Urban sprawl is the type of thing you tend to forget about if you’re living in it, except maybe when you’re stuck in traffic inching home after work. But it does a lot more than cause road rage: Sprawl also makes us fatter, sicker, and poorer, and it’s the source of half of the country’s household carbon footprint. In a series of photos taken over seven years, now published in a new book called Ciphers, photographer Christoph Gielen shows a different perspective on sprawl, intended to get more people to question typical patterns of development.
"I meant for Ciphers to be provocative at a time when we are witnessing a phenomenal escalation in urban construction ... when entire cities are emerging fully formed in India and China, rather than slowly evolving," says Gielen. "Not just planners and developers—we all could gain valuable insights from studying the morphological properties of American sprawl patterns."
From 2003 to 2010, Gielen traveled across the country documenting midcentury suburbs in places like Nevada and Arizona. Some neighborhoods, like a three-mile wide development along the coast of Florida, were so huge they were nearly impossible to photograph from a helicopter.
"I was able to present these settlements as relics from an era that was entirely defined by a belief in unlimited growth, of bigger is better, when neither distance from work place nor gasoline prices much mattered in determining the locations of new construction," he says.
He wanted to use the series to draw a clear connection between building practices and climate change. "I strongly feel that we've arrived at the moment in time when we can do this," Gielen says. "If we want to combat the contribution of emissions to climate change it will require us all, but particularly those of us living in far-flung exurbs, in single-family detached homes, to reduce our high ecological footprint."
By showing the strange beauty of the suburbs from above, he hopes to get a bigger audience to pay attention. "I found that I could enthuse an audience to consider this inconvenient, and drab subject matter by producing an aesthetic experience of it—if I was able to generate a "sprawl encounter" that left them with a sense of foreboding, of seeing the writing on the wall," he says. "It's at once fascinating and profoundly unsettling."