Images of sprawl

Books and articles addressing the problem of urban sprawl frequently include one or more images intended to illustrate sprawl. These images frequently show an area of urban development from above. The image might be an photo taken from the air, such as this photo of an area of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, a suburb of Albuquerque:

Rio Rancho, NM, by Bradly Salazar, from Creative Commons

Rio Rancho, NM, by Bradly Salazar, from Creative Commons

Or the image might be from directly overhead, as with aerial photos taken for mapping or this satellite image from Google Maps, which shows a portion of the same area of Rio Rancho in the previous image:

Rio Rancho, New Mexico, from Google Maps

Rio Rancho, New Mexico, from Google Maps

That images like this represent the standard view of urban sprawl can hardly be questioned. For example, if you go to Google Images and search for urban sprawl (or just do a Google search for urban sprawl and select Images), nearly all of the images are of this sort. Or search for books on urban sprawl on Amazon, and a significant number include such an image on the cover.

In addition to being images from overhead (not from the viewpoint of someone living in those environments) most of these images of urban sprawl share a number of common characteristics. The images show areas mainly or exclusively residential, areas of relatively homogeneous new suburban development.

But it is another characteristic of the development used to illustrate sprawl that is especially interesting. Urban sprawl is associated with low-density development. Opponents of sprawl decry the excessive amounts of land converted to urban use. Many of the negative consequences blamed on urban sprawl are directly related to lower densities of development. Yet despite this, the images used to illustrate urban sprawl invariably show residential areas with densities that are significantly higher than much of the development in suburban areas. The obvious intent is to trigger a negative visceral reaction to an endless sea of rooftops, not to illustrate the true extent of urban sprawl. That this is the objective is supported by the observation that most of the sprawl images show either fairly new developments for which there has been insufficient time for trees to mature to develop a significant tree canopy or developments in more arid parts of the country in which tree canopies are far less common. In other words, the purpose is to make the development appear that much more severe and uninviting.

Compare the Google Maps image of sprawl from Rio Rancho, New Mexico, above, to this image (at approximately the same scale) of sprawl from Rye, Westchester County, New York, a suburb of New York City:

Rye, Westchester County, New York, from Google Maps

Rye, Westchester County, New York, from Google Maps

The density of the development shown in the Rye image is much, much lower than the density in the area of the Rio Vista image. But I certainly have never seen an image like the Rye image used to portray urban sprawl. The images that are shown to illustrate sprawl are intended to generate an adverse emotional reaction, definitely not to show the worst cases of urban sprawl.


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