The Common Good
June 2004

It's the Sprawl, Y'all

by Danny Duncan Collum | June 2004

We want Hooterville and Manhattan.

It'

It’s happening all over America. If you’re within 50 miles of a big city, you’ve seen it too. One year a field is planted in corn, and the next year it sprouts a subdivision. And the year after that, in the pastureland across the road, Target and Home Depot pop up like mushrooms among the cow pies. Within five or 10 years, an agricultural community has been buried beneath an avalanche of asphalt and exurbanites. Prime farmland has gone out of production. Oxygen-pumping forests have been cut. And the number of miles (and idling-in-traffic hours) put on all those SUVs has started multiplying.

We call it sprawl. I first saw it in the late 1980s driving from Washington, D.C., to Frederick, Maryland, to visit my in-laws. At first, Frederick was a quiet old town at the edge of the mountains. Then Interstate 270 began pushing toward it from suburban Montgomery County. Soon the highway was lined with glass office buildings, surrounded by rows of quickly constructed mock-Tudors and Cape Cods. Eventually, the blob reached the town of Frederick, and within a few years all that remained of the old place was a core of 18th- and 19th-century brick, almost unreachable beneath the layers of townhouses and strip malls.

But at least the population of the Washington metro area was growing in the 1980s, so there was some excuse for expansion. I’ve seen sprawl in its purest form in Jackson, Mississippi, where my parents and brother live. Jackson, the state capital, is a second-tier riverside trading post that likes to think of itself as an up-and-coming Sunbelt metropolis. It started developing these ambitions back in the 1970s when it became the meeting place of (here we go again) interstate highways 55 and 20.

In the past couple of decades, the population of the Jackson metro area hasn’t really grown that much. But it has spread out over most of three counties where formerly one sufficed. White flight has motivated a lot of the sprawl. Then comes the development of exurban business centers to serve the white flyers and a large market of people from small towns and rural areas who can now reach Jackson quickly on (guess what) those interstate highways.

LAST SUMMER MY family moved from a small town beyond the reach of any metropolis to a rural area in north Mississippi that is closer to my teaching job, but also happens to be within the census bureau’s recently expanded definition of the Memphis metropolitan area. This hasn’t changed much where we live, yet. But when we drive 10 minutes to the north, across the Tennessee line, we hit the eastern edge of Memphis sprawl where McMansions arise amid barns and silos. Then, just a few months ago, we learned that (look out) the new Interstate 69 (the NAFTA highway from the Rio Grande to the Great Lakes) would probably pass within a few miles of us.

So someday our little five-acre homestead, currently surrounded by forests and hayfields, probably will be another victim of sprawl. But here’s where it gets tricky: The life we are living now is also complicit with the sprawl. That’s because sprawl comes from a combination of public policy and private choices. Politicians, under pressure from contractors and developers, push the construction of highways that make it easy to get from the former countryside to the amenities of urban life.

This feeds into the desire of individuals to have it all. We want trees and land and ponds and wildlife and a sense of space. And we may want lots of big-box retail choices. If we don’t, we probably want things like zoos, museums, galleries, and concerts. My family uses a limited-access spur off the Memphis 240 bypass to get to some of those things every week.

On the old sitcom Green Acres, a couple argued weekly about the relative merits of urban and rural life. But today too many of us want Hooterville and Manhattan. And the result is sprawl. Stopping it will require public leadership that is willing to say "no" to some private desires. Don’t hold your breath.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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