Stephen Wheeler, a professor in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of California at Davis, has spent many hours parsing Google Satellite images, inspecting from above the suburbs just outside Boston, or the maze of streets at the center of Cairo, or the complex that is the Kremlin in Moscow. And there are, he has determined, 27 basic patterns in how we've built the world around us.
Of course, there's the traditional urban grid, that pattern of compact blocks and right angles you'd recognize in central Philadelphia or the heart of Paris. Then there are the rectangular blocks of Manhattan, the superblocks of public housing projects, the curlicues of subdivisions, and the lonely lines of country roads. There is "rural sprawl," distinct from country roads. And there are the particular shapes that mark, on a map, how we parcel land for factories or malls or cemeteries ("land of dead," Wheeler calls this last typology.)
Consider not just the streets, but the scale of blocks between them and the division of land within each one, and you get an abstracted pattern like the one shown above, a patch of city as Piet Mondrian would draw it. That example is the "degenerate grid," from Wheeler's years-long research, some of which he has just published in the Journal of the American Planning Association.
Here's a pattern that is echoed by the world's airports and the land around them:
Your typical office park:
And a factory:
This one Wheeler calls "loops and lollipops":
What's interesting about these 27 categories that Wheeler has defined, covering the full range of development patterns in two dozen metropolitan regions he has studied worldwide, is that most of them are new. Relatively speaking.
"We have had an explosion of different types of built landscapes in the last century," says Wheeler, who is working on a book about these patterns.
Think about it: The curious landscape associated with airports came about only with the rise of air travel. That "loops and lollipops" subdivision became possible only with the mass rollout of the car. The long blocks of apartment towers became popular — mostly outside the United States — after the invention of elevators made mass apartment living feasible. The unique patterns that arose around big-box stores followed the rise of retailers such as Walmart in the age of globalization.
We don't, in effect, build communities like we used to. And while the proliferation of alternative patterns reflects advancements in technology and our evolving economy, it also hints at challenges to sustainability. Can Atlanta grow ever-outward with those loops and lollipops? How will people on the edges commute? Do all those malls and big boxes in Las Vegas make the urban heat island worse?
The most traditional urban development forms — many of them variations on the grid — now make up, according to Wheeler's research, a small fraction of most of the metropolitan areas in the world. Patterns associated more with the suburbs and exurbs now dominate, worldwide.
Here is metropolitan Atlanta, a wash of orange ("loops and lollipops"), pockmarked by office parks (in purple):
"I told you this was painstaking," Wheeler laughs, when asked how he created that image (again, a lot of time on Google Satellite and Street View).
"In the U.S. particularly, you can look at almost any city and you see that there are grid patterns at the center which were plotted out in the 19th century," he says. "Then you can see how the grid starts to fray and degenerate. Then there was a bit of a lull in the Depression and the Second World War, when nobody was building anything, and then you start to get the loops and lollipops."
That pattern appears in Boston:
Here is a very different place, Moscow, where the influence of Soviet-era apartment blocks is clear:
"Each of these has a story," Wheeler says. "There are patterns in common, but there's always something unique, whether it’s the geography, or the culture, or the climate, or particular economics."
The point of this exercise, he says, is to help people understand the patterns that make up our world — especially given that those patterns, in turn, influence so much else about our lives. They affect how we travel, how much time we commute, whether we walk, how healthy we are as a result, how our communities affect the climate and how much pollution we generate.
The decisions we make about how to divide and develop land also stay with us for decades, even centuries. That means these new patterns we've just invented over the past century will shape how we live, and how sustainable we are, for years to come.
Wheeler has published two dozen maps from the project online here. Below are a couple others.