“Sprawl” is so embedded into our psyche that this article is probably pointless

Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights
— Arcade Fire, from Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

COMMENT & ANALYSIS / LONG-READ: Commentators and others in Ireland need to stop using sprawl as excuses for a lack of investment in public transport and cycling. Sprawl is embedded into culture so much that Arcade Fire have not only one but two songs with ‘sprawl’ in the title.

It is this article’s contention that comments in the media about sprawl are often off the mark. ‘Sprawl” is so embedded into our psyche that this article is probably pointless.

We’ve a bit of investigation to do on density, so, we’re mainly parking that for now and mostly looking at sprawl for now.

But what is sprawl? Las Vegas is undoubtedly sprawl:

IMAGE: Las Vegas in 1984 (top), 1999 (middle), and 2009 (bottom) via britannica.com with images by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon—NASA Earth Observatory/Landsat 5/USGS Global Visualization Viewer.

“And there’s no end in sight”

The above photo shows the sprawling city of Tokyo. I asked on Twitter what sprawl is. When Tokyo came up in conversation, the reaction from some wasn’t great when I suggested Tokyo is also an example of sprawl.

IMAGE: By tokyoform. Some rights reserved.

But the fact is (1) Google returns 17,900 results for the term “sprawling city of Tokyo”, and (2) the continuous urban area of Tokyo stretches a massive 100km+ in some directions (if you exclude short gaps caused by reserved green space around a few river beds). For context: There’s 49,100 results for “sprawling city Los Angeles”, you’d think LA would be far further ahead than that.

Our problem is that we might be a bit too emotive about words which should be descriptive. To talk about sprawl honestly maybe we have to seprate it from seeing it as good or bad.

Let’s take a break from data or measurements: In my head, of the cities I have visited, Shanghai is more sprawling than Los Angeles. Why? Because I think it’s because my knowledge from having stayed in Los Angeles for a week at a time a few times over a few years overrides the popular image of the city. While I only know Shanghai from the point of a tourist who stayed in the centre of the city and only ventured out of it to get to and from the airport.

Let’s be clear here: I’m not trying to say Los Angeles isn’t sprawling (it is). The difference with LA is I stayed one district and commuted to another and visited a few others. Most of my daily trips were via taking a short bus trip to the local Metro underground station. As an aside: Despite it featuring in a huge amount of films, LA’s Metro rail system is somehow relatively unknown because it is seen as a city of cars.

In LA, I could see first-hand that there’s defined district centres, even if most of them are joined together. In Shanghai all I saw outside the city centre was what seemed like endless housing (that’s likely not the full picture). Our perceptions matter. For example, back to Dublin, one person on Twitter said:

“I used to cycle from Terenure to CityWest for a job. Then I moved to Lucan, same job. Everyone who heard about it said: Well, that’s great; you’re much closer to work now. They were very similar distances.”

In Dublin when working at locations, I’ve only done so from the city centre. But I’ve similar stories about cycling to Ballyfermot College of Further Education and DCU and people thinking both were far from the city centre. The perception was distorted by traffic congestion on the different routes.

Most cities are far more spread out compared to how most people look see them — the city of Paris has an impressive density of 21,000 people per km2, but the continuous urban area of the city — the agreed UN definition of the measure of a modern city — expands well beyond the city’s administrative limits where the density falls to around 3,800/km2.

These suburbs of Paris are as much a part of the city as areas such as Tallaght and Blanchardstown are part of Dublin (ie very much so).

IrishCycle.com has covered population density before (in 2015 and in 2016) — we’ve some work to do if we can still stand by our claim that Dublin’s overall population density is higher than the likes of Amsterdam or Copenhagen. But in the worse case, it’s not as far out as most people think.

As shown in the images below, it’s true that Dublin lacks higher density cores — partly because densification is still on-going, with a significant amount of undeveloped or underdeveloped lands near and around the city centre. Some areas are on the verge of turning yellow (which represents density of 10,000 people per square km).

But to look at those areas alone is too simplistic and you end up missing the full picture of density in cities of similar population levels.

These maps below — via a tool created by Dan Cookson — are a fantastic bit of visualization work. But you cannot visualization everything at once and ranges get lost.

When we zoom out of the continuous urban area of the cities, Amsterdam differs because it is a part of the Randstad area:

Copenhagen and Dublin are more alike at this level (see the images below).

A point that’s striking about Dublin which is not seen in the colours of the map is that Dublin has a lot of areas around 4,000-5,000 people per square km (ie on the verge of going from pink to dark red, often with ample opportunity for fill-in development).

Copenhagen on the other hand, while having a (relatively) very high density core, it’s average pink area shown does not generally exceed 2,000-3,000 people per square km. This is really striking and isn’t represented properly in the pinks of the two images below.

To give an idea of how this links back to transport, the Copenhagain Metro is nearly exclusively confined to the dark red and yellow areas. While the S-Bahn-like S-Tog train service reaches past the city and off this map:

Copenhagen’s famed and much praised “five fingers” plan links rail services in the form of its S-Tog train to commuter towns around 45km from the city centre. That’s further than Naas, the same distance as Newbridge, and not far off the likes of Drogheda, Wicklow, and Navan. Even with more working from home, such rail services between these places would allow suitable travel for different reasons between different areas (not just from city centre to commuter towns).

The mentality in Ireland is we couldn’t possibly provide higher-frequency rail services to many places of those distances when Dart is expanded. Worse still, places like Ballyfermot and Cabra, which are close the city centre and already relatively high density (both shown in dark red above) will not get train stations under the Dart+ plan.

When you get to this stage people start talking about the likes of commuting from Longford etc to Dublin when the reality is that an amount of commutes that distance and longer are normal for cities the size of Dublin (that’s a point of fact, not a value judgment).

Perception again might play into it — a lot of people know some people who do these commutes and people who do unusual things highlight those things more (you’re going to talk about a long commute more than an you are if you’re only spending a half hour on a bus or tram or train or car).

Different types of perception might also be at play too — ie a high number of newspaper columnists and other commentators seem to be the generation who bought houses in commuter towns in the boom (forced or otherwise, and as opposed to few of them being part of generation rent).

The Greater Dublin Area has around 40% of the Republic of Ireland’s total population, with around 30% in Co Dublin and 10% in the surrounding counties. Most of that 30% of the population of the country are within or close to the M50 — ie an area which is around 0.5% of the area of Ireland.

Again: I’m overall trying not to make value judgments here. The point is that when we allow the myth of sprawl to cloud debates we lose the sense of what’s real, what’s normal or not, what’s desirable or not, and what’s sustainable or not.

Cian Ginty
I am editor of IrishCycle.com and have reported on and commented on cycling in Ireland for over a decade. My background is in journalism -- I have a BA in Journalism from DCU and HDip in Print Journalism from BCFE. I wrote about cycling for national newspapers, and then started CyclingInDublin.com for overflow stories. Later the website was re-branded to reflect a more national focus.
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