The Battle Over Sprawl

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

The sight has become a sadly typical one: Identical houses, some extremely large, standing side-by-side like soldiers called to attention; overgrown garages, browning lawns, and, in the distance, an expressway clogged with cars and angry motorists. Since World War II, the suburbanization development model has become the dominant form of living in the United States. But many politicians, planners, environmentalists, and health experts now believe that curbing the expansion of suburbia is an essential component of future ecological, physical, and economic health.

In his new book, This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America, urban development journalist Anthony Flint examines the politics and culture behind suburbanization and the resurgent movement to help cities, towns, and communities grow smarter.

“For something so primary-something we see every day, something that dictates how we live and function, that has such direct influence on our attitudes and moods-the American landscape is shaped with very little intention,” Flint writes. “The guiding principle for arranging the physical environment isn’t feng shui, it’s non sequitur.”

Flint describes the cumulative effect of more than 50 years of unrestrained suburban expansion as leading to a “hyper-suburban nation.” By his estimates, more than 90% of metropolitan-area growth since 1950 has occurred in suburbs, where roughly two out of three Americans now live. Office space has also been relocating to the outer-metropolitan fringes; more than 40% of all office space in the United States was located in suburbia in 1999, up from 26% twenty years earlier. This trend has created a variety of negative effects, particularly in terms of traffic and commuting. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, 2.8 million people have so-called “extreme commutes,” or commutes longer than 90 minutes.

What is more troubling, according to Flint, is how very unsustainable the suburban model has become. “More than 100 million new people [are] expected in the country by 2050,” he notes. “They’re the reason we’re going to need more compact places. If development patterns just keep going out in a straight line, we’re going to have a series of 100mile-wide, dysfunctional metropolitan areas all going broke trying to pay for infrastructure and basic services, dealing with road rage from continual traffic jams, and home to children who are even fatter and less active than they are today.”

By Flint’s calculations, even with a modest population increase, by 2025 the United States will require millions of miles of pipe to carry 9 billion gallons of clean water and 8 billion more gallons of sewage to and from ever father suburban developments. The country will need to add 2 million miles of new roads to the 4 million already in existence, as well as 100 million vehicles in addition to the 200 million on the roads today. For some commuters, the time spent stuck in traffic will exceed four hours per day. Currently, the United States uses an average of 20 million barrels of oil every day,* and worldwide demand is anticipated to double by the middle of this century. Researchers at Rutgers Universify calculate that the costs of building, operating, and using the infrastructure of expanding suburbia will equal $202.7 billion through 2025.

According to Flint, curbing inefficient suburban development is a matter primarily of altering zoning laws to better reflect the realities of long commutes and scarce resources.

“Changing the framework and the rules of the development game by replacing outdated zoning creates more options instead of constantly closing them down,” Flint believes. “Single-family detached homes would of course still be allowed. But they wouldn’t be the only thing that’s allowed, which is pretty much the case with most conventional zoning. Suburban developers are playing with the rules stacked in their favor, so there’s no real competition in the marketplace.”

Flint argues that the best way for new builders, smart-growth advocates, and concerned citizens to beat back sprawl is to involve themselves in strengthening local school systems. “Radical change in the public school system is the only way the middle class will ever return to urban America,” he says.

According to Flint, the fight against sprawl is attracting some surprising and key political figures. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has unveiled a point system to award grant money and subsidies to development projects based on sustainability and transit friendliness. Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina has brought attention to the issue of “school sprawl,” or overbuilding new schools and neglecting schools already built (drawing people away from established neighborhoods into new developments). California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made fighting sprawl part of his election campaign and has hired several smart-growth advocates to leadership positions within the California government, such as Richard Jackson as publichealth officer. Jackson’s book Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, and Building for Healthy Communities (Island Press, 2004) pointed out that car-dependent suburbanites were more likely to suffer from obesity than their urban counterparts.

Studies aside, Flint sees a difficult battle ahead over these issues of where to live and how to build.

“Getting people to think about the future is difficult,” he writes. “Just ask some of the people who end up being the most concerned about sprawl-the millions who move into suburban subdivisions only to have their dreams of the good life spoiled by maddening traffic and water bans, because millions more moved into the next subdivision over. . . . But I’m hopeful. Attitudes change. Life’s small awakenings-how nice it is not to spend so much time commuting or being a full-time chauffeur for the kids-add up. And a little change would go a long way.”

-Patrick Tucker

Source: This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America by Anthony Flint. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2006. $24.05.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2006.

*corrected 9.01.2006


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