January 20, 2012

SPRAWL: A Six-Letter Word with a Four-Letter Word Connotation

Brad Cohen

Brad Cohen

Religious School Director

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation

Pastor Christopher Chantelau (Divinity Lutheran Church) tells us that the word “sprawl” has negative connotations in our modern culture. The word is connected with zoning laws, waste, lost farmland, and unnecessary development. Why have we demonized “sprawl?”

This week saw the second study session in a series entitled, Enoughness: How Shall We Live on God’s Earth? Co-hosted by the Center for Livable Future (through the Baltimore Food & Faith Project) and the Institute for Jewish & Christian Studies, the main focus of the conversation was the concept of ownership and property as related to the idea of waste.

Farmland

Sprawl—to spread out, extend, or be distributed in a straggling or irregular manner (as defined by dictionary.com)—can lead to the destruction and redevelopment of land that is used for farming. The bumper sticker passed out by the American Farmland Trust reads “No Farms, No Food.” If we don’t fight for farms, open space, and less development, then we lose the space and ability to grow food. More importantly, we lose a connection to the earth. In Judaism, we have a concept called Shomrei Adamah, which means guardians of the earth. This concept teaches us that it is our responsibility to take care of the earth and that our connection to the earth is connected to God. What is our responsibility to the earth and farmland regarding sprawl? If we don’t protect farmland, sprawl will destroy everything in its path.

Biblical Texts

“Then Esau took his wives, his songs, his daughters, and all the members of his household, his cattle, all his livestock, and all the property he had acquired in the land of Canaan; and he moved to a long some distance from his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too great for them to live together; the land where they were staying couldn’t support them because of their livestock. So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir;” Esau is Edom. Genesis 36:6

In this verse we learn that the concept of “enoughness” is not just something that is felt by human beings, but by the earth as well. How does this text respond to our learning about sprawl? Can it influence the zoning laws put forth by governments when they set to protect land? What does it say about our relationship to the land?

“As for you [Noah and his family]—bear fruit and multiply, swarm on the earth and multiply in it.” Genesis 9:7

Earlier in Genesis, Noah and his family are told to swarm on the earth after the flood. This could be interpreted as God telling Noah to over-inhabit the world. It actually is the opposite, since Noah and his family are the only human population left after God has wiped out all that is evil. What is the message we are supposed to take from the text? When is sprawl good? How can sprawl affect our relationship to the earth and to other humans? Sprawl can be positive, depending on how we interact with the earth. First, we need to recognize our connection with the earth. Second, all the work, living, building, and developing we bring forth must be done with sustainable practices. If we partner with the land, guard it and see our time on earth as finite, it will enable us to leave the world a better place.

Where do we go from here?

Sprawl can be bad, and it can be necessary, depending on the source and the treatment of the land. As the human population grows, how do we reclaim the word sprawl? Luckily, it is already starting to happen with organizations like American Farmland Trust, Parks and People Foundation, Kayam Farm, LEED Green Building, and other organizations that protect, reinvent, and work to make sprawl more intentional. Being intentional with sprawl happens when development is thought out and measured by various kinds of impact that a project would have on the earth. The time is now to partner with these organizations and reaffirm our connection to earth and the land.

Sprawl—a six letter word that will be defined by the actions we take…

What will you do to redefine sprawl?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*