Everybody knows sprawl when they see it, but finding the words to talk about it has been a challenge. How do you describe those office and retail parks that sprout at freeway interchanges? And what about the miles of big box stores and fast food franchises that line stretches of Sprague Avenue in Spokane or Seltice Way in North Idaho? Whether you think sprawling development is a sign of economic progress or a blight on the landscape, you need accepted terminology even to talk about it.
Yale professor Dolores Hayden, known for her work on the intersection of architecture and culture, tackles the language of sprawl in her newest effort, A Field Guide to Sprawl. One of the keys to overcoming a problem is naming it and defining it -- as psychotherapists will attest -- and Hayden sets forth a useful glossary even as she skewers our passive acceptance of the patterns inscribed on the American landscape since World War II.
Like the master of the guidebook, Roger Tory Peterson, Hayden gently steers the observer through development patterns that contribute to sprawl. She cites 51 terms used to describe these patterns, giving visual examples along with a concise explanation of how each term is used and where it came from.
Jim Wark's gorgeous aerial photos graphically depict each term while bringing an abstract beauty to massive parking lots and suburban cul-de-sacs. Since the scale of Hayden's subjects is measured in terms of acres rather than inches, the view from above is really the only way to visualize the impact on the landscape of "boomburbs" and "edge nodes."
Despite the tongue-in-cheek flavor of the guide, Hayden suggests that we should all take sprawl seriously. "The visual culture of sprawl should be read as the material representation of a political economy organized around unsustainable growth," she writes. She urges further critical examination of federal subsidies for development and home ownership that she pinpoints as largely responsible for sprawl.
For those interested in learning more, Hayden suggests an extensive bibliography, cross-referenced by term, for further reading. With its glossy photography and pithy captions, the Field Guide entertains and informs observers of what architects call "the built environment" while giving more experienced observers valuable paths for further investigation.
Publication date: 10/07/04