sprawl (sprôl) noun: Haphazard growth or extension outward, especially that resulting from real estate development on the outskirts of a city: urban sprawl. This benign 1992 American Heritage Dictionary definition barely scratches the surface of the volatile 1999 meaning of the word. In seven short years sprawl has become the rallying cry of environmentalists, the rhetoric of politicians, the enigma of city officials, the bane of developers and the dilemma of urban planners. It is synonymous with traffic-choked expressways, smog-darkened skies, bare-stripped earth, polluted streams, countless strip malls and subdivisions devoid of community. It is the American dream out of control.
Atlanta has the distinction of being the nation's best example of sprawl. We Atlantans drive our cars an average of 34 miles each day (a global record!) on the way to work, school, soccer practice , church and the dozens of other commuting activities that over-fill our lives. Our incidences of road rage, hit and run, and cell phone fender benders also top the charts. With the aphrodisiac of success propelling us forward, we have allowed our growth velocity to approach warp speed.
But far be it from me to be a prophet of doom. I may be a bit myopic but I am certainly not a naysayer. As a matter of fact, I see sprawl as the very thing that will save the heart of the city. There's lemonade in that lemon! The growing concern over air and water pollution and the weariness of commuters sitting in ten mile long traffic jams is making city living a more attractive option. For the first time since white flight began to empty the city, a new demand for in-town living is being created. It's what I call return flight!
Just how do can we squeeze lemonade out of the lemon? East Lake Commons is one of the ways. We are currently building in the heart of the East Lake neighborhood a 67 home development that is attracting middle-income homeowners back into this long abandoned community. Unlike the typical subdivision, East Lake Commons is a co-housing development. Co-housing means that the homeowners do much of the planning, designing, and organizing of common life together before the construction ever begins. A group of 24 very committed soon-to-be neighbors have been energetically designing a pedestrian-friendly village-green neighborhood complete with Lake, walking trails, organic garden and common house where meals will be prepared and shared several times weekly. Guided by an experienced residential developer (and faith-motivated visionary), this planning group has done extensive research on environmentally-friendly home building techniques. They are saving trees, recycling runoff and gray water for irrigation, chipping construction debris for mulch, using geo-thermal cooling, passive solar heat and incorporating energy efficient building materials and appliances. Many of the homes have bamboo floors instead of oak - an equally durable, aesthetically attractive wood that takes four years (instead of 50) to grow. The first homeowners will be moving in next month.
Those who know me will readily confirm that I am not your typical treehugger. I am too much of a pragmatist to get caught up in saving the spotted owl or preserving the snail darter. But cleaning up the air we breathe and the water we drink is no longer the exclusive domain of radical environmental groups. The environment has become a mainstream issue. We can thank sprawl for that! A growing number of Christians (and I count myself among them) are beginning to take seriously the stewardship of the earth, seeing this as an important part of their God-given mandate.
Capitalizing on sprawl can be a redemptive cause. East Lake Commons is a practical, cost-effective illustration that resourced neighbors can be attracted back to the city (even the inner-city!), the environment can be respected and community life can be recaptured. Restoring health to the city, one community at a time, is within the reasonable grasp of average people who have slightly above average vision, passion and faith. People like us.