A few days ago, a Facebook friend shared this editorial by a Michigan businessman who postulates that the major challenge faced by his growing business is not taxes or regulation, but lack of talent. Talent, he says is being driven away from Michigan by “soul-crushing sprawl.” Sprawl which, he says, has made an undesirable “quality of place,” repellent to those with education and money, leaving Michigan “A place without youth, prospects, respect, money or influence.”
In response to that post, a couple of folks commented that people must like sprawl or there wouldn’t be so much of it: “If people hate sprawl so much, then how do hellish wastelands … get created?” I disagree. I don’t think people really like sprawl – I just think that they haven’t given much thought to any other way of life.
Sprawl has always been around. Once upon a time, yea, even before the whole concept of time was really nailed down, people were hunting, gathering nomads. They picked and hunted an area clear of consumables, then packed up and moved on before they had to deal with traffic control, waste disposal, or derelict industrial tracts. I imagine that the pattern of human expansion has always looked a lot like ringworm: a spreading, central patch of degraded land surrounded by actively growing colonies.
I believe that in the United States, our sprawl is fueled by habit, ingrained cultural values, and one hell of a marketing machine. A great many of us have bought into (been brainwashed into?) the idea of “the American Dream:” owning a single-family home with a yard and two-car garage. This dream is constantly reinforced by our political leaders and every sort of media outlet there is (HGTV, anyone?). Unfortunately, land for such a dream is expensive to come by in city centers, so people go out in ever-expanding circles in order to find an affordable bit of dream.
But the Dream is killing us. Ask most homeowners if they enjoy home and lawn maintenance, and the answer is “no.” Do they enjoy their commute to work? No. Do they spend more time commuting than they do with their families, hobbies, or puppy dogs? Yes. Sprawl contributes to obesity, stress disorders, asthma, and premature deaths due to car accidents. Yes, people like the idea of their houses and lawns, but I really don’t think they consider all the baggage that comes along with them. And our society doesn’t want them to.
Modern urban planning in most of the U.S. is extremely responsive to the industry that builds these expanding rings – in fact, I’d say our political leaders are more responsive to the needs, wants, and desires of businesses than it is to human needs, wants, and desires. Including and especially local leaders. Many business leaders are motivated to run for local office in order to protect their industry and continue to encourage the uncontrolled growth that is sprawl. At a higher level, there are many industries that depend on the sprawl model of expansion – not only building developers but road builders, car manufacturers, utility companies – on and on – the amount of money and political influence involved is breathtaking.
The American Dream is built on The American Dream – and to point out that the American Dream is killing us is anathema to a lot of people, not only those who make their living in jobs fueled by the American Dream. A HUGE percentage of our national economy is dependent on it – the mortgage break-down and subsequent financial crisis is ample proof of that. The marketing of the Dream has been so successful that it is impossible for many to see that the Dream may actually make them miserable.
But just because something has always been is no reason that it should continue to be so. Our species prides itself in being able to learn from the mistakes and innovations of others. Many cities on this planet have problems associated with urban sprawl. Some have managed to get some control over it.
There are cities that have managed to come up with ways that re-imagine and renovate their city centers so that their boundaries don’t so much resemble someone with a nasty skin condition. These cities have livable neighborhoods where the basics of life (food markets, schools) are available within an easy walking distance, and where there is public transit to the more intensive commercial and industrial areas.
And – these tend to be cities that attract the educated, affluent people with options: San Francisco, New York, Washington (D.C.), Portland, Seattle. A few whole countries have managed to control the fungal-like growth: Switzerland, Germany, Sweden. Controlling sprawl is not impossible. It is not something we have to roll over and accept because “people must like it.” We can do better.
I’d like to think that everyone could live in a vibrant, livable community. That cars could be optional. That we’d have more choices when it comes to lifestyle than we seem to have now. Maybe I’m crazy – but this is my place for that.