Monday, September 25, 2006

Is Sprawl Essential?

Urban sprawl is constantly reducing the vital area necessary for countless species of animals, plants as well as for the human race. Everywhere, the ecological toll of urban sprawl is growing. Geneva, where I live, is no exception. I am writing a book on the destruction of the last forest remaining close to the city, and it is very sadening to witness the urbanization of beautiful forests with fully grown trees and prairie. After countless such disapearances witnessed since 20 years, one gets a wide-angled picture of what is happening. Economic growth is the mantra leading the political programmes of every major political party. The problem is, with every new corporation choosing Geneva for its location, the population rises. And every new inhabitant induces 400 m2 of infrastructure.

As long as economic growth, as we know it today, continues to dictate our policies, urban sprawl will continue.

The question is, can we have a sprawl-less economic growth? Is there an alternative to what we’re living?

With these words, writer, former squatter, and dedicated squattercity commentator Philippe de Rougemont proposes a new and urgent topic for debate.

So have at it: Are there alternatives to sprawl? Or do capitalism and growth necessitate ripping apart the countryside in the search for ever-more-rare urban land? Is continuing urbanization an ecological disaster?


Robert said...

hate to be cynical, but as long as capitalism exists, urban sprawl will continue

capitalism MUST grow/expand, colonize new terrain

there's the trouble right there

im not just being a socialist ideologue, either...many ecologists recognize this dynamic, too

Anonymous said...

I think you're right Robert. Sprawl is a fundamental part of a market economy. Free-market libertarians not only acknowledge this fact, they openly encourage it.

As much as I hate sprawl, I don't know what the answer to it is (other than the human population taking a nose dive). Maybe we could have sprawl if we did it in such a way that it did not wreak havoc on the natural environment. The phrase sustainable sprawl may seem like an oxymoron, but I don't see any other options short of an eco-anarchist revolutio--or as I said a minute ago, a plague wiping out half the world's population.

rn said...

1. A quote from Jean-Francois Lyotard:

"'Development' is the ideology of the present time."

2. My reaction: It is our ideology -- but that doesn't make it the inexorable and legendary future.

3. Pragmatic question for Philippe: I'm wondering where you get statistic that 400 square meters of infrastructure are built for every new arrival in Geneva.

Robert said...


good response...i hope you are right

for all our sakes

Anonymous said...

Robert, here is the answer to your question about the 400m2 of additional infrastructure induced by every person settling in Geneva:
It's from the "Office fédéral du développement territorial", which speaks for itself in english too.
In those 400m2, you find:
office or other workspace
roads, highways, stations, airport development, schools, hospital, shopping centers, administration etc etc.
These figure concerns Switzerland and are not specific to Geneva.
Another statistic from the same federal office: each second, Switzerland loses 0,91 m2 of agricultural land, to make place for constructions.

That aside, I agree that capitallism as we know it is the root cause for uncontroled urban sprawl. But is that a fatallity ? For ever ? We know of job-less growth, how about a sprawl-less one ? Many economists, including Stiglitz (formerly at the WB, now an outspoken critic and Nobel prize winner), say a democratic control of markets is a necessity.
Can anybody out there tell us if they know of succesful experiences to harness and halt urban sprawl, without taking away peoples' livelyhoods ?

Thinking back about the New Deal, is'nt that an example of how poilitics can suddenly change things for the public good ?

Unknown said...

Just a hunch, but it seems to me that globalization
can provide us with a solution here. Of course, it
would have to be 'done right,' and as we all know, if
globalization were 'done right,' we'd all be sitting
on foldy furniture on a beach in an exotic location,
with exotic friends and lovers, sipping on exotic
liquids, eating exotic fruits, and fanning one another
with giant exotic leaves.

The internet was supposed to largely eliminate the
space-time relationship from production and
consumption, and the problem is that it hasn't for
either. People are still consuming in large,
concentrated areas and production is now taking place in sparsely populated areas more and more.

Is it essential? I'd say yes, to any modern capitalist society. I think if globalization were carried out the almost exact opposite way as it is being done, which is with protectionism in rich states to protect local jobs, then maybe tat could curb the flow.

Manish Mishra said...

isnt it we are afraid of something that we saw on waking up one morning. we dont know exactly, it is beautiful or ugly. but we can feel it and see it existing.

urban sprawl can be right and its dynamic. but we need to see the broader picture also. this market economy is only deciding factor in our city.

it made our cities a big monster living on humans. now our city lives and expands to maximum.

this market economy has mechanized our system blindly that government cant think of anything else than popular good.

i am thinking bit conservative but isnt anybody here thinks that squatters are result of market economy.

rn said...

You have a point, Manish. Capitalism implies sustaining a rate of growth (in income, not just in size of a city) that may be unsustainable.

It certainly has not escaped my notice that it's possible to think of squatter communities as a perfect free market response to inequities in housing and economic conditions.

When squatters organize, when they enter politics, the can be an energizing force for change.

Manish Mishra said...

right now i am woking on the possibility of organizing dharavi and bring its efficiency to main system.thinking about some planning possibilities as an architecture student.
but i am afraid about one possibility only, what if dharavi is so efficient only in unorganized way of working.

actually i've stopped thinking about a possibility of strategy that is flawless so i decided to work on the probabilities where flaws can be minimised for future also. but everything i considered ideal till my schooldays now seem disasters.
but there is a great idea lying in our squatters about our future cities (squatter cities).

a possibility of hybrid of capitalism and socialism in our squatters. in dharavi where poor and rich people exist simaltaneously with industrial turnover of aprox $4.6 bn.
such a efficiency is achieved in so minimal resources and without government support. within dharavi employment rate is above 90%.
what else statistics somebody can ask in a slum.

rn said...


What a great question: 'what if Dharavi is so efficent only in an unorganized way of working?'

I think this is, in part, true. The world's squatter communities are tremendously vital in a manner that the world does not recognize as vitality. They have tremendous commercial life the world does not recognize, tremendous family life the world only sees as misery, and, without any planning, have at least tamed the cacophony a bit to create a wild sense of order.

It sounds like you are doing the right thing -- studying and learning from residents rather than applying some inflexible outside standard to communities that cannot possibly achieve that and remain affordable and vital to the people who live there.

Keep us posted on your work.

Manish Mishra said...

i am just a third year student of architecture working with my colleagues on the same problem. we all have same view point on the probable solution,
to check myself i am trying to go for dialogues with all others who can tell me about their thoughts so that we can upgrade ourselves in the process.
Definitely i'll keep communicating with you people for the valuable discourse as we move ahead in process.

Manish Mishra said...

here i am confused. as i am going deeper and documenting things, i am getting feedbacks, i see peoples faith on me and that disturbs me.
i am afraid of being used by peoples who show they are good but in turn they are simply having a mean aims.
i am really afraid to decide and to motivate others when i am confused whome to believe.
government is not taking their houses, they are being provided by houses of their own and secondly they are getting more than average carpet area they have.still now they do not live in great conditions.

they'll get clean house and amneties, but may have to again restart too many things.

i am confused. what others, other than dharavi people crying for. they are also making buildings with a conviction of righteousness about their attitude.which they assume is right.

i am confused about what i am losing by not having dharavi anymore.
i am confused about the gains.
i am really confused about what is called quality in life.
why i cant believe anybody. if i start to believe anybody someone else gives count of the experiences to deny my belief simply based on some logics which are still young as my young mind.

i know i've to move on and take decisions about my work and stand on dharavi. but suddenly everythings seems blurr and intemingled.
i wish i move but not headonistic way. i may learn i wish.

is life can be really led by idealistic ways. why we are nurtured preaching so many good things which dont exist outside my safe house.