The housing market puts increasing pressure on local industry, forcing businesses occupying desirable land to shift out of the city as land is more commonly seen merely through the lens of economic gain. Dwellings become ‘units’, views become ‘assets’ and ‘value’ is measured in square metres.
The city and its districts are thought of in terms of individual profit, not collective benefit. If city planning is allowed to be controlled by market forces, you are left with homogenised, unvaried landscapes as the most lucrative formula prevails. How can a city retain the variation of amenities needed to sustain its inhabitants if these amenities are less economically attractive than, for example, ‘luxury’ one-bed apartments?
‘Urban Sprawl’ is a highly politicised and often-pejorative term associated with rapid, unplanned, unsustainable expansion. Similarly bacterial mould faces negative connotations; it’s growth and spread widely linked with disease and food spoilage.
Despite unfavourable perceptions mould plays an important role in the biodegradation of natural materials and the production of antibiotics such as penicillin. Perhaps, in spite of it’s critics, within the deregulation of Sprawl there is scope for it to be productive, through self-organisation and the decentralisation and democratisation of power.
Grow Your Own Sprawl is a controlled experiment. Different food substances and bacteria’s found in the domestic environment are introduced to an agar base and left to develop organically. The petri dish shows in microcosm how controlling certain elements whilst leaving others open to uncertainty can produce radically different potentials.
This typical view East out over London’s Docklands captures the sprawling expansion of the metropolis as formerly monofunctional industrial areas are converted into living components of the city. A global phenomenon of the recent-past, this shift in function is taking a shockingly generic turn in London, resulting in the decimation of the industrial legacy as all traces of an era are buried beneath ‘luxury’ high-density housing developments.
The highly contagious urban formula of replicating perimeter block typologies across brownfield sites – manifesting as a senseless stamping of concrete frames (clad in varying shades of stock brick) throughout the Docklands – is creating fragmented residential enclaves devoid of any true engagement with the city. Rather than re-use, adapt or transform existing structures to build upon the established history of a site, the modernist principle of tabula rasa endures. Essentially a form of historic censorship, the result is a homogenised urban landscape where sprawl cultivates within finite site boundaries sprouting vertically with little consideration for adjacent relations or the wider continuation of the city.
“The road has become the business, while the river, emptied of everything except landfill barges and cheerless pleasure craft, is a backdrop to computer-enhanced heritage and development scams. The Thames is a false memory.”
Iain Sinclair, London Orbital (2002)
Engrossed, pained and I dare say inspired by it for almost 25 years; the M25 has been the liminal edgeland I have grown up confronting. Since 1986, the cartographic epitome of sprawl, has created a definitive boundary condition for Greater London. The globalised processes of manufacturing, trade and transport now inhabit and thrive upon the M25, circumnavigating their historic origin – the city of London – a city divorced from the sprawl it once spawned.
As a contemporary city wall, the Orbital has become a catalyst as airports, factories, retail parks and growing suburbs sprawl from this redefined circumferential centre, but it has also absorbed the non-place persona of the vehicles and businesses it serves.
Post-Sprawl, using the M25 as an example, should sprawl be coordinated, managed and interacted with? Does this contradict the organic nature of sprawl? How do certain reactions to sprawl redefine the city itself? More so what do these reactions to sprawl mean to the non-places which they exude?
Starbucks, Caffè Nero, M&S are typical names we encounter everyday in London. We are never too far from a Pret a Manger or a Costa. These familiar windows may offer a reliable source of coffee or sandwich, but are they gradually dictating where we go? Or what area we decide to inhabit? Are these franchises following us or are we the ones following them? We may believe we make a deliberate choice to visit a specific place or live in a specific neighbourhood, but are we subconsciously choosing to be where the familiar is? Does the familiar bring a sense of safety and relief of the unknown? If so, what chance local businesses have in a big city such as London? A city that was once owned by the locals is now owned by multi million corporations, gradually transforming the identity of the city.
I am interested in the relation between commercial sprawl and the urban sprawl and its implications on the consumer specifically and the city generally.
Sometimes the evidence of urban sprawl can be so discreet, you can barely see it. The wider effects, however, can be far more significant. Buried beneath ground, in what was previously commercial storage, these basement flats are visible only from low-level windows beneath the shop fronts. The residential rental income so vastly outweighs the commercial that shops can lie vacant for months on end, with no financial incentive for property owners to replace them. The identity of the street changes, whilst residents and passersby notice nothing.
As private residential rents ceaselessly soar in the city, how will the commercial life of our high streets survive? Is allowing sub-standard accommodation at extortionate rates the only solution to meet housing demands? How can planners have a role if councils lack the means to enforce policy? Or should we be celebrating this triumph of personal enterprise? As offices, shops and even prisons are replaced with residential properties what can, or should, be done to protect the public street?
The Suburb Burger or Suburger is a low density, mono flavoured and only available at the drive-thru fast food snack. The burger is a commentary on the urban sprawl that has been predicted and then fed by the fast food industry. This sector has been an extremely prominent vaticinator of where our neoliberal cities and future settlements are heading. By precisely identifying undeveloped and inexpensive peri-urban real estate, these notoriously recognised brands have preceded and situated themselves within decentralised, low density, mono functional and car dependant built environments.
The typology of the aggressively branded, artificially landscaped pre-sprawl consumer leisure park could be seen to manifest itself into a microcosm of the town centre that these dispersed settlements are seeking. The vapid expanses of car parks become race track, high street and ‘strip’ set against the backdrop of the precursory sprawl’s “decorated shed(s)”1 If we were to see a drastic shift with the model of these sprawl preludes, how could that then proceed to shape and inform the succeeding context?
1 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour Learning from Las Vegas MIT Press; 2nd Revised edition (1977)
“Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants – so long as it is black.” – Henry Ford
When asked to imagine a banana, it is unlikely the small, furry, pink Musa Velutinacomes to mind. More familiar is the Cavendish banana, sweet in taste, smooth skinned, and classically yellow. Despite there being over 1,000 varieties, the Cavendish makes up 95% of the global banana market. Dominating international trade since the 1950s, it replaced the Gros Michel, which was entirely wiped out by Panama Disease. A similar endemic today would be catastrophic.
Just one of a myriad examples, the banana proves the fallacy that our food culture today is one where we enjoy unlimited choice and supply.Modern food culture is driven by economies of scale, a form of sprawl, which aims to deliver surging quantities of fewer products at lower prices to satisfy our insatiable demands. The reality of monoculturalism at the ever growing scale the industry works towards is hardly as inconsequential as the veil of convenience suggests, with threats ranging from environmental destruction to food security.
The banana is representative of food sources becoming increasingly concentrated, a concern not only for suppliers, producers and consumers, but for the future of urban dwelling. Food should be regarded not as an asset purely subject to economic and political policies but fundamentally interdependent to the city; a forced reconnection is of the utmost necessity.
“Architecture’s preoccupation with re-staging itself is more than a disciplinary in-joke. And unlike say, a civil war re-enactment, it never packs up and goes home because it is home. Rather, architecture’s re-enactments are deadly serious and entirely real.”
Sam Jacob, Architecture as Enactment
It seems the role of mimicry within architecture is an omnipresent practice. The motivation behind such acts pointedly state the ideological ambitions of the urban space within which such impersonations sit. In the case of Dubai, the act of duplication has been taken to the extreme whereby it is not only the architecture that is borrowed: Legal frameworks, societal constitutions and business terms are all replicated to mirror convenient global models for the benefit of the city’s industries.
Conceived as a disneyland of consumerism, the city’s built form is as much an outward manifestation of internally held ideals, as an exposition of imperialistic global pressures. What has resulted is an almost fantastical metropolis, whose residents find themselves embedded in the schizophrenic quest for the expression of personal identity and global status.
The image alludes to one such extreme. A gated community of 800 internally identical homes, villas are grouped and ‘dressed up’ in varying architectural facades to appeal to a range of consumers. Potential buyers are encouraged to purchase homes of their own background in Costa del Sol, Medici Venice, French Riviera, Greek Isles and so on. The result: A microcosm of Dubai’s ideals that simultaneously represents and segregates its society.
Contrary to popular belief however, I argue that such imitation can be productive. If architectural mimicry in its most rudimental form can successfully convey the ambitions of a place, then what is the potential of imitation sprawl in articulating other idealogical ambitions?
Liam Payne fell ill at 9pm on the 20th October 2015. By the end of the day 716,848 people had voiced concern using the hashtag #getwellsoonliam. It became the top trend on twitter that evening and therefore appeared to be the most concerning topic around the world.
The instant ability to respond and voice opinion on the internet has created a sprawl of concern, where topics trend and then disappear instantly. When concern becomes so normal and so suddenly changeable, does it loose its value?
We often voice our concern without reading into a topic, reacting to an emerging sprawl of information. Fact mixes with fiction. News spreads across the internet faster than it can be verified and its uncontrollable nature makes it harder and harder to filter.
In London, the Government is turning a blind eye to sprawling developments across the Capital through ‘housing zones’ and ‘opportunity areas’. Although concern has become increasingly temperamental, we have recently witnessed some knee-jerk legislative changes, with the hope of tempering public concern for the housing crisis.
The sprawl of concern is beginning to have a sprawl of real life consequences.