The Common Good
May 2005

It's the Sprawl, Y'all

by Julie Polter | May 2005

Why suburbs-on-steroids are wearing out their welcome.

The Hunters Brooke subdivision in Charles County,

The Hunters Brooke subdivision in Charles County, Maryland, is the postcard-perfect example of what is often meant by "the American dream of homeownership" - large houses (more than 300 are planned) going up against a backdrop of woods and fields, within extended commuting distance of the Baltimore-Washington job core. This dreamland for some is a waking nightmare for others, such as environmentalists concerned with what the runoff from the large development will do to a nearby bog.

One night in early December of last year, several large homes under construction in Hunters Brooke went up in flames. No one was injured, but 10 houses were destroyed and 16 severely damaged, at a cost of around $10 million.

News reports cited the possibility that "eco-terrorists" were to blame, since environmental and local citizens’ groups had failed to block the development through the courts. Rush Limbaugh, for one, didn’t wait for an investigation - that day’s transcript on his Web site is headlined "Kooks Burn Down Houses to Save Bugs, Weeds."

But the people later arrested and charged with the arson weren’t environmentalists or outsiders. They were local young men, raised in working-class families in the area, whose main shared passion wasn’t politics, nature, or housing policy, but street racing, a fellowship of speed, noise, and the type of power that doesn’t come from education or status. Their motives are unclear. Revenge? One suspect, a security guard at the development, reportedly felt disrespected by his employers when his infant son died last year. Racism? Several of the prospective homeowners were African American, the suspects were white, and two of the suspects reportedly made racial remarks while in custody. The all-American story of boredom and frustration turned stupid?

In the midst of many unknowns are glimpses of the complicated passions aroused by the spread of suburbs that seem to be on steroids: Environmentalists vs. developers. Locals vs. newcomers. Magnolia bogs vs. sewers. Fields vs. lawns.

Hunters Brooke is an example of "leapfrog development," separated from existing urban building by large areas of undeveloped land. Leapfrogging is a key component of sprawl, defined by the Sierra Club as "low-density development beyond the edge of service and employment, which separates where people live from where they shop, work, recreate, and educate - thus requiring cars to move between zones." Sprawl is typically characterized by design that pays little or no attention to its surroundings. While it chews up meadows, deserts, and soybean fields, sprawl either drives out the animals (people included) already living there or drastically alters their lives.

Those who want to dismiss the arguments against sprawl as originating solely with "radical" environmentalists aren’t paying attention. Nearly two years ago columnist Mark Paul of the Sacramento Bee described how polls in some Republican-leaning California cities placed better management of growth and development as one of the top concerns of citizens, "right up there with police protection and keeping taxes affordable." In at least one city, concern for the environment and preserving open space ranked nearly as high. Paul wrote that the "numbers suggest a widespread public hunger to get local planning right before it’s too late." A few years ago the county executive of Dane County, Wisconsin, managed to bring realtors, builders, labor leaders, and environmentalists together in support of a tax initiative to fund the county’s acquisition of parkland and open space. The initiative passed with a 75 percent majority.

There’s scant evidence that what’s awful for a wetland is somehow good for anyone or anything else, unless you limit your measure of "good" and "bad" to the financial profit or loss for a few. Many of the negative effects of sprawl are quickly evident - traffic congestion; loss of forest, open space, farmlands, and wetlands; time-consuming commutes. Other effects, less obvious, are detrimental to the economic health of local businesses and communities: increased taxes in outlying areas to pay for new services and infrastructure; tax hikes on city residents to compensate for a declining tax base; dying downtown businesses as suburban malls and big-box stores draw customers away; and the concentration of poverty in urban centers and close-in older suburbs. A recent Canadian study also linked life in car-dependent communities with higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems, as well as an increase in respiratory disease from air pollution.

Some clergy and other people of faith also are making a connection between sprawl and increasing spiritual isolation. As architect and city planner Christopher Leerssen writes:

These days sidewalks are the exception, the town square is a quaint and nostalgic idea, and public benches and places to sit are discouraged.... Where can neighbors be neighbors to one another, and where can rich and poor walk down the sidewalks as fellow citizens?....A powerful tool for the spread of the gospel is lost when our public realm is dismantled. People lose sight of their commonalities, their intertwined futures, and even disregard the eternal issues facing us all.

Sprawl can seem as impersonal and aggressive as a cancer - subdivisions, roads, and strip malls appear to replicate overnight, competing developments crowd one another out or metastasize miles away. But sprawl isn’t an impersonal cellular mutation, but rather a mess made by human ingenuity and industry off its leash. In the United States it’s rooted in decades of federal housing and highway policies that, tainted by institutional racism and cash-lobbied by the automobile industry, overwhelmingly favored new suburban development over the care and nurture of existing cities.

A booming market for new housing and hunger for the accompanying profits often overwhelms or outpaces local governments’ planning capacities. Some local zoning laws mandate large houses on large lots, instead of letting the market encourage diverse housing forms. Many developers argue that they only build housing like Hunters Brooke because it’s what people want. But without other viable options on the table (compact, walkable, mixed-use developments; well-designed infill housing that makes the most of available lots in established neighborhoods; housing conveniently located near public transit systems), many people don’t even know that they could make different choices.

If you live in sprawlworld, perhaps you’re happy there. Or perhaps the long, slow commutes, the lack of sidewalks to stroll on, and the once-lovely view now blocked by other houses are wearing thin. Maybe you’ve gotten religion on the miracle work of water filtration and flood mitigation performed by a healthy wetland. Maybe you just saw your latest tax bill, heard the regional air quality report, or are frustrated that your church is perpetually struggling to do effective outreach and evangelism in the scant time the congregation doesn’t spend in their cars and SUVs. While rural escapists and urban partisans may want to deny it, sprawl can’t be stopped only by those who hate it and want nothing to do with it. It will also take the good will and active participation of those who have sought in sprawl their salvation (or at least good schools and "pastoral" living).

Any land can be holy land, if we seek the good of the place where we are. But as with all politics, where we are, and the health of that country, state, town, neighborhood, or development, is inextricably linked to places where we aren’t. As Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland has said, "Our geographic boundaries can be illusions that distract us from the real needs and the real capabilities of the region in which we live." While thinking and acting regionally isn’t bumper-sticker catchy, urban, suburban, and rural people joining together for the health of the region they share (not just the turf where they plant their feet or park their SUV) can be a force to be reckoned with.

We can look at community supported agriculture projects as a partial example. CSAs have helped city and country people find the ways their interests merge or are reciprocal (fresh food finds fresh markets). Smart growth - the use of regulations and civic planning to leverage development into more compact, sustainable forms specifically adapted to a given region’s needs - doesn’t have the sensual immediacy of a ripe, locally grown tomato. But like a tomato, smart growth can neatly serve the interests of people from very different parts of an area.

The very nature of sprawl demands a wide-ranging, comprehensive approach, including coalition-building. Environmentalists, affordable-housing activists, local business groups, even builders and developers may find common sprawl-halting goals that are in harmony with their very different central concerns.

What could such coalitions work for? The "New Rules Project" of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (www.newrules.org) has many examples of innovative ways to create local and state legislation for maximum community benefit on issues from agriculture to energy to good government. On land use, one model they cite is Lancaster, California’s distance-based impact fees, a surcharge on any new development beyond a 5 mile radius of the central city core. This regulation puts the extra cost of providing city services to far-flung developments on those developments, rather than forcing core residents to subsidize them, and has successfully turned the focus of new development in toward the core. This is just one example. Typing "sprawl" into your search engine will pull up several more sites with useful resources.

The complicated conflicts that erupted in the arsons at the Hunters Brooke development reveal a key role people of faith could play in addressing sprawl, because our faith speaks in some way to all of the legitimate concerns felt by the different people affected - a desire for home, a hurting environment, social inequity, making room for the stranger, making a living, building the common good. We can help to hold these issues in tension in a respectful, community-oriented way that puts justice at the center of our actions and prayers while demonizing no one.

With thoughtful engagement and a lot of hard work, together we could yet create a healthier, more abundant land, one rich with sustainable human culture, thriving natural systems, and the very different charms of town and country. Despite the powerful trends, sprawl from sea to shining sea does not have to be our destiny.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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