The Case for Place-Making, Without the Sprawl

What does it take to not only slow the spread of sprawl but also fundamentally change how we design and build communities? And how do we “unsprawl” communities that have already been built? A new book from our friends at Planetizen, Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces and Places, by Simmons Buntin, editor of and Ken Pirie, who works for Walker Macy Landscape Architects, proves that there are better ways to build communities. But this isn’t a book about sprawl: It’s a book about built places, “real, human scale communities by people and for people, not cars.”

In the introduction, Galina Tachieva states, “sprawl as a built habitat has been failing for decades.” With the recent economic downturn, the fundamental inadequacies of sprawl have become apparent. The new push to “unsprawl” is a movement towards an urbanism we can all afford — one in which amenities are located centrally and walkable, where the built is balanced with the natural.

While there are clear reasons why we need to unsprawl, this is a focused how-to book. Exploring all aspects of a project from concept to design and through to its execution, there are lots of details about how projects were financed and built. We also learn about the successes and failures along the path to that “particular moment when a project becomes a true place.”

Each case study covered in the book has an accompanying question and answer section with someone who is intimately involved in the design and development of the community. Case studies of various scales are organized into four sections: new communities; in-fill and grayfield development; the redevelopment of downtowns; and examples of “green” development.

The new communities section shows that good urban design is doable in both rural and suburban communities, places that have been historically car-focused. The authors believe we can build “new and distinct places that respect the economy and heritage” of that place. One new community, Prospect New Town, located south of Longmont, Colorado, was built with a mixed-use, eclectic design aesthetic and was voted “America’s Coolest Neighborhood” by Dwell magazine.

In the in-fill and greyfield section, the authors ask: what we do when the existing form and function of our communities cease to serve us? Do we rebuild from scratch or find “innovative ways to adapt to changing social, environmental and economic circumstances?” Built on the site of Rockville, Maryland’s vacant mall, a new town square “created a daytime, evening, and weekend activity center that is easily identifiable, pedestrian-oriented and incorporates a mix of uses and activities.”


Buntin and Pirie acknowledge that wonderful things have been torn down in and around American cities, ranging from “native ecosystems to historic neighborhoods” but believe that replacing what doesn’t work with “dedicated planning, good urban design, and hard work” can turn redeveloped areas into “intentional and integral parts of their respective downtowns.”

For example, RiverPlace in Portland, Oregon, the initial development of which was possible through the city council’s 1976 decision to remove the six-lane freeway that separated the city from the Wilmette River, showcases an “early and ongoing example” of these principles in action.

In the green development section, the authors feature a few projects with especially strong sustainable credentials. The authors state: “successful, sustainable communities are not a goal to be achieved, but a process to be followed and revised: an essential pursuit if we hope to build places that will last on landscapes that will last even longer.” One such example of a green development is Prairie Crossing, in Grayslake, Illinois, north of Chicago. Prairie Crossing is transit-based, energy efficient, and community focused. The project “began as a commitment from conservation-minded investors who sought to preserve and restore native prairie and farmland being lost to suburbanization.”

The case studies provide us with an “optimistic, diverse, and common-sense direction for the future,” one in which people, and their walkable communities, live in harmony with the natural world.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and ASLA 2013 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) Unsprawl / Planetizen, (2) Live/work streetscape, Prospect, Colorado / Simmons Buntin, (3) Rockville Town Square / Simmons Buntin, (4) RiverPlace’s South Water Front Park / Walker Macy, (5) Prairie Crossing / Prairie Holdings Corporation

2 thoughts on “The Case for Place-Making, Without the Sprawl

  1. roberta4949 07/30/2013 / 8:07 am

    who ever said that sprawl should be undone? If people move out to more space then the people have voted with their wallets and their feet what they want. If people wanted to (and are not forced by regulatory takings of property rights and economic engineering by those at top) to live in the cities that is where they would of stayed in the first place.

    Human beings thrive in open space with plenty of land, privacy, and personal space to do what they want with little impact (such as noise for example) on their neighbors. In a city those options are closed down. Most humans do not do well in stack and pack-em situations mentally, physically, or spiritually.

    If you really want to enhance human happiness and love for nature people should be encouraged to move out into more open space and have larger yards (like 3 or more acres for example) with inter-spaced habitat for the critters, which I love. No one is a better steward then someone who has chosen to live more out into more country space because they love it, and will care better than any council or environmentalists living in another state or country working through the united nations. Sprawl is only bad when the yards are so small and little habitat is available for all to enjoy including the critters.

    Pushing people into stack and pack-em cities with little privacy property rights or liberty really doesn’t enhance people’s respect for the environment, animals, or anything, it only makes the stress of making a living and trying to enjoy life increased, congestion, bumping into others all the time, no peace and quiet, hot buildings (since they want to take air conditioners away calling them unsustainable) and higher cost for everything, increased restrictions.

    Economics causes people to buy smaller yards. If money wasn’t an option many would have many acres of land (which increases wildlife habitat). Many would live out in the country where they can landscape their yards making them more critter friendly. Contrary to popular belief lack of man’s influence doesn’t make the environment any more friendly for critters. It is barren and lacks enough resources (in smaller spaces) to allow critters to thrive. They just survive, which is not the same thing. I see the difference even here, my yard and neighbors, barren and devoid of a lot of species but since landscaping and plants, it is quite a different story.

    • Matt 08/22/2013 / 9:03 am

      I’m not going to attack you as an indivual, but rather your intentions. The main differences between you and I ultimately come down to where we feel most happy and secure; you most likely prefer large swaths of land in order to feel both economically and psychologically secure, while I prefer dense urban spaces.

      There is absolutely nothing wrong with preferring your own private land in a rural setting. To say that people should be, “encouraged to move out into more open space and have larger yards” is quite different preserving open space, however. If everyone in the city was required to move out into their own 3-acre lot, there wouldn’t be much open space preservation. The costs of maintaining all this individual, private land would be absurd as well (i.e. costs of watering the lawn, etc.).

      The purpose of the book, from what I can gather, is not to eliminate the suburbs. Rather, I believe the book is promoting smarter growth in the suburbs – transforming them from a place where people simply live to a place where people can live, if any land left for true work, play, and shop.

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