Monday, December 19, 2005

New Histories Show Suburban Sprawl Didn't Begin With "America's Love Affair With Cars"

Pick at random an urban planner, environmental activist or mainstream media journalist, then ask him or her what is the most significant cause of suburban sprawl and odds are excellent that the answer will include the automobile.

Cars give people freedom to move about at will and one of the first things they do is get in their autos to flee the central city's congestion, pollution, noise and alienation.

Where do they end up? Living in a suburban development, of course, with a yard to mow, flowers, a backyard for the kids to play in, privacy from nosy neighbors, two cars in the garage and all the rest of the usual features of a typical home. It's the American Dream, right?

According to our modern day "experts, however, suburban sprawl naturally follows because all those people who fled the central city to live in the suburbs still have to have services provided by grocery stores, schools for the kids , churches for the family, bowling alleys, restraunts and, sooner or later, offices to work in, plus roads to get there.

The end result is traffic gridlock, despoilation of the natural environment, the breakdown of social, political and economic networks, loss of traditional ways of life like farming, destruction of historical landmarks and the growth of isolation and alienation as a result of the loss of the rootedness of city neighborhoods.

So it's all Henry Ford's fault for inventing that darn Model T that put America on wheels! And Ike for building those horrible interstates!! And McDonalds for putting a fast-food palace on every corner!!! And Wal-Mart for having the lowest prices at the biggest box stores, always!!!!

Actually, no, at least according to a couple of new histories just published and described by U.S. News & World Report's Michael Barone on his blog. The books are Robert Bruegmann's "Sprawl: A Compact History" and Joel Kotkin's "The City: A Global History."

Turns out what we now call sprawl in Houston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles has been around since at least the days of Rome's golden oldies and people have long moved to the suburbs because suburbs have always served individual needs better than crowded cities.

Barone quotes Kotkin:

"The needs and preferences of individuals, families, and businesses matter most. To attempt to understand sprawl from this perspective, of course, flies in the face of most academic 'urban theory' as well as the collected wisdom of most planners, architects, and the media."

Put another way, most of what is taken for granted by the mainstream media and throughout the vaunted precincts of America's "enlightened opinon-makers" - sprawl can only be "solved" with more publicly financed mass transit, stricter land use controls by all levels of government, more centralization of population and commerce - is based on myths, historical ignorance and ideological blinders.

Barone is far from alone in noting these two important books. Glenn Reynolds of fame reviewed Bruegmann a couple of weeks ago in his column.

Also, The Planning Report, which bills itself as "the insider's guide to managed growth," has an interview with Kotkin that focuses primarily on Los Angeles and that provides him with lots of illustrations of how to deal with the city that perhaps more than any other epitomizes the alleged sins of suburban sprawl.

So why do we keep listening to these pseudo-sophisticates and the preening politicians who dole out billions of tax dollars to support "solutions" that never work? And why does the mainstream media keep quoting them, usually at the exclusion of all others?

Cross-posted at Tapscott's Copy Desk.