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Martin Laplante

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Mon, 01 May 2006

Review of This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America

The recently-released book "This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America" by Anthony Flint, is the story of sprawl, the movements to curb it, and the backlash against these movements. Flint, a Boston Globe journalist, has been writing about sprawl and urbanism for 20 years, whenever his editor allowed.

Flint maintains a veneer of journalistic distance from the subject, where the eco-terrorists who torch suburban developments and big-box stores are given the same sympathetic ear as the frustrated landowner who over decades of trying to fill in some wetlands, has seen the value of his property erode as land use laws got more stringent. But behind all of this, Flint seems to view Smart Growth as plain common sense and he is sincerely trying to understand the point of view of those who oppose it. He identifies the players who have a distinct financial interest in promoting sprawl. Those arguments he can understand. But he clearly has a harder time with those who oppose specific smart growth proposals for reasons other than money.

The book is meant to be a compelling story for laymen. You won't find a lot of facts and figures in this book, and the few facts he gives are often wrong. However the book comes alive when the author actually meets with the protagonists. He relishes his encounters with New Urbanism guru Andrés Duany, who he describes as swaggering and charming, a caffeinated Dr. Phil who always looks you straight in the eye even while checking his messages. Duany agrees with many of the criticisms of New Urbanism, as being for the wealthy. "Yes, they are expensive. They are outrageously expensive. That's why there needs to be more of them," says Duany, explaining that demand for compact development outstrips supply.

The book recounts the history of American suburbia, and the rise of the Smart Growth and particularly the promise of New Urbanism, which became particularly popular starting in the early 90's. This is also the time that smart growth turns into political conflict.

The suburbs, he says, are powered by inertia and money. Inertia because the approval process for low-density housing subdivisions and for new roads are so routine that they are practically automatic, while various aspects of Smart Growth, including small lots, connected street grids, and mixed use, are on the surface illegal under most zoning regimes. Smart Growth is difficult to finance because bankers would rather deal with the well-known economics and processes of yet another subdivision and strip mall.

"This Land" describes what pushes suburban politicians to approve sprawl and retail malls. In the U.S., municipal revenue comes from commercial development, which itself depends on federally-subsidized highway off-ramps and well-off residents, and where denser or more varied housing increases the municipal bill for education without increasing property tax revenues.

Flint describes the anti-sprawl bandwagon of Governors of both stripes in the late 90's, followed by an organized backlash that knocked them out of office and made Smart Growth a taboo subject. He doesn't believe in a secret conspiracy, but the details the source of the money for "Sprawl, Inc." his name for the media-savvy pro-sprawl lobby, made up of property rights groups supported by house, mall, and road builders.

One of the defining moments of the anti Smart Growth campaign is Measure 37, that struck down virtually all zoning in Oregon, by requiring that landowners be compensated for the value of the land that is affected by zoning changes, even if the change occurred several decades before. Flint meets with the elderly farmers featured in the media campaigns against the urban growth boundary. But also with farmers whose new suburban neighbours interfere with farming activities.

Flint also details the impact of terrorism on urban planning. By picking high-density targets and public transit, smart growth was dealt a setback. New federal buildings now have security rules that prevent underground and on-street parking, minimize the number of ground-level entrances and ban ground-level retail, and demand large setbacks from the street.

Oddly, Flint reserves his fiercest criticism for citizen groups who protest against high-rise luxury condo towers. The attitude of all citizens groups who question density offends and puzzles him, since high-density residents have no children and therefore don't put a strain on the school system. This singular loss of aloofness on this issue alone, one not clearly related to Smart Growth, is later explained by the fact that his neighbours once opposed a building on a vacant lot across the street from his own apartment.

This is where Flint loses me. Luxury condos are not and should not be an important component of smart growth. They are not only not a solution to sprawl, they are among its causes, although the developers of luxury condos have learned to wrap themselves in the cloak of environmentalism, which increases their chances of approval. As it turns out, having high-rise condos in central areas and near transit actually increases the total amount of driving in a city. I'll post something on this blog when the unpublished article on this subject comes out.

I have never seen a genuine informed Smart Growth proponent promoting luxury condo towers. It is no coincidence that those cities with the densest centres also have the most sprawl. Flint touches on this when he recognizes that Los Angeles, with medium-density suburbs and no dense centre, is among the densest cities in America overall. For more information on limits to density from an advocate of high density, see the Sierra Club web site

Flint uses interesting terms for oversized houses that are becoming increasingly popular. I'd heard of McMansions, but starter mansions, Garage Mahals? Also "snout houses", so called because the enormous garages to house the oversized SUVs protrude from the house.

The author's blog is at http://anthonyflint.net/


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