Management & Labor

Sprawl, Passion and Common Sense

Most of the time, it doesn't bother me when people talk about political issues in moral language. In fact, it bothers me when they don't.
by | April 2000

Most of the time, it doesn't bother me when people talk about political issues in moral language. In fact, it bothers me when they don't. Discussing abortion or capital punishment in terms of right and wrong is the one truly honest way you CAN discuss those subjects. Trying to camouflage the moral side and focusing on statistical evidence basically constitutes an evasion of the topic.

Occasionally, though, we have the opposite problem. We take an issue that deserves to be treated with facts and figures and some simple history, and blow it up into a moral crusade.

We're doing this right now with the question of sprawl. Both sides are doing it--the New Urbanists, who consider cars and suburbs to be an abomination, and the Free Marketeers, who think all forms of urban planning are an insult to nature. If you doubt it, let me give you some examples.

Here's a recent one from Liberty Magazine: "If you live in a suburb, if you drive to work or anywhere else, if you like shopping at Costco or Sam's Club, then get ready for the next big social war. You will be the target of social engineers who want to control where you live, where you work, where you shop and how you get from one place to another."

I don't know about you. I've been to Sam's Club. It's O.K. I don't think I want to die defending it.

What sort of person would write this stuff? Well, maybe somebody who had just finished reading James Howard Kunstler. In his most recent book, "Home from Nowhere," the writer and urban activist offers a combination of prophecy and manifesto: "Suburbia is set to tank out. Its laughably flimsy components were meant to be thrown away. It was the negation of everything that makes places worth caring about, and we shall run shrieking from it to a better world."

That's a little hyperbolic, too. If I ever make it to a better world, I hope I stop shrieking before I arrive. I want them to let me in.

As with suburbia, so with the automobile itself. We have invested the whole debate over the future of cars with an emotional intensity that doesn't seem particularly helpful. "Why have we failed to see the consequences of the car's mischief, its downright malice to community life?" the architecture critic Jane Holtz Kay asked plaintively a couple of years ago, in "Asphalt Nation." "It has rolled ruthlessly across our environment and hurt the national health."

I confess to being more or less on Kay's side in this debate, but the rhetoric seemed a little over the top when I read it. Then again, so did the responses. "The time has come," thundered free-market think- tanker Steven Hayward, "to run these plodding idealists off the road. Go ahead, gun your engine.... It gives the phrase `drive them nuts' a whole new meaning."

You get the idea. To read most of what's being written on suburbs and sprawl these days is to come upon a mutual assumption that the entire debate is a straight-out battle of good and evil. Either the asphalt- paved suburb is a monstrous wrong, and everyone who has ever lived there is complicit in perpetrating it; or every last critic who questions the design of modern communities is an arrogant elitist scheming to deny the American people their sacred property rights.

As far as I'm concerned, this gets old pretty fast. It also accomplishes very little. To steal a phrase from E.J. Dionne, it sets up a series of false choices. There is a middle ground--or at least there should be.

We all know how the modern suburb came into existence. It arose because a whole generation of Americans who had lived through Depression and war emerged in the 1950s with disposable income and dreams of owning land and giving their children a safe, green place to play. To say that the ordinary postwar suburb is no aesthetic triumph is to state the obvious. For the record, though, I will state it: Levittown and Skokie and the San Fernando Valley aren't beautiful.

However, it's not clear they deserve the abuse they have engendered over the years. You may have run across this description of suburbia from Lewis Mumford, written in 1955: "a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste." Or the acerbic John Keats, two years later: "developments conceived in error, nurtured by greed, corroding everything they touch."

It's a straight shot, more or less, from Mumford and Keats to Kunstler and Jane Holtz Kay. But even suburbia's most vitriolic critics have never quite had the nerve to insist that the inhabitants were miserable, because they so obviously haven't been. Suburbanites, Mumford lamented, "are eminently satisfied with the established ugliness. They do not even know it is ugly."

And every scholarly investigation of middle-class suburban life, from Herbert Gans in the 1960s to Alan Wolfe in the late 1990s, has made essentially the same point. Tacky these places might be. Desperately unhappy they are not. Residents of middle-class suburbia have always been, by and large, pleased that they were not back in some more crowded place.

And once there were split-level suburbs, there pretty much had to be lots of cars, and a culture built upon them. In a country that was geographically enormous, with millions of acres of unused land, good highways and cheap gasoline, and a middle-class populace nurtured on the importance of individual freedom, the car culture and the American landscape that resulted from it were all but inevitable.

Or if they weren't inevitable, at any rate they happened. Understanding this doesn't require a nose for cabal and conspiracy, just an acceptance of the fact that people had desires and demands, and developers satisfied them. On this point, the free-market people are right. There is nothing to be gained from demonizing the cumulative decisions of millions of ordinary Americans, or the physical space those decisions created. It exists. We have to deal with it.

But the free-market side needs to deal with a few things, too. It needs to deal with the reality that there is something disorienting to millions of people about living a car-dominated life, structured around two-hour commutes and a home in a subdivision where there is no place to walk, nothing to walk to and nobody on the street to converse with.

We have created suburbs where ordinary sociability with one's neighbors is painfully difficult to achieve. In Levittown in 1950, every family knew every other family on the block. That was no longer true in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999.

Whatever it is that our auto-driven communities lack, you can see resistance to it developing very quickly on a whole combination of fronts. You see it in the "town center" phenomenon through which soulless outer suburbs built as subdivisions in the 1960s and 1970s seek to acquire pedestrian-oriented commercial projects that resemble old-fashioned, small-town Main Streets. You see it in the revival of the Main Streets themselves, and the reclaiming of once-empty downtown storefronts at a time suburban strip malls a few miles away are losing their tenants. You see it in the explosion of luxury residential units in the center of cities all over the country--not just New York and Chicago and Boston, where you might expect it, but also places such as Dallas and Memphis and Denver, where nobody would have expected it even a couple of years ago.

And you see it in the traditional touches of old-fashioned urban life that developers are inserting in even the most conventional suburban residential projects: porches, sidewalks and a whole array of small amenities taken right out of the New Urbanist playbook. Developers don't do those things because they have been brainwashed. They do them to meet a demand. The demand is there. It's not some plot that New Urbanists have foisted upon the country.

It goes without saying that many people--tens of millions--aren't going to want any part of the New Urbanist life. They will want Sam's Club and Costco and cul-de-sacs, and they will be willing to drive long distances back and forth every day to have them. If the New Urbanists were smart, they would stop harping on this. They may not like the looks of Gwinnett County, Georgia, or exurban Phoenix, or the subdivisions in the desert 50 miles from downtown Los Angeles, but nobody is going to tear those places down. They are here to stay.

What matters is the indisputable evidence that a growing number of Americans do want a different sort of life, one with neighborhood commerce and short commutes and streets designed to make sociability easy rather than difficult. In the past generation, government at all levels has gone out of its way to make asphalt suburbia possible, building the roads to get there and subsidizing the houses and approving the megamalls in which retail business takes place. There is nothing at all unfair at this point about government turning around and catering to the desires of those who want to try something different. Or at least it doesn't seem unfair to me.

At any rate, what it all amounts to is a difference of opinion and of taste. It shouldn't be too difficult in the coming years to give both sides a decent chance to obtain what they are seeking. It doesn't have to be a war unless we insist on making it one.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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