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Manufacturing Failure Winning by Losing

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The Fight Against Sprawl

by Christopher Chantrill
February 26, 2007 at 3:37 am

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EVERYONE KNOWS our American cities are blighted by “sprawl.” In the old days, cities were built with a certain regard for aesthetic qualities and the human scale—as anyone knows who has visited the cities of Europe.

In the United States our neighborhoods are cut in two by gigantic roaring freeways, and cities sprawl out with low-density development at the bidding of the automobile and the commercial strip developer. What is needed is some sort of rational control of sprawl to preserve the human scale and to prevent the bulldozing of open space and irreplaceable farmland into the maw of the insatiable developer.

With mass transit and with rational planning for “smart growth” driven by urban planners instead of developers we can begin to reverse the damage done to the urban landscape by a century of uncontrolled development driven by the demand of the almighty dollar.

That’s the conventional wisdom out there in liberal land. You can find it in Visalia, California, where the City Council is considering using “Ahwahnee principles” to control development.

Then there’s “Smart Growth 54923” in Berlin, Wisconsin, formed to fight the relocation of the local Wal-Mart. According to M.A. Binder: “Wal-Marts are a monopoly. They are about greed.”

These “smart growth” activists are actually the third wave of anti-sprawl reformers, according to Robert Bruegmann in Sprawl: A Compact History. Bruegmann is a professor of art history and urban planning at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. He finds the great and the good have always worried about urban sprawl, and they usually worry about it during an economic boom. But while they absolutely hate today’s sprawl, they often love yesterday’s sprawl and fight to preserve it.

Anyway, what exactly is sprawl? Does it mean the 10-acre exurban estates of people who can afford a real mansion landscaped tastefully into a grove of trees? Or does it mean McMansions built in large developments convenient to the stores and offices at a nearby regional mall? What about the hip people gentrifying a run down neighborhood? After gentrification, the population density in hip neighborhoods is invariably lower than when the neighborhood was a bustling working-class community. Does that count as sprawl?

Bruegmann twinkles that “Sprawl is subdivisions and strip malls intended for middle- and lower-middle-class families.”

But at least you can escape sprawl by moving to Europe. Sorry, advises Bruegmann. It’s already too late.

Take the quintessential European city: Paris. Did you know that the population density in the central arrondissements has been declining for a century? It reached 200,000 people per square mile in the mid-nineteenth century, but is now down to 75,000 per square mile. Of the total of 10 million people in the Paris region, the vast majority live in suburbs and exurbs—beyond the violent public-housing estates—in single-family homes and commute from suburb to suburb in their cars.

And that is not all. Did you know that Europeans don’t use buses and trains too much? Back in 1950 European bus, rail, and auto use each stood at about 200 billion passenger-kilometers per year. Today, bus and rail use is about the same as fifty years ago. But automobile use is up by an order of magnitude, at 3,500 billion passenger-kilometers per year, in good old mass-transit friendly Europe.

Fortunately, we are soon going to find out whether the ideas of the “smart growth” planners really work. Portland, Oregon decided to implement rational urban planning in the Portland area back in the 1960s, and has since defined an “urban growth boundary” to stop sprawl and built a region-wide light-rail system. The idea was to avoid Los Angeles style sprawl. Actually, population density in the Portland area is today about half the population density of the Los Angeles region, so increasing population density in the Portland area will likely make it more like Los Angeles.

The effort to increase population density in Portland should have interesting political effects. Says Bruegmann: “The only thing that citizens dislike more than sprawl at the edge is higher density near themselves.”

The odd thing is that notorious “sprawl” cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix don’t really sprawl. They have a fairly even population density across the entire metropolitan area. And at the end of the water main, the population density in the desert drops to zero. In the Northeast the high-density cities are surrounded by a vast halo of very low-density exurban dwellings often owned by successful professionals deeply committed to environmental values.

But never call it “sprawl.” Sprawl is other people living too large and living too close.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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