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Nashville Scene The Politics of Sprawl

Why there can be no suburbs without urbs

By Phil Ashford

JUNE 14, 1999:  As an issue, urban sprawl has made tremendous progress in the last 18 months. During that time, it has managed to progress from being unheard of to being misunderstood. In American politics, that is as much as anyone can hope for.

The credit for tugging the issue out of the shadows has to go to Vice President Gore, who framed it as a matter of tasteful revulsion at traffic jams and strip malls. In the process, he managed to set himself up for further derision as Boring Al, the Post-Clintonian Policy Panderer. But, as the occupant of a high-but-not-exalted office and front-running contender for his party's presidential nomination, anything that is on his mind can from there easily intrude on the broader stage.

The issue of livable communities apparently polls well with the voters and has some appeal to citizens unhappy that their suburban experience is being diminished by the number of other people who want a suburban experience, too. For Gore, who has a hard-earned reputation for the grim seriousness of his policy concerns, the sprawl issue represents a venture into the friendlier-faced realm of bourgeois environmentalism. This is the segment of environmental policy that focuses more on feel-good issues and superficial niceties like billboard removal and curbside recycling than with the harder choices involved in real regulation.

Gore has offered a generally sensible outline of the broad issues that need to be addressed along with a package of small-bore remedies, mostly focusing on green-space preservation, and transportation and development planning assistance. The dollar amounts are too small to expect a major change in the future shape of development, although they will probably not do any serious harm.

Since Gore thrust the issue forward, at least two prestigious publications that would generally be thought to be sympathetic have let a considerable amount of air out of the basic critique.

First up was New York Times columnist John Tierney, who several years ago sent bourgeois environmentalists into spasms of duplicitous denial with an elegant skewering of recycling programs. Tierney debunked the notion that growing suburbs were depriving the nation of vast amounts of open space and needed agricultural land--something that should be obvious to anyone who has ever been to Nebraska.

A more sweeping critique came from Gregg Easterbrook, writing in The New Republic, who looked at the sprawl critique through a clear lens of realism. Movement to the suburbs, he wrote, reflected the clearly articulated preference of most Americans for homes in suburban settings, and much of the demand that something be done to control the consequences was from residents who had already gotten there and were attempting to pull the ladder up after themselves.

Easterbrook wrote, "In a passage of his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Gore worries about a glade of trees removed to build a new housing subdivision near what was then his Virginia home. 'As the woods fell to make way for more concrete,' he writes, 'more buildings, more parking lots, the wild things that lived there were forced to flee.' When he wrote these words, Gore was himself living in a large suburban house built on cleared woodland and parking his car on concrete. Why are comfortable homes and long driveways all right for those who already possess them, but threatening when others ask for the same?"

More to the point, Easterbrook argued, many of the remedies that more urban-oriented critics champion for promoting livability--stiff gas taxes, growth restrictions, mass transit expansions, regional planning, regional revenue sharing, consolidated government--were politically impractical regardless of how sensible they may seem. Failing those, the remaining concepts for preserving livability seem to focus on keeping others out, which in a growing society raises the basic question of why some people think they have a greater right to a desirable lifestyle than others. ("I got here first" is generally not considered a democratic principle.)

It is, ultimately, largely a matter of taste that some people prefer the urban lifestyle with its combination of high density and high excitement. Others prefer the suburban every-home-a-castle model, with lawns to mow, cars to drive, traffic jams to fight, all made tolerable by the advent of cable TV.

A majority of the American people live in suburban settings. It is unclear whether they live there strictly because they want to, or whether they have been influenced in their choice of residences by public policy decisions. A quick glance at the population tables will show the sharp changes that have occurred since the 1950s, when suburbs grew rapidly as inner cities were depopulated. The construction of freeways into, out of, and around core cities at the expense of mass transit improvements was not a neutral policy choice. While it probably represents the direction the wind was blowing, the decision clearly sped the suburbanizing process, and it has not all been for the good.

A consequence of depopulating the central cities has been the isolation of the poor and the resegregation of society. As the affluent and striving classes left the cities for their suburban nirvana, they took their contributions to the tax base with them. They frequently also prompted the relocation of the businesses that employed them, with further tax consequences.

That is why the critique of America's contemporary urban sprawl has legitimacy even as one recognizes the trivialization of it when wielded for political purposes in hands such as Gore's. But while that legitimacy rests more in terms of social consequences rather than environmental concerns, there are also genuine environmental consequences to the out-migration that cannot simply be dismissed. While the land-intensive consequences of the suburban lifestyle may be overblown, it is also energy intensive, emission intensive, and--if the number of fast-food outlets to be found around the periphery is any guide--cholesterol intensive.

Development of suburban areas comes from a collection of choices. The problem is that too often with so many individuals choosing what they find attractive, the comprehensive whole becomes unattractive. Developers tend to put together subdivisions based on meeting the kind of criteria home buyers say they like--dead-end streets, limited traffic circulation, isolation from other development, separation from commercial activity, and the menacing negatives of urban life. To provide these things at reasonable cost, developers generally need to build on new sites on the urban periphery. This is the driving factor for sprawl.

Because the scattered developments such a system encourages frequently do not fit together well to form a cohesive community fabric, the things that are necessary to meet the commercial and transportation needs of the people living in the new developments must be provided. Unfortunately, these frequently take on rather unpleasant appearances--strip malls, neon extravaganzas, big-box retail, capacious parking lots, and congested multi-lane roads. Because these things often occur in unincorporated areas or small towns happy to have the new tax bases, there is frequently not enough or inappropriate regulation.

These trends are with us, and will not change, as the verdict in favor of suburban housing patterns is fairly clearly in. But that does not mean that there aren't some reasonable imperatives that reach beyond Gore's nostrum of buying up and preserving open space. (Open space preservation is not a bad thing. Indeed, there are other desirable reasons for preservation of natural areas in terms of the value they provide for the quality of urban life. However, as a strategy to control sprawl, it has only limited use.)

Regional growth planning and governance, coupled with sharing of tax bases, are the off-the-shelf remedies generally trotted out for attacking the way development patterns around our cities have frequently run amok. But they tend to be beyond the frontiers of the politically possible. In addition, they don't generally have much to do with the federal government, making a Gore presidency fairly irrelevant to the issue. But there are some areas where there are possibilities for a federal role and where there is a better chance to enhance suburban community livability:

Developing an attractive suburban development model

Given that the suburbs have already won the argument, we need to develop a way that suburbs should fit together so that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. That means better integration of commercial and residential uses, better traffic patterns built around extending urban street grids, higher densities offset by integrated park areas, and reasonable public transit options. Too many suburban developments look too much like warehouses for the middle class without promoting a sense of community. Distribution of federal transportation dollars would provide leverage to make some progress in this area.

Balancing development in old and new areas

As the attractive young mayor of San Diego in the 1970s, Pete Wilson gained a national reputation--largely squandered in his demagogic later years as governor--as a progressive innovator for the way he was constructively channeling growth. The key to Wilson's scheme lay in requiring developers to balance new development on the periphery with redevelopment of neglected existing areas of the city. While it is not reasonable to order people with suburban urges to live in the city, the overall quality of life is best served when cities and suburbs contain a mixture of economic strata. This is more likely to happen when there are good living options in both city and suburb --and frequently the availability of good in-town options will do much to create its own demand.

Balance the burdens

Lawrence, Mass., a troubled inner city surrounded by affluent suburbs, got the attention of its neighbors when it started buying up property in the affluent suburbs when it was looking for locations for a new low-income housing project. Cities cannot prosper if they are their area's only repository for the disadvantaged, nor are the poor served well if they live in enclaves apart from mainstream society. The scattering of sites for low and moderate income housing needs to reach out beyond the city core.

Level playing field

Many of the policy choices made in the 1950s tilted the field toward suburban migration. For the families who got to own their own homes for the first time, this has been a great thing. For the people left behind in decaying core cities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, it has not. A better balance between freeway and public transit construction and between redevelopment and new infrastructure funding would help put the urban option on more even terms for those people who can see attractions in both.

Ultimately, the question of sprawl and livable communities is a question of fostering the health of core cities. Left totally to the vagaries of the free market, our development patterns in most areas might look like some ever-expanding doughnut, with an ever-deepening hole in the center.

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