Learn to love sprawl?

An article on Australia’s ABC, highlighted on Twitter by Tim Waterman, asks ‘Is there such a thing as good urban sprawl?’. The argument is that sprawling suburbs have plenty of space for solar generation and if that solar energy is then used to power electric cars, transport would be green as well. The piece is based on research in Auckland, New Zealand, that shows that the average suburban home can produce enough electricity from the sun for its domestic needs and to power an electric car. If solar energy is to be the main source of power, the researchers argue, then a ‘dispersed city’ will be more efficient than a concentrated one.

My gut feeling is that no power is really ‘free’ and that places where people can walk and cycle will always be preferable. But maybe this is post justification, a dislike of the idea of a spreading suburban rash.

I have been thinking about the edges of cities recently because, unusually for me, I have been doing a certain amount of travelling by car. And as we have driven in and out of various cities mine has been the plaintive voice asking ‘Did anybody actually design this? Is it possible to design it better?’ The nadir was lunching in the foyer of an Odeon cinema on a retail park on the edge of Dumfries – certainly not recommended.

It is very hard when you look at those nowhere places to really imagine how they can be sorted out, and to realise that much of our country is designed, if that is the word, to be driven through and used, rather than experienced and enjoyed.

A discussion thread on The Architect’s Journal’s LinkedIn group asks ‘Are architects to blame for ugly towns as suggested by the public’? This references the recent Crap Towns survey, the one that had Hemel Hempstead taking top position. Asked who was most to blame for crap towns, the largest number of respondents said ‘architects’. On the AJ group the usual responses are made, largely that most buildings are not designed by architects. But somebody certainly plans those out of town horrors, someone gets planning permission. And I suspect a lot of the buildings have architects, even if they are not the ones who feature much on the pages of the AJ. Architects could I suppose just regard themselves as guns for hire, giving the client what they want. But most have or should have a wider sense of responsibility. It’s a tricky problem. We have some really great architecture and great architects. Yet much of the country really is ‘crap’ particularly away from the centres that the survey considered. Is there anything that architects can, or should, do about it? 


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