments is that they are usually in the exurbs, in almost rural areas, but having a single entrance boulevard will actually create traffic familiar to city dwellers. They are almost designed for vehicle counting strips that are popular with traffic engineers.

  • Al

    Regarding “Can’t we have a federal incentive to reverse this?”

    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but if these developments are not, in fact, sustainable, the most productive (and politically acceptable) way forward would not be incentives for the opposite of this but rather making sure that they pay their own way. More of a ‘free-market’ solution. I am reminded of the study that found that the greenfield big-box store barely covered the county government’s infrastructure expenses related to it, while the infill site development, though more expensive for the developer up-front, produced over ten times more net revenue for the county because of reduced costs. Is it possible, as I suspect, that these sorts of developments are actually being subsidized by requiring a disproportionately large portion of the public infrastructure while paying a disproportionately small portion? If so, reducing those subsidies could go a long way toward a creating more sustainable practices.

    Can someone more knowledgeable comment on this? I believe that the developers of these projects typically pay for the initial infrastructure (streets, but also water, gas and electric?). The streets are usually private and maintained by HOAs. What about the other services? For instance, who maintains the water and sewer? If it’s the county or private utility, do residents in the development pay the same rates as people living in denser areas (where maintenance costs are presumably lower per household)? Same question applies to power and telecom.

  • Winston

    Let’s actually look at at square in the desert. The first thing to notice is that it’s actually very densely built, with houses on roughly 2600 sf lots this yields a density of 16 units/residential acre or 11 units/acre including roads. In fact, assuming 2.6 people/house (which is pretty typical), this square of land is about as densely populated (18304 people/mi^2) as San Francisco. In some ways, this comparison is unfair since there are no other land uses in the picture, but a city composed of a square like this one and similarly sized square of commerce and industry would still be denser most Bay Area cities.

    Here’s what this plot of land looks like at ground level:


    By the way, the circular development above the desert square is here:

    I’m sure that someone who is interested could find the other ones with google maps by panning around Las Vegas for a few minutes.

  • Eric Panzer

    Winston, you make excellent points and kudos to you for ferreting out those locations on Google maps.

    I think that Winston’s points about density in this neighborhood bring up a lot of interesting points about the interplay of density, distribution, and design in creating a humane place. This neighborhood manages to be suburban, dense, and depressing all at the same time.

    Because none of the buildings achieve density through height or having multiple units, open space is scarce–especially large or public open spaces. A great amount of space is devoted to cars; it appears that on average 10%-20% or so of each lot is devoted to driveways and/or car storage. Furthermore, the ground level of every house is dominated by a garage door–the front doors and any windows seem like an afterthought. It’s not hard to imagine how this neighborhood could have been made to feel cozy rather than claustrophobic. What if instead of 35′ streets you had 25′ streets and 5 ft more per-side for porches, yards and trees? Or perhaps more forward-thinking and locally conscious: bioswales for rainwater in monsoon season? What if the garages had been tucked into alleys? The possibilities for adding cheer are endless.

    Here’s an example from Berkeley of a street that is still suburban, but manages to be denser (due to a few multi-unit buildings), more open, and much friendlier.

    Just goes to show that no matter what the density or style, whether you create a pleasant place or a hideous one is still up to you.

  • Al

    That is interesting. Cost of infrastructure probably isn’t all that high as a result of the density. Cost of gas would be the big thing. Supposing gas prices spike, I wonder what would happen in such a place? Maybe one or two of the houses, or just their garages, would be converted into local shops. If abandoned houses were a problem, maybe they’d be demolished and converted into a public garden/open space for the remaining residents by the HOA. Could be quite nice.

  • Al

    Another interesting thing is that it’s not wholly unrealistic to have people commuting by bus there. One stop in the middle is only about a quarter mile from the most distant edge of that subdivision.

    The funny thing about Berkeley, I suppose, is that it’s probably impossible to build apartment buildings now because the neighbors would object. Still, it’s pretty walkable and very bike-able due to the small business groupings here and there, and the transit options.

  • patrick

    Winston, it’s certainly interesting to compare the suburban type developments to SF, but you’ve left out some pretty critical elements in the comparison. The suburban block doesn’t contain any parks, office buildings, retail buildings, public parking, freeways, government buildings, schools, universities, etc… In SF parks alone take up 20% of the available land.

    If you want an apples to apples comparison you need to only include land used for residential purposes. SF’s density would probably increase by somewhere between 60-100% if you only factored in residential land (including the city streets in those areas).

  • You can still make reasonable comparisons between areas, though — in fundamental lot size, this place is built with about the same land area per dwelling as the purely residential areas of the Sunset, but with shallower, wider lots, trading off back yard space for side yards. I think this is a bad choice to make because side yards of that width are not useful for much of anything anyway, and the wider lots mean that pedestrians have to walk 1.4 times as far to pass the same number of buildings. (Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language also advocated that rowhouses should be shallow and wide instead of narrow and deep, because the interiors get more light that way. But I think this was a mistake because of the resulting decrease in walkability.)

  • “The funny thing about Berkeley, I suppose, is that it’s probably impossible to build apartment buildings now because the neighbors would object.”

    Impossible on local streets, but we are building apartment buildings on arterial streets in Berkeley. Of course, the neighbors still object.

  • Bob Davis

    A thought just occurred to me: Is the growth of “Suburbia” an expression of Huey Long’s slogan “Every Man a King”? The King doesn’t live in an apartment, he lives in a palace, separate from other buildings. The King doesn’t ride the bus, he travels in the royal coach (or nowadays, the royal limousine). Also coming to mind is Oscar Brand’s parody of “This Land Is Your Land”: “This land is my land, it isn’t your land/and you’d better get off, ‘fore I blow your head off.”



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