Looking down on sprawl

Getting a bird’s-eye view of suburban sprawl

Next stop, Edge City: Everywhere Doug Desalles looks, suburbia is spilling over.

Next stop, Edge City: Everywhere Doug Desalles looks, suburbia is spilling over.

Photo By Cosmo Garvin

Doug Desalles and I are elbow-to-elbow in a Cessna 172, taxiing along the runway at Sacramento’s Executive Airport, waiting for the go-ahead from the control tower to take off.

It’s the end of January, and we have lucked onto perfect flying weather, not a cloud or a bit of fog to be seen. And it’s only four in the afternoon, so there’s at least an hour or so of good visibility left.

Doug is a friend, but I haven’t known him long, so as he pulls the throttle out, and the little plane begins to pick up speed, it occurs to me to ask how many hours he has logged in the air.

“More than JFK Jr.,” he deadpans. Now airborne, I decide to question him no further about his qualifications as a pilot.

We quickly climb to 800 feet and Desalles turns the plane south, toward Elk Grove. As we fly over the bend in the river at Freeport, you can see for miles in every direction.

Mount Tamalpais is clearly visible in the west, Mount Diablo to the southwest, and short of that you can see the bridge at Rio Vista down on the delta. And far to the southeast, the twin towers of Rancho Seco make for an otherworldly landmark that the eye can’t help returning to again and again.

Desalles is a physician, and an amateur pilot, and he still finds time to produce and host a radio program on the community radio station 91.5 FM. It was in looking for ideas for the program that he took an interest in the issue of suburban sprawl.

The thing about sprawl is that it’s not easy to tell somebody what it is. Newspaper stories are always talking about sprawl, but usually very abstractly. You can use numbers to describe sprawl, talk about population increases and housing density and so forth. But that doesn’t quite get at what sprawl is. In the end, you know it when you see it.

So today we are in the sky, looking for sprawl. It doesn’t take long to find it.

Heading south, within a few minutes, the urban landscape tapers off, giving way to open fields. It is remarkable that once you leave the city of Sacramento behind, all of the trees disappear, save those hugging the river.

For the most part, the land around is a vast flat plane of uniform green, as if you are looking down on a child’s toy train set, strewn here and there with meticulously painted scale miniatures of cows and farm houses.

But then a new urban landscape begins, spreading out from I-5 and Highway 99 as we fly over Laguna and Elk Grove, arguably the very models of suburban sprawl.

In Laguna, we see a warren of adobe rooftops, what look like luxury homes, and palm trees all curled around a man-made lake. Then, to the east in Elk Grove we find street after street, banks upon banks of houses, to which the residents are only now returning.

“Damn, look at all of the houses. It’s pretty mind-boggling. Now I know where all of the cars come from in the mornings,” says Desalles, who regularly commutes by car to clinics in Stockton and at Chowchilla women’s prison and is well acquainted with the maddening congestion that crops up along this stretch of Highway 99.

“It’s like there’s a whole other Sacramento down here,” he adds.

Indeed it is. But it is a Sacramento without a recognizable center, its edges creeping ever outward. It is in essence an “edge city.” We lose count of the new lots that have already been carved from the surrounding green.

To the north, perhaps 15 minutes away in the plane, a whole other city is being built as well in North Natomas.

Development has already transformed much of the area of North Natomas. Touring by air gives one a new appreciation for the idea of the big box store. Seen from above, a Staples and Wal-Mart complex, squat and wide, looks completely out of proportion to everything around it. It is a sense of scale that you just don’t get from street level.

“None of this was here two or three years ago,” he says.

More remarkable than all of the houses are all of the lots that are waiting for houses. Everywhere you look it seems there is another brown square, crisscrossed by new roads ending in cul-de-sacs, just waiting for the houses to come in. Indeed, there seem to be more houses waiting to be built than there are houses already built. Yet another Sacramento, waiting to go up all at once.

We follow the Yolo Causeway back south toward the airport. The causeway is a ribbon of green that stretches north-south as far as the eye can see, unbroken except for where it is crossed by a single strip of Highway 80. Desalles remarks that here, at least, no one will be building any houses or Wal-Marts, because the causeway is a protected wildlife area.

It’s nearly six o’clock by the time we land and get the plane put away. He had never been on a sprawl surveying flight before, and I ask what he thought. Was he surprised at what he saw? No, he says, not surprised as much as overwhelmed. Just seeing all at once the scale and the pace at which places such as Elk Grove and North Natomas are growing out can take one’s breath away.

He shakes his head and says he was glad to see North Natomas as it is now, still in the early stages of what he calls the “spreading cancer” of build-out.

“Next time we should check out Folsom,” I suggest cheerily.

He shakes his head again and sighs, and then gets in his car to go home. Traffic is heavy. Doubtless he is still thinking about where all the cars have come from.