In the last few decades, urban sprawl, once regarded as largely a US phenomenon, has spread across Europe. Now an emerging group of planners is promoting a new kind of development - mixed-use, low-carbon communities that are pedestrian-friendly and mass-transit-oriented.
The mood among the planners, architects, and theorists gathered at the International Conference on Climate Change and Urban Design in Oslo last September was, despite the heavy grey autumn skies, quite buoyant, inspired by a feeling that their time had come.
In the 1980s, exasperated by what they considered the excesses of American-style suburban development and its low-density “anonymous” subdivisions, and disenchanted by Corbusier-inspired large-scale high-rise housing blocks, they had begun proselytising for a return to the scale and density that had given European cities, towns, and villages their distinctive character - compact development that did away with single-use zoning, isolating cul-de-sacs, and looping roads made for cars and not pedestrians. They hoped instead for a return to developments where business, industry, shops, and residences shared a matrix of meandering streets that were walkable, bikeable, and public transport-centred - developments that were socially and economically diverse and that provided residents with “a sense of place” and “celebrated local history, climate, ecology, and building practice”.
They had not had much luck in getting their theories put into practice. They were accused of being tediously nostalgic. And besides, land outside of cities was plentiful and relatively inexpensive, and home buyers seemed reluctant to trade in their dreams of big houses with three bathrooms and a front and back yard.
Not that there weren’t already some remarkable examples of new urbanism. Works in progress included compact, mixed-use, pedestrian-, bicycle-, and transit-friendly “urban extensions” underway in Amersfoort, the Netherlands; in Hammarby Sjostad outside of Stockholm; and in Adamstown, outside of Dublin. The UK had proposed ten “eco-towns” to be built across England. The French government had announced plans to develop its own low-carbon suburbs it called “villes durable”.
As early as 1992, Freiburg, Germany, had committed itself to preserving the character of its medieval city centre by keeping sprawl at bay, resulting in the 5,000-home Vauban suburb that is an urbanist’s dream; in Vauban, 65 per cent of the energy is solar or produced by an efficient central heating plant; only 150 of every 1,000 homes has a car (compared with the US average of 640 cars per 1,000 homes); and two-thirds of all trips are made on foot or bike.
But the delegates to the Oslo conference, which was sponsored by the Council for European Urbanism, believed they could move beyond these limited pioneering efforts by impressing the still sceptical with hard science: New data demonstrated that increases in energy consumption and CO2 emissions are indirectly proportional to population density. The built environment, it turned out, was responsible for more than half of greenhouse gases. And low-density building was worst of all. From longer driving times to the expansion of energy, food, goods, and services distribution systems, sprawl undermined the efficient use and delivery of resources. And across Europe, urban sprawl was rampant.
A nearly iconic fact of life in the United States, urban sprawl had been slow to evolve in Europe. While sprawl was not unknown - Paris, London, Brussels, every major city has long had outlying rings of lower density development - most European cities had, even late into the 20th century, remained far more compact than their American counterparts. They were still places where people walked or took public transportation to local shops, restaurants or theatres. That this is no longer the paradigm - that cities from Luxembourg to Prague, from Madrid to Istanbul, are experiencing accelerating sprawl and its increased automobile traffic, CO2 emissions, energy consumption, land fragmentation, natural resource degradation, watershed damage, farmland decline, and social polarisation - has become a major concern across the continent.
Yet Europe’s urban sprawl has had a counterintuitive streak: it has happened during a period of declining population. Over the last 20 years, many eastern and western European cities have expanded their built areas by 20 per cent while their populations have increased an average of only 6 per cent. Over that same 20-year period in Europe there have been four times the number of new cars on the road as the number of babies born. Over the next 20 years the number of kilometres travelled in urban areas will increase 40 per cent, an increase that will negate any expected gains in fuel efficiency, and make reaching Europe’s Kyoto goals of reducing CO2 emissions nearly impossible.
All of this troubles the European Union and it should, since much of it, the EU admits, is its own creation. Sprawl, the EU recognises, has followed the money - its money. EU investments in transnational regional growth following the member states’ economic integration, while intended to level the playing field, in the end favoured capital cities over smaller cities and towns. Improved transport links - highways designed to accommodate increased freight traffic - have led to American-style intercity corridors built up with new industrial and commercial developments. Auto-centric suburbs with low-density housing tracts and shopping malls have followed, and public transit has not been able to keep pace.
In the 1990s, abetted by a much expanded highway system, Madrid’s urbanised land area increased by 50 per cent compared with 5.4 per cent in the rest of the EU. During this same period the area’s population grew by only 5 per cent.
In the newest EU countries, those in Eastern Europe that had been communist, the changes have been even more drastic. Central planning demanded high-density housing and public transit. State-owned agricultural land was not open for development. In Romania, for instance, the Ceausescu government had even demolished houses to free up land for apartment blocks. With the end of Ceausescu’s rule, agricultural land was returned to its original owners and a “chaotic patchwork” of housing plots began to sprawl outward from the cities with little regard for planning or environmental protection.