The Hidden Beauty Of Suburban Sprawl

Suburban sprawl can be ugly on the ground, but aerial photographs demonstrate its beauty, and why it’s inherently unsustainable.

The suburban sprawl experiment was unsustainable from the start: success hinged on the availability of cheap oil, as evidenced by the fact that rising gas prices have contributed to suburban foreclosures in recent years. Indeed, many of the areas hit hardest by foreclosures have been part of suburban sprawl, particularly in the Sun Belt. German photographer Christoph Gielen, inspired by this phenomenon of suburban hypergrowth and subsequent stagnancy, snapped a series of aerial photographs of sprawl in places like Arizona, Nevada, and Florida.


The series of photographs aims to “make sprawl a very aesthetic experience in order to startle the viewers,” explains Gielen. “I want to utilize photography as a tool for viewers to reconsider how they live potentially.”

When the housing bubble burst, Gielen researched foreclosure in different states and zoomed in on those with the highest rates. Using map data from the U.S. Geological Survey, Gielen was able to zoom in on suburban sprawl in individual counties. He visited a number of developments, trying to understand the makeup of the communities and their selling points. In the end, he selected the developments that he deemed most interesting for flyovers in a rented helicopter. “When you look at what regions had grown the fastest, which ones were in decline, it was always Southwest Florida, the West Coast,” says Gielen. “Statistics is where I started.”

He ended with beautiful aerial photographs of sprawl in all its geometric glory.

Many of the developments that Gielen chose to focus on are older, built in the 1960 and 1970s (that’s when the more interesting-looking ones were built, he says). One development, a trailer park for upper-middle-class elderly residents, looks like a spiderweb from above. Another development in dry, water-starved Arizona has what the photographer calls “extraordinary water features.”

While researching developments, Gielen came across patches of sprawl, already in grid formation, that were abandoned partway through. The reason: the areas, which are near the Everglades, are part of the Florida Forever program–a statewide conservation and recreation lands acquisition program. The state actually bought back the developments so that the land could be preserved, reconnecting severed arteries from the Everglades.

Of course, most developments won’t be purchased by the government anytime soon. Instead, sprawl needs to be transformed into something more sustainable. “You can’t really get around this discourse surrounding cities and sustainability without sprawl. It’s a dominant component of the landscape here,” says Gielen. “I think we need to reconnect it to an urban fabric.”


The photographer explains further in an email: “The challenges posed by population growth, global warming, and inevitably rising gas prices, call for a review of these settlement patterns. While it clearly is the dominant component of urbanized regions across North America, I’d like to ask: How can we manage this landscape from here on in and trigger a shift in priorities?”

Gielen finished his series of aerial sprawl photographs in 2010. His latest project, American Prison Perspectives, will feature aerial photographs of maximum security prisons. The photographer hopes to inspire plenty of discussion with the project, which will depict a different kind of sprawl. “When you have a vested interest in creating these places, the slope becomes very slippery,” he says. “I want to bring folks from all sides of the issue to the table. Everybody will speak for themselves. I’ll just supply the visuals.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.