Urban sprawl is a physical consequence in the constant growth of cities; however, demographics is not the only factor. People seeking for jobs move to places that are more productive, people raising a family will seek detached houses, and people craving for a better climate will move to a sunny place. Some of these aspects are related to personal preferences, however some of them refer to public polices. In the following pages, this article presents some ideas comparing current aspects of urban sprawl in the Finnish context, and the Sunbelt in United States, which I think is important to mention, as I see that American ideas are being imitated in different cities and places around the world. The aim is to mention a few aspects to incite further thought in the matter.
Helsinki region is constituted by 26 municipalities which host 1.6 million inhabitants. However, the current urban fabric consists of a central Helsinki with no population and job growth that has been present for decades causing, consequently, an urban extension. These new suburbs not only increase the use of car but also, increase housing prices, rents and wage demands. Additionally, they prevent mobility in the area by making the mass transportation industry less competitive in those zones. All these represent a disadvantage to competitiveness, for example, Helsinki has to compensate the high housing prices and rents by paying higher wages to attract movers. It is no surprise then that jobs are much more clustered in the city center of Helsinki than the population (Loikkanen 2015).
In the European perspective Helsinki is classified by the EEA as the most sprawled city in Northern and Western Europe. In 1907 the city had 100 000 inhabitants, in 1945 the population increased to 276 000, and by 2014 it doubled to 622 000 inhabitants. One of the causes was after World War II, when a vast amount of young adults moved from rural to urban areas (Loikkanen 2015). These statistics gives a general picture of the rapid growth of Helsinki area, and most importantly of the significance that one region has in the whole country. This is a great responsibility for the regional leaders of the area.
With Helsinki metropolitan area spreading to the outskirts, it’s becoming more complex to manage services among municipalities. One of the reasons behind, is that each adjacent municipality is administered by it’s own local government, which gives them freedom on decision making. In an effort to gain competitiveness and add practicality to the health care and social services management, ideas to consolidate the municipalities of Helsinki, Espoo, Kauniainen and Vantaa have been carried out. However, this is only supported by politicians and civil servants from the city of Helsinki, meanwhile the local politicians in the neighboring regions have opposed to this initiative. One might assume that this is more a matter of power than administration.
The political challenge, is not a matter exclusive to Finland or Europe. In the USA, policies and regulations are forcing Americans to leave the cities. For example, in 2005 in Texas “a tax-reform panel, appointed by a Texan Republican president who repeatedly lauded the ownership society, advocated a major decrease in the size of the home mortgage interests in deduction.” (Glaeser 2012. P.196). However, the national and local policies that the sunbelt has been cultivating have played a key role in the development of cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix. Still, what makes them attractive, more than high wages and location, is the openness of the governments to new developments.
Uusimaa region, on the other hand, is constituted by tougher policies which, in result, encourage the extension of the urban realm. To understand their effect is important to quickly mention the role of politicians in the Finnish urban planning context. The country is guided by a National land use code defined by the government, which serves as a guide to the Regional and local plan. More specifically the regional plan is drafted by the regional council and contains solutions that are necessary for the region development. An important factor here is that, the regional plan is drafted by the regional council.
Elaborating in Uusimaa’s boroughs, the regional council has 14 board members which have been elected by the local councils. This is where the challenge lies. As Loikkanen explains, the regional councils are not good representatives of the regional vision, first, because they usually advocate for the urban agendas of the local municipalities rather than discussing a whole regional plan. Hence, the lack of understanding among politicians to come with a greater vision. Secondly, politicians and civil servants (which are usually political) lack arguments to make educated decisions in urban planning.
Thus, if the regional council would see the value of relaxing the policies among municipalities, we would have an opportunity to save costs, for example, in transportation. One has to keep in mind that, just like the densified cities the suburban area also deals with different issues such as water matters, sanitation, congestions, and last but not least, the generation of “intellectual excitement” that the downtowns offer (Glaeser 2012, P.196). More specifically, Helsinki hosts numerous activities that favor the exchange of knowledge and innovation, however as the city expands it is possible that this characteristic might be lost. In other words, although we are living in “the internet of things” era, there is a magic that only the physical space is able to produce in matter of ideas exchange.
About being economically resilient
Going back to the sunbelt, America’s greatest information technology hub is Santa Clara county, California, better known as Silicon Valley. However, before becoming the world capital of high technology, Santa Clara County was covered in orchards and farms. It was until Senator Leland Stanford decided to invest the revenue obtained from the railway system to build a university. Since then this county has hosted multiple successful startups such as Magnavox, Fisher Research Laboratories, and Litton Industries (Glaeser 2012). As the area continued to emerge, more farms were turned into industrial hubs inspiring technology–intensive clusters. Stanford students David Packard and William Hewlett were early pioneers of this massive project. Nowadays, big companies such as Apple, ebay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Nvidia, Tesla Motors, Yahoo, among others are headquartered in the area and belong to the Fortune 1000.
One must notice there are three important characteristics for the successful transformation of farms into a proliferous technology industry. First, the climate is ideal, so anyone enjoying unlimited areas of sun would be happy to live there. Second, the relax policies provide an ideal test territory for any new industry; and thirdly, the physical space provides an ideal platform for students and companies to meet and exchange ideas. In Helsinki’s case, the rigid policies of the city have not been able to attract foreign investments and headquarters, despite the fact it ranks very high in innovativeness and competitiveness (Loikkanen 2015). Instead international companies like Microsoft and Kone have chosen Espoo as a place for their headquarters.
In urban sprawl matters, there is an additional controversial subject: transportation. The sunbelt is the pioneer in eradicating the need for walking, yet, this can be done only by the cheap prices that America allows. Contrary to USA, Europe taxes heavily in gas and spends less on highways, hence the fact that Europe still values the closeness to the city center. In fact, a recent study comparing 70 cities around the world found that when the gas taxes are higher, the density in development increases more than 40% and vehicle ownership lowers. Although American ratio in car ownership is 7.76 cars for every 10, and Italy (for example) has 6 cars for every 10 people, thanks to the European urban sprawl, the gap between USA and Europe is closing significantly (Glaeser, 2012).
It is important to mention that there is a strong correlation between the amount of roads built and the future economic development of the city. I explain. The north US city Portland is a successful case of increasing bicycles instead of cars. Over the last decades the city decided to invest 60 million dollars (in a 30 years span) in bike lanes. Since then, there was a constant drop in the use of the car with 1996 being the leading point with a 20% drop. People were not only driving less but also saving money, this savings added up to 3.5% of the total income earn in the region which was spent in leisure activities and home maintenance (Speck, 20113).
Now, thanks to the friendly attitude towards cyclists, Portland has shown a 15% increase of millennials in the region; millennials are considered the engine for entrepreneurship. Furthermore, if we look closely to the habits of the newest generations, 64% of them decide where to live and then they look for a job. So, far more than a transportation matter, this is an economic strategy. If cities become places where people want to be, there would not be a need to attract big corporations; instead, happy people create jobs. The key is to attract them.
More to it
The topics mentioned in this article are only the most visible and perhaps the easiest to discuss in matters of urban sprawl, however, there are additional complications that need to be studied in order to have a deeper understanding of the consequences of urban growth. As Loikkanen quoted in his article:
”Sprawl threatens the very culture of Europe, as it creates environmental, social and economic impacts for both the cities and countryside of Europe. Moreover, it seriously undermines efforts to meet the global challenge of climate change. Urban sprawl is synonymous with unplanned incremental urban development, characterized by a low density mix of land uses on the urban fringe.”
Segregation, sustainability, health, and loss of sense of place, are delicate subjects that need further studies in order to make educated decisions in our urban environments. Moreover, there is the possibility of loosing our architectural legacy into the conversion of “big boxes” as Garcia describes the sunbelt. It would be much more sustainable for example, if we would build our cities around the elevator, rather than around the car (Glaeser, 2012.)
Overall I’m not advocating against urban sprawl, I believe in growth, however my American habits changed thanks to: the purchasing power I had when I moved to Europe, and the easiness of mass transportation that my current home country (Finland) provides. One must understand progress is inevitable, still, I do think that our current urban decisions are based on false arguments and at the same time are fueled by more gut, power, and political interest than by well argued realities.
Garcia, Carlos. Antipolis. El desvanecimiento de lo urbano en el Cinturon del Sol. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 2011.
Glaeser, Edward. Triumph of the city. New York: Penguin Press, 2012.
Andersson Åke E., Andersson David E., Loikkanen, Heikki A. & Andersson, Orlando. Stad vid havet. Stadsplanering för omvandling av centrala hamnområden. Sereco Ab, PrintForce AB, 2015.
Speck, Jeff. Jeff Speck: The walkable city. TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/jeff_speck_the_walkable_city?language=en#t-276724