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Martin Laplante

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Thu, 15 Mar 2007

10 Things Wrong With American Sprawl

This article in E Magazine, Ten Things Wrong With Sprawl, is a relatively fair analysis of pro and anti sprawl thinking, focusing on what the author believes are "undeniably adverse effects". These are:

  • 1. Sprawl development contributes to a loss of support for public facilities and public amenities.
  • 2. Sprawl undermines effective maintenance of existing infrastructure.
  • 3. Sprawl increases societal costs for transportation.
  • 4. Sprawl consumes more resources than other development patterns.
  • 5. Sprawl separates urban poor people from jobs.
  • 6. Sprawl imposes a tax on time.
  • 7. Sprawl degrades water and air quality.
  • 8. Sprawl results in the permanent alteration or destruction of habitats.
  • 9. Sprawl creates difficulty in maintaining community.
  • 10. Sprawl offers the promise of choice while delivering more of the same.
Now some of these are political problems and not necessary the consequences of sprawl. So for instance, when residents of sprawl communities have access to public facilities that they do not support with their tax dollars, this is a political problem. Central cities pay for more expenses, such as public parks for downtown workers & revellers, and get less tax revenue because universities and museums are tax-exempt, but that is just an artefact of a peculiarly American political system that has trouble properly allocating its expenses, in part because so much of the voting public has moved to the other jurisdictions precisely to stick someone else with the bill. The inequalities that benefit those who move to "good school districts" or "lower property taxes", are caused by a political system that creates inequalities and then lets people exploit them.

Do Americans move to the suburbs to avoid seeing poor black people, or to not have to pay for their schooling? Well in places where the school district covers both cities and suburbs and there is no legal way to avoid paying for them, the poor black people still end up in different schools with fewer resources. There is some other economics at work in creating segregation, and there are other political reasons why schools with richer parents end up with more resources. I remember one instance when I got $300,000 of extra goodies for an inner-city school through corporate donations and a government grant. Two years later, all the goodies had been moved to the board's "alternative school" in a richer neighbourhood. The poor children are welcome to go there, if their nannies can go pick them up at 3:00 like all the other kids. One way or another Amartya Sen's Capability Deprivation mechanisms will equate economic, social, and political inequalities, and auto-oriented urban design is just one way to do this with a clear conscience.

The environmental and community consequences are more undeniable and universal. To his credit, the author concededes that modern day exurbs are not the places of alienation described by some new urbanist writers, many of whom draw upon affection for the older urban neighborhoods of the early and mid-20th century. It's the new high-density downtown condos that have a lock on alienation. But these exurban communities are the "glocalized" communities described by Barry Wellman. Each person participates in several distinct partial communities of place, with a drive in between the places. That means that the political power of each place is relatively weaker and the weakest communities lose. That is why things like homeless shelters end up in poor neighbourhoods, where they do the most social damage. This is also probably why the association between density and various noisy and disruptive uses still prevails in zoning codes. It's a vicious circle, where the uses that nobody wants end up in the areas with the least political clout, by associating them with density. Then when someone wants to tear things down and build something big, profitable, and alienating, it's much easier to dispossess the poor. Letting a designated area sink into misery is practically a necessity for the ability to eventually rebuild the infrastructure, if economics is alone to do the job.

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