The 'Burbs

A couple recent posts indicate a trend, or backlash, against anti-sprawl advocates and towards pro-sprawl positions that see the phenomenon as not only a good thing, but something natural and unavoidable, a trend that finds its greatest voice in Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl.

First, Safety Neal posts on a Joel Kotkin piece in the Wall Street Journal. The author specifically discusses sprawl in Portland, Oregon, a city that enacted legislation to halt sprawl. Apparently it backfired in Portland by pushing development even further out from the city. Kotkin goes on to quote statistics that confirm what pretty much everybody knows: people like the suburbs.

Basically Kotkin indicates that sprawl continues unabated, despite widespread criticism of it and legislation against it. Neal asserts "our current patterns of consumption and overpopulation cannot continue unabated," even though "we will continue to see the growth of suburbia into farmland, wetlands, and wilderness areas." Climate change, dwindling resources, and soil erosion - among other concerns - will eventually steer us away from sprawl and its harmful ways. But, like Neal, I can't raise a toast to suburbia and its decedent ways.

Second, Mr. Massengale posts a link to "A Car in Every Garage" by Margy Waller, who states,
To be a fully functioning citizen in this country today, a car is a virtual necessity; so the federal government should subsidize a set of wheels and the commute to work.
This position is completely uncritical of the suburbs and sprawl, much like other proponents of these non-urban conditions. There's a pervasive confidence in the market, that people voice their opinions not only by voting but by spending money. Hence the rise in popularity of hybrid cars and the dip in SUV sales; people are saying they want fuel efficient cars. But this belief system only goes so far, most noticeably because it is myopic and unconcerned with environmental and other negative, long-term impacts. To have the government give subsidize driving would speed up many of the concerns mentioned in regards to Neal's post above, while also creating even more dependence upon automobiles at a time when we should be finding ways to broaden transportation options.

Waller's argument is ultimately liberal, focused on low-income families and individuals. She's trying to find a way to bring more and better job opportunities to those who can't afford automobiles. She admits her plan is costly ($100 billion/yr) and argues that it would be better than programs to increase public transportation, though she doesn't seem to address the discrepancy between where low-income people live and where they work, nor the displacement of the same people from the cities to peripheral suburbs. These are part of the problem, too, though her solution is more of a short-term, band-aid solution than a long-term one.


  1. Not sure I'd agree that Portland's attempt to halt sprawl "backfired". What it did do was maintain green space around the city rather than creating a sea of asphalt. I would further argue that the suburbs are "pushed out" no further in Portland than the suburbs surrounding Atlanta, LA, Chicago, or Detroit. There are a host or reasons why people are attracted to suburbs including home ownership, safety, pollution and consumption. Cities have historically been challenging to live in. I understand the stench in Chicago was unbearable 100 years ago and I couldn't imagine living with the amount of soot permitted 50 years ago. The more intriguing issue is who would you prefer designing your community...a planner or a developer.

  2. (i would prefer a planner to design a community, or a developer with a bit of ambition would be fine too. status quo is just not gonna do, is it)

    the "sprawl" book is not particularly in support of sprawl, as i see it. bruegman is just pointing out that anti-sprawl sentiment is not making intelligent use a great deal of information in its dogmatic response; resulting in post-mod decorative towns like seaside and kentlands that have very little to do with reality and are in any case only for the wealthy. new urbanism has a great many good points but its focus on coercing a new culture through built environment is not realistic and its commentators are increasingly vitriolic (kunstler is the worst; an intelligent man who will spin and ignore the truth to make a point, sad to say. his good points are too often overwhelmed by the outright untruths he often spouts).

    growth limits have been known to cause problems for at least 50 years, but the trade off is the maintenance of a green belt for the wealthy who can afford to live in the city proper and am sure they are happy with it. London is the best example of this and portland not so far off. it was never intended to be equitable, and the poor were expected to move outside of its limits...

    i live in tokyo where the very nicely planned green belt was all but overwhelmed by builing long ago (no enforcement laws here) except for a few swathes of green here and there; and i would love it if that green bit were a bit larger, but even though i live in the city proper it would still take me nearly an hour to get to the belt by subway; the city is simply that large (30 million popn). my own view is that a less wholistic repsonse would have served the city better than the very lovely graphic plan they were unable to enforce when reality intervened...

    in a rambling way i suppose i am trying to make the point that car-culture and suburbs need to be responded to rather than merely reacted to, and that means we have to give up a few of the anti-sprawl dogmatic positions if we are going to make a dent on the real problems of the status quo.

    massengale is not an open-minded fellow, and i can understand his noble anger at the current condition, but raging against the machine is not very useful when you aren't the one with the power to pull the plug.

    asa n aside, i grew up in a traditional new urbanist community when they were the places only poor people could afford, and i really am all for that lifestyle. i haven't owned a car since high school, walk to do my groceries, take a subway to work and play, live in communal housing, even work to maintain a realtionship with my neighbors. and i really can't stand suburbia. but i don't think for a minute it is my job. or right, to tell anyone else to live the way i do. that is just far too fascist for me. and the moernists showed us well enough that fascism and planning are not the best mix...somehting the new urbanists might think about.

    anyway thats my three cents (i only wanted to put in two, but was watching kunstler on the tele yesterday and he really does drive me up the wall. apologies...;-) )


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