Sprawl is bustin' out all over

The costs of sprawl affect us all.

by Deron Lovaas


Ah, the weekend.

Mary and Tom Evans finally have time to take care of those household chores that have inevitably piled up over the past few weeks. Cleaning out the garage is first priority, but the lawn needs to be mowed, too. There's also the grocery shopping.

Tom heads for the supermarket with the grocery list and promises to get the oil changed in the van before be takes their daughter to her soccer game. Mary delegates the lawn mowing to her eldest son, only to discover that he needs a ride to band practice and the lawn mower needs gasoline. She drops him at the high school and stops at a gas station, filling the car while she's at it. She returns home to tackle the garage. The stuff-to-toss pile grows most quickly, especially the old clothes. Oh, darn.

Mary forgot the dry cleaning. She heads out again, and includes a trip to drop off old clothing at Goodwill. Back to the house, to finish off the garage.

Lemon-scented cleaner reminds her that she forgot to put fruit for the kids' school lunches on the grocery list! So she heads to the farmer's market, and then back to pick up her son from school. In the meantime, Tom returns with groceries and a dirty but victorious daughter. The line was too long at the lube place, so the oil change will have to wait. He begins putting groceries away when his son calls to say that practice is over and where is his ride home.

Tom wonders where Mary is and why is the lawn mower sitting in the driveway? His daughter picks that moment to shout from upstairs that she needs a ride to her friend's house for a sleep-over...

Ah, the serenity of the suburbs.


ound familiar? It does to way too many Americans. Suburban sprawl and dependency on the car have become the norm in the United States. The driving force behind sprawl is population growth. As the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy puts it, "Since 1960, the number of Americans has increased from 179 to 255 million. In a single generation, the number of Americans has grown by 76 million...." Already, the United States is the third most populous country in the world. (The first two are China and India.) By 2050, that number is projected to increase by 130 million, the equivalent of adding another four states the size of California.

So the United States is filling up and we're still growing. Even if we achieved zero population growth tomorrow, however, it's not guaranteed that the problem of sprawling development would go away. Cleveland, for example, lost 5 percent of its population between 1970 and 1990. But the city increased about 33 percent in size in that same period. Clearly, it's a matter not only of whether or not an area is growing, but of how an area is growing.

How we grow

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy again sums it up best: "If prevailing settlement patterns persist, at least 80 percent of the new people and their jobs are likely to locate in edge cities and suburbs."

The need to build out is accepted as a "given" by developers. It's similar to the way traffic engineers address the problem of congestion on our highways. What do you do when a road becomes crowded beyond capacity? You increase capacity, of course, by building new lanes or whole new roads! This is a profoundly unhealthy way of dealing with the problem of overcrowding, however. As one activist in Maryland puts it, "Building new roads to ease congestion is like loosening your belt to overcome obesity. It is small comfort. It allows you to eat more, and you're right back where you started."

So what does this mean to us, as a nation? The costs are mounting up...

Financial costs

Some state-level estimates of the costs of sprawl are available. For the state of New Jersey, capital costs due to sprawl amount to $1.3 billion over 20 years for roads, water, sewer, and school facilities. On the opposite side of the country, air pollution due to sprawl costs the four-county Los Angeles area $7.4 billion annually (in lost worker productivity, health care, etc.).

Although there is no overall estimate of how much sprawl has cost the entire nation up to this point, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that simply building the roads to accommodate projected development patterns will cost taxpayers $8 billion a year over 20 years. And this excludes social and physical infrastructure, as well as environmental, costs.

Other costs

Many of the costs of sprawl can't be quantified, however. Tony Hiss writes about our diminishing sense of connectedness to the land, and of its profound effects on our well-being:

Far from constituting a backdrop that we can ignore at will... such things as the kind of light around us, the chemical composition of the air, and arrangements of rooms, hallways, and staircases affect not only physical health and mental grasp and agility but our sense of humanity's pressing problems and unfinished business.

Development decisions have traditionally been made at the personal and local levels in our society. But a growing population, along with our growing dependency on highways and cars, has dramatically changed what is "local." Most Americans used to live in towns of less than 10,000. Now, most live in metro areas of millions of people and hundreds of square miles. Hess says that we continue to make "local" development decisions which are now spread across huge regional expanses "on the optimistic assumption that, whatever happened next, [these decisions] would inevitably continue to produce the things that all people need, such as stable communities, cherished surroundings, and opportunities for full and fulfilling lives."

But that isn't what happens. What actually happens is that suburbs begin competing with cities (and one another) for business and tax dollars, state and federal services and even for good press notices. People often react to sprawl by barricading themselves in and guarding against incursions by newcomers. "All these activities seem to have at least one common theme... namely, that something is in danger or is already missing, and something has to be done about it now.

Add to this the government and corporate "down-sizing" initiatives being taken in the name of efficiency and automation and it's not hard to understand why we feel uneasy no matter what economists and politicians tell us.

Social critic Christopher Lasch believes the damage caused by sprawl is graver than feelings of unease, however. It's a threat to our democracy. Sprawl has led to a decline in what he refers to as "third places:" neighborhood bars, clubs and other gathering places. The third place "brings together people involuntarily united by the mere fact of physical proximity."

These public forums are vital to healthy debate, says Lasch, since "we do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy." Consequently, Lasch concludes "the decline of participatory democracy may be related to the disappearance of third places."

Author Russ Rymer provides an echo to Lasch's concern about the decline of meaningful debate in a Harper's article about an attempt by Disney to re-create America's classic company town. He writes:

If the mythic American town had such a thing as a soul, it lay in... a machinery [that wasn't] meant for pretty calm [as he describes Disney's town], because a town had reasons for being and people had reasons for being in the town and with those serious purposes came conflict. That was the strange secret of America's "innocence:" that its people regularly conspired to engage in government, not out of a consensus but in contention over their differences.

Crashing into the earth's limits

Given the mounting costs, current development patterns are clearly unsustainable. But how did we get into these patterns and how do we break out?

First, we're on a collision course due to our value system. There are basic cultural values that underpin our patterns of sprawl:

The "cowboy myth'":

This myth holds that we are destined to continue crossing new frontiers and conquering new lands.

Pictures of the Earth as seen from cold outer space bring home the fact, however, that our planet is not a series of endless frontiers, but a fragile spaceship with limited resources.

The "growth is always good" myth:

Almost from birth, we are told that the human duty is too "be fruitful and multiply." And what's the definition of economic prosperity? Growth, of course! Writer Daniel Quinn describes the dangers of this myth by comparing western civilization to an experiment in flight. Our plane's design is faulty, but our experts tell us we must have faith in our craft. What's ahead isn't doom, it's just a little hump we can clear if we all just pedal a little harder."

C'mon. We're smarter than that, aren't we? Let's make some distinctions. Some growth is good and some is not. For example, growth in jobs and numbers of playgrounds is good, but growth in pollution and prisons is bad. And do we honestly believe that continued population growth is a good thing in a world where already over a billion people go to bed hungry every night?

Charting a new course

Communities should be built to make life easier for people like Mary Evans, not for our cars. An indicator used by transportation planners to measure the performance of a transportation system is mobility, or speed with which cars can travel to any point in a system. Australian activist David Engwicht suggests a better indicator: exchange efficiency, or the number of social and economic exchanges possible for a citizen like Mary within walking distance of her home. Wouldn't we have fewer days like Mary's if our communities were designed so that our homes, jobs, and needed services were closer together?

So new indicators are a good idea that some organizers are working on. There is other evidence of a course change. Banks, which profit from sprawl, are beginning to speak out against it. As California's largest bank, the Bank of America, put it in Beyond Sprawl: New Patterns of Growth to Fit the New California, "unchecked sprawl has shifted from an engine of California's growth to a force that threatens to inhibit growth and threatens our quality of life."

Banks aren't the only ones now realizing that the near-term benefits of sprawl are far outweighed by long-term costs. The new Federal welfare law's focus on moving people from welfare to work has also motivated political leaders like Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist to speak out against growth mismanagement.

In a recent editorial, Mayor Norquist writes about the need to reinvest funds currently wasted on sprawl: "We need to stop subsidizing suburban sprawl. Housing credits and the $8.5 billion a year the nation spends for new roads alone help pull jobs and businesses away from urban neighborhoods." Local officials responsible for community well-being with the newly-diminished social safety net are realizing a simple truth articulated by Mayor Norquist: "If we are to successfully assist people in moving off welfare and into work, we must make it easier for them to get to work."

And in the 1997 edition of a popular real estate investment guide, the authors conclude that "after four decades of unrestrained growth, America is a nation increasingly dominated by fragmented suburbs instead of great cities." They warn that "investors ignore these destabilizing issues [related to car-dominated development] at their peril as they gobble up suburban office buildings and ponder development options or mall strategies."

And finally... here's what you can do to help change the course

The most fundamental way to break away from our course towards disaster is to challenge both "cowboy" and "growth is always good" myths whenever you see them expressed by friends, public figures, or the media.

What else can you do? You can become more involved with local politics. You do this through:

Remember, there's a lot of ground to cover. The "sprawl ship" is big, and it has a lot of momentum. Don't get discouraged! But do be persistent. Edward Abbey once said: "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." We're better than that. Right?