November 14, 2008 | Myrna Anderson

“A Field Guide to Sprawl,” on display at the gallery from November 14 through December 20, includes 50 aerial images, each cataloging a different ungainly aspect of urban development.

The new exhibition at the Center Art Gallery features aerial photographs with titles like “Ball Pork,” “Clustered World” and “Gridlock.”

“I like ‘Ball Pork.’ I think it’s hilarious,” said Calvin director of exhibitions Joel Zwart about the image of a stadium (ball park) paid for with public funds (pork).

Urban blight

“A Field Guide to Sprawl,” on display at the gallery from November 14 through December 20, includes 50 aerial images, each cataloguing a different ungainly aspect of urban development. The exhibition, with text by Dolores Hayden and images by Jim Wark, was inspired by the 2004 book of the same title and organized by the Hudson River Museum.

Each photograph in “A Field Guide to Sprawl” has as its title the slang term that describes it: “Boomburg,” (a suburb with more than 100,000 residents), for example, and “Ozoner” (an abandoned movie theater), and “TOAD” (temporary, obsolete, abandoned or derelict site).

Taken together, the images both document and satirize the modern built environment: “It’s a photography show, but it’s more than that …,” said Zwart. “It  raises awareness about the environment we live in and the failed development practices we’ve been pursuing.”

Symmetry as monotony

Zwart singled out “Clustered World,” an overview image of a contemporary suburban development, as a good representative of the show: “It’s symptomatic of the symmetry in modern neighborhoods,” he explained. “The houses all look the same. They all have the same-sized lots, the same backyards—and the people living in them all make the same amount of money.”

This formulaic approach to construction, which also dominates commercial structures such as big box retail stores and strip malls, is driven by an effort to keep building costs down, said Zwart: “It’s selling that American dream, in a sense, but it’s not the American dream because it’s not well designed.”

Alternatives to sprawl

A second exhibition, running November 7 through 26, 2008, at (106) Gallery, Calvin’s exhibition space in downtown Grand Rapids, offers a possible remedy to the problem of sprawl. “Beyond Sprawl—New Development in Grand Rapids” is a collection of 30 architectural plans, artists renderings, computer-assisted drawings and sketches of local development that is both community and environmentally friendly. The show includes images of brown field restoration sites such as Sandman’s Restaurant and a shopping district in the East Hills neighborhood (both former gas stations).

The exhibition also features images from the Grand Rapids Master Plan and from Celadon, a new development in Grand Rapids at the corner of Knapp and Leffingwell streets. Both the plan and the neighborhood are examples of New Urbanism, a development effort to reduce urban sprawl and the over-reliance on the automobile that goes with it.

New Urbanist development focuses on the building of residential neighborhoods where all civic, commercial, retail amenities are within easy walking distance. “A lot of the principles of New Urbanism hark back to old urban principles,” said Zwart. “Those practices were really good, and we’re getting back to it.”

New Urbanist

New Urbanism is also the subject of a lecture by John Norquist, CEO and president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, held at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 14 in the Commons Lecture Hall. “He promotes mixed-use, walk-able communities that rely on public transit,” said Calvin professor of philosophy Lee Hardy. “If we’re looking to cut down on our oil dependence, this is probably the best way.”

The lecture is one of several events—on topics of urban planning, environmentalism and transit—that will accompany the exhibitions. And Hardy is a member of a committee including Zwart, Calvin art history professor Lisa Van Arragon, art professor You Kyong Ahn and Calvin director of community engagement Gail Heffner, which planned both exhibitions and events.

Zwart believes that a message will emerge from the entire mix: “There is a better way. There’s a better way to plan our communities, and there’s a better way to create business. And Grand Rapids is one of the more forward-thinking communities when it comes to urban planning.”

Image from the 2004 book by Dolores Hayden and Jim Wark

“Ball Pork,” an aerial photograph by Jim Wark

Events schedule

Keynote Lecture
by John Norquist, president and CEO, Congress For The New Urbanism, Friday, Nov. 14, 7:30 p.m. at the Commons Lecture Hall

Cities in the 21st century: Engaging Citizens in Zoning Decisions
presentation and discussion by Carol Townsend (United Growth for Kent County), Tuesday, Nov. 18, 12 p.m. at the Ladies Literary Club

The Greening of Grand Rapids: Community Initiatives
panel discussion led by Dave Warners and Steve Faber (Newberry Place), Rachel Hood (West Michigan Environmental Action Council), and Barry and Heather Van Dyke (Bear Manor Properties), Tuesday, Nov. 25, 12 p.m. at the Ladies Literary Club

Getting from Here to There: Transit Alternatives for the 21st Century
Calvin Environmental Assessment Program (CEAP) poster session by Kevin Wisselink (The Rapid), Thomas Tilma (Planning Consultant & Calvin College Instructor), Jay Hoekstra (Grand Valley Metro Council), and Dave Bulkowski (Disability Advocates), Thursday, Dec. 4, 4 p.m. in Spoelhof 150 (refreshments at 3:30pm)

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