The Pleasantville Solution: The War on "Sprawl" Promises "Livability" but Delivers Repression, Intolerance - and More Traffic

By Postrel, Virginia | Reason, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Pleasantville Solution: The War on "Sprawl" Promises "Livability" but Delivers Repression, Intolerance - and More Traffic


Postrel, Virginia, Reason


If Bill Clinton and Al Gore denounced soccer morns, told us everything was better in the good old days, and demanded that we let their friends redesign our lives to fit their sense of morality, you might think they'd thrown away their political ambitions and joined the religious right. You would, however, be wrong.

Welcome to the war on "sprawl" - otherwise known as the suburbs.

Gore described the problem this way in a much-praised September speech: "Acre upon acre of asphalt have transformed what were once mountain clearings and congenial villages into little more than massive parking lots. The ill-thought-out sprawl hastily developed around our nation's cities has turned what used to be friendly, easy suburbs into lonely cul-desacs, so distant from the city center that if a family wants to buy an affordable house they have to drive so far that a parent gets home too late to read a bedtime story."

It's a bizarre tale, raising many questions: How exactly did those houses in "easy suburbs" catapult themselves miles away to become "lonely cul-de-sacs" reachable only by hours on the road? Why did that transformation make housing more expensive? How early do those kids go to bed? (The average commute remains no more than 20 to 30 minutes.)

Gore is clearer on one thing: The problem is that "we've built flat, not tall," putting houses and offices on inexpensive outlying land instead of packing them tighter and tighter in crowded, expensive cities. "Flat, not tall" is in fact the definition of "sprawl." The anti-sprawl critique is that houses with yards, shopping centers with ample parking, and commuters who drive to work are ruining the country.

"In too many places across America, the beauty of local vistas has been degraded by decades of ill-planned and ill-coordinated development," Gore said in January. "Plan well, and you have a community that nurtures commerce and private life. Plan badly, and you have what so many of us suffer from first-hand: gridlock, sprawl, and that uniquely modern evil of all-too-little time." (The breathtaking conceit that "all-too-little time" is a "uniquely modern evil" simultaneously exhibits great insight into baby boomers' psychology and gross ignorance of history and literature - the perfect combination, perhaps, for a Gore 2000 campaign.)

"Sprawl" is a strange issue with which to launch a presidential race: City planning is not a constitutional responsibility of the federal government, much less of the chief executive. And most voters prefer living in the suburbs. Yet Gore thinks he can win the White House on a platform that calls for the government to force everyone to live in townhouses and take the train to work. All he has to do is stick to the right rhetoric. If no one pays attention to the programs behind the slogans, the plan might just work.

After all, this moral crusade isn't plagued by peskily telegenic intellectuals who say what they mean. Its crusaders deliberately use phrases, such as "quality of life" and "livability," that mean one thing to them and something entirely different to the general public.

If you listen only to Gore's speeches, you'd think that the anti-sprawl campaign is about magically making all the nasty tradeoffs in life go away. Abandon "ill-planned and ill-coordinated development," and houses will be cheap everywhere. No one will ever sit in traffic. By reducing commuting costs, we'll even have more money to send those once-neglected kids to college (a point the vice president includes in every speech). We will all enjoy "quality of life" and "livability." Who could be against that?

Attacking "sprawl" is a way of blaming an evil, impersonal force for the tradeoffs individuals have made in their lives - -most prominently the choices to work long hours and to buy elbow room. The anti-sprawl campaign simultaneously indulges baby boomers' guilt and excuses their life choices, treating them as victims rather than actors.

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