book cover of Sprawl Repair Manual by Gail Tachieva

How Do We Fix Sprawl? Book Review: Sprawl Repair Manual by Gail Tachieva

How to Make Complete Communities

Our suburbs are broken. As Charles Marohn wrote in Strong Towns (read my review), most cities are insolvent. Sprawl—an urban growth pattern with car-dependent, fragmented, single-use areas, such as congested highways, strip shopping developments, oversized parking lots, and cul-de-sac residential—cannot be maintained. Shopping malls become defunct. Traffic increases despite bigger connector roads, wider arterials. Pedestrian and bike safety is low.

(Read: America Needs Strong Towns and Community, Not More Infrastructure)

While this story isn't the case everywhere, it does describe an increasing number of cities and suburbs in America. As the infrastructure built over the past fifty-some years begins to fail but replacements can't be paid for, and as more people migrate out of blighted towns, more and more cities will share this story. Sprawl wastes water, energy, land, and time.

Sprawl has been linked to increased air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of open space and natural habitat, and the exponential increase in new infrastructure costs. Social problems related to the lack of diversity have been attributed to sprawl, and health problems such as obesity to its auto-dependence." —Gail Tachieva, Sprawl Repair Manual, p1

Sprawl looks like this:

Separated, car-dependent, single use areas
Housing separate from commercial
Garage-dominant facades

(Read: Book Review: Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix it by M. Nolan Gray)

What's the solution to sprawl?

According to Sprawl Repair Manualby Gail Tachieva (Island Press, 2010), there are two directions a sprawling place can go:

  1. Urbanize, increasing density and creating mixed-use, walkable, complete communities.
  2. Devolve, returning to green space: agricultural or natural land.

The book focuses on the process for densifying and repairing areas. There is some mention of which spaces ought to devolve, but strategies for implementing de-densification are not presented. The strategies for densification and repair generally aim toward making areas more balanced in their composition of living, working, and gathering places.

(Read: 7 Principles to Guide Development in Kootenai County)

Sprawl repair leads to complete communities

The goal of sprawl repair is to create complete communities: areas where you can live, work, and get some basic needs met within a reasonable distance, and without driving nearly as much as we all do today. Complete communities are pedestrian-friendly, support mixed use and (in denser areas) transit, without oversized parking lots and wide stroads filling the vistas.

Some people worry that sprawl repair will be all about creating density. However, as Tachieva explains, many of the repair techniques in this book are not so much about creating density as about moving density to more reasonable locations. The question she asks is, how do you take a sprawling area and make it more complete? For instance, that may involve adding extra buildings to help create structure and spaces, adding civic buildings, removing or adding commercial spaces, and creating new green spaces and open gathering spaces such as parks. In rural sprawl, repair involves re-platting lots and clustering buildings together to make a small hamlet, with a community square, instead of disparate roads of disconnected houses.

A big component of what makes an area feel nice to walk through is having defined edges and spaces, an idea explained in beautiful detail in Christopher Alexander's books (The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language). Thus, part of repair is creating those spaces by filling in along roads, hiding parking lots at the backs of buildings or in alleys, and adding trees where you might walk or bike.

Example of repairing suburban sprawl with infill and defined spaces.

The practical details: What's first in the repair process?

The first step of the sprawl repair process is mapping the city. What areas are ripe for redevelopment? What roads could become walkable main streets? Where might a transit line run? What areas are better left as is, or reverted to undeveloped space?

Once you have this high-level plan, you can dive into making changes. Tachieva explains repair at every scale: regional sectors, communities and subdivisions, shopping centers, individual blocks, different types of roads, down to individual buildings, such as McMansions, big box stores, gas stations, suburban houses, and more.

Once you get the feel for it, the chapters on how to repair specific parts of sprawl feel a bit repetitive. What's deficient? Usually, civic space, connectivity of streets, and mixed use. How to fix? Add all that stuff, so you get a complete neighborhood. The exact implementation protocol may vary, but the gist is the same.

A highlight of the book is the graphics. There are plentiful examples in each chapter of the problem sprawl and different ways of repairing it. For each chapter, I found it interesting to imagine places in my area that fit the sprawl description, and to imagine how it would look and feel with different repairs. I liked, for instance, the example of repairing corner gas stations to actually have nice curb frontages on the corner to be a corner store instead of just a big ugly mass of cement.

(Read: What Is Localism? 7 Ways Localism Benefits Communities)

Example of rural sprawl repair.

Repairing parking

One big piece of the sprawl pattern is excessive parking. A key aspect of fixing frontages in parking is moving parking to the middle of blocks, underground, or in structures so that parking is not the first thing you see along the edge of the road. This makes for a nicer pedestrian experience, in particular. In addition, increased mixed use development can lead to reduced parking needs overall, because different uses (e.g., residential, commercial) use the parking at different times of day, thus allowing buildings to share parking.

(Want to learn more about why our parking lots are the way they are? Read my review of Paved Paradise by Henry Grabar)

Tachieva suggests municipalities subsidize the construction of parking structures, since they're expensive and unlikely to be built otherwise, thus freeing up surface lot space for redevelopment. I liked the idea of including retail or service-oriented frontage along the ground floor of some parking structures in downtown areas.

However, I wonder about finding funding for parking redevelopment projects. It's not like most cities have extra cash on hand. Maybe there are grants that might cover such a thing? Also, the experience of parking in a garage isn't fun - it's annoying and cramped. Convincing people that we ought to have more garages is an uphill battle. One helpful incentive, suggested by Henry Grabar in Parking Paradise, is to make garage parking free, while street parking is metered. People will be more likely to pick the free option, and will be disincentivized to keep driving around the block in hopes of finding a free street spot.

Is higher density desirable for families?

One question that Sprawl Repair Manual does not ask is whether densification and mixed use are necessarily desirable. Yes, sprawling areas are not beautiful, nor pleasant for pedestrians or bikers, nor generally financially productive. However, one analysis suggests that higher density is associated with lower fertility rates. Housing that accommodates non-families (singles, students, etc) can disincentivize families from living in an area. Think of it this way: Who wants to raise kids in an apartment? Not me!

One sprawl repair tactic is to allow densification in urban core areas—which includes building apartments and infill with townhouses and student housing, all of which many single-family suburbia residents actively dislike. Families, however, often seek suburbia because of yards, play spaces, parks, safer streets, homes large enough to accommodate their family sizes. I wonder how implementing the tactics in the book would affect demographics. Many of the suggested infill structures will be built by large developers and rented out. If we want to promote home ownership instead of rentals, what do we build? Tachieva did not specifically address how to create owner-occupied and family-friendly neighborhoods.

My main question is around housing types and infill structures. I can see how many of the other repair tactics would be beneficial. For instance, all the tactics that fix streets and roads to make them safer for bikers and pedestrians would be helpful—cars will drive slower, it will be safer for children to be outside. With additional mixed use, civic spaces, and parks, there are more places for families to be and they don't have to drive as far to get to useful spaces.

Tachieva did mention, briefly, that in areas where property values are falling, or where there are deserted or blighted properties, you can replat lots into larger parcels, enable the creation of family compounds, introduce urban agriculture, remove houses, and add civic spaces or green areas. These might contribute to family-friendly areas.

(Read: Book Review: Retrosuburbia by David Holmgren)

SmartCode, sprawl repair, and my local area

One key issue where I live is that property values are not falling. People are moving here. Property values are going up. Many sprawl repair techniques are easiest to apply when property values have gone down. It makes it infeasible, maybe even undesirable, to attempt any repair at the block scale, especially in residential areas. That said, perhaps at the building scale, large McMansions can be converted into multi-family housing or duplexes, since housing is in such high demand.

However, Sprawl Repair Manual specifically lists the SmartCode zoning system as an ideal or model that cities could copy. The City of Post Falls actually adopted SmartCode 15 years ago! But then, people got mad because that zoning allowed a developer to build a three-story, mixed use apartment complex in a downtown area… where, I think, that sort of development actually ought to be built. (As opposed to locating taller apartments in arbitrary locations based on where a developer happens to get some land). While some people in the city have been trying to eliminate SmartCode after that incident, other projects downtown are still using the zoning.

Another interesting building-scale repair Tachieva suggested was to modify the existing frontage such that the garage and driveway no longer dominate the street view. For example, you could add a wing to the front of the house, convert the garage into living space, add a detached front building, and so on. This is exactly what we have done recently in converting our own one-car garage into additional living space!

Suburban house repair examples.

How do you actually implement sprawl repairs?

The sprawl repair process requires buy-in from a lot of people—from homeowners to HOAs to city councils and even state legislatures. Some of the repair techniques and implementation steps are infeasible without significant political clout to change zoning codes or state laws. For many projects, significant capital upfront is needed to purchase large buildings or tracts of land, so that a unified vision can be built moving forward. Thus, with the exception of the final chapter on building-scale repairs, there is little in the book that feels immediately actionable.

The lack of small, actionable steps is one of the big differences I see between this and the Strong Towns methodology. Strong Towns champions little bets and incremental development: doing whatever we can to strengthen our cities. Sprawl Repair Manual is a vision book. It's a guide for people who want to tackle big changes over a long timescale. It feels both bigger, and narrower in scope, at the same time. And in that, Sprawl Repair Manual is an important book. We need a vision of what to strive for. Repairing and strengthening cities is a long-term endeavor. As Tachieva writes,

"One of the goals for this manual is to demonstrate that there is good news. The tools presented here offer hope to those who recognize that sprawl must be and can be fixed. Suburban residents should not be worried—sprawl repair not only proposes ideas for regenerating their failing surroundings, but promises to enhance rather than obliterate their way of life. Most places will remain suburban in nature, but they will offer expanded choices for living, working, and socializing. Sprawl repair creates places for those who want to tend a garden in a quiet village and for those who are drawn to the liveness of a town center." —Gail Tachieva, Sprawl Repair Manual, p277

Read Sprawl Repair Manual if…

This book may appeal to you if you are interested in localism, Strong Towns, urbanism, and urban planning; if you dislike stroads; if you want to understand how to fix dying cities and suburbs; or if you are involved in civic affairs in your municipality!

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