Its happening all over America. If youre within 50 miles of a big city, youve 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. Ive 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.