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America's suburban sprawl elevated to aerial art

By Matthew Knight for CNN
  • German-born photographer Christoph Gielen offers fresh perspective on America's suburban sprawl
  • Gielen wants his images to make people think about where and how they live
  • City planner Jeff Speck says developers need to create a "walkable urbanism"
  • Speck says the car has changed from an "instrument of freedom" to a "prosthetic device"

(CNN) -- Eye-catching and provocative aren't descriptions you'd readily associate with the architecture of America's sprawling suburbs.

But seen from photographer Christoph Gielen's perspective, they are.

From Florida's west coast through Nevada to the Californian highways, Gielen's aerial photos -- taken from a helicopter -- reveal the strange geometry of the suburban landscape of the United States.

"From up there I can really compare recurring shapes and structures regardless of how varied they are in function," Gielen told CNN.

"Sprawl is a really careless use of new land. I want people who look at my photos to start a reconsideration of how they live through art," he said.

Jeff Speck, principal of Washington, D.C.-based city planners Speck and Associates, says Gielen's images of sprawl in Nevada typify housing projects that have sprung up across America over the last 50 years.

"Some of [Gielen's photos] show what is typically lacking in most developments, which is a plan which manifests an actual concern about the quality of life within the community," Speck, who also serves on the Sustainability Task Force created in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told CNN.

The pulse of urban living
The United States touts itself as the land of individual expression, but the lived experience is like a monoculture.
--Photographer Christoph Gielen

Before taking to the air, Gielen researches potential subjects on the ground, sometimes posing as a prospective home buyer. As a resident of New York City, he finds visiting the suburbs "disorientating" and somewhat at odds with the American spirit.

"It's so ironic because the United States touts itself as a place of limitless freedoms and the land of individuality and individual expression, but the lived experience is like a monoculture. It's weird. It's total sameness," the German-born photographer said.

The issue surrounding America's sprawl is "not a city versus suburb argument," said Speck. "It's walkable urbanism versus drivable urbanism."

The driving culture isn't the only problem, according to Speck. "It's the fact that we've allowed the presupposition of automobile ownership to determine the building blocks of our communities."

The car has become "a prosthetic device," rather than the "instrument of freedom" it once was, Speck, along with co-authors Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany, argue in their best-selling book "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream."

Continuing down this path is not only undesirable but totally unsustainable, Speck says, and is fueling the crises of climate change and foreign oil dependence, as well as health problems, such as obesity and diabetes, in the United States.

He would like to see more traditional forms of urbanism reinstalled where mixed use and pedestrian-friendly areas are placed at the heart of urban planning from the beginning.

"Do everything you can to attract people back to the cities and take advantage of existing infrastructure and existing transit," Speck said. "Urban centers have already demonstrated they have the lightest ecological footprint per citizen."

Successes are scattered everywhere, he says, singling out Portland, Ore., for particular praise, while applauding the efforts of cities like Denver and Salt Lake City who are both investing in public transport.

"It's those places which are doing regional planning that have the strongest prospects for sustained success economically," he said.

Gielen, who plans to publish his photos in a book next year -- its working title is "Ciphers" -- agrees.

"We should focus more on urban centers," he said. "I would like to see a revisiting of vertical living, rather than disconnected horizontal sprawl."