Magazine article Insight on the News

Burbsprawl: Room to Be Free?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Burbsprawl: Room to Be Free?

Article excerpt

Governments and utilities subsidize suburban sprawl. Politicians love the tax base, developers the profits. But some critics would force suburbanites back into the city.

Social scientists across the political spectrum believe that the big houses, massive shopping malls and enormous office parks that have come to characterize much of America's physical landscape might turn into political dynamite. Although the issue has yet to appear on the radar screens of most voters, politically oriented academics and savvy politicians in pockets across the country have begun to focus significant resources on the great sprawl of America's cities.

Every census since World War II has shown Americans moving in large numbers from cities to suburbs. Furthermore, at least since 1970, evidence suggests that nearly all metropolitan areas are spreading much faster than population-growth alone would suggest. For instance, the amount of developed land in the Chicago metropolitan area increased by nearly 50 percent between 1970 and 1990 as the area's population increased by less than 5 percent. The Los Angeles area, which saw a 45 percent population increase in the same period, more than doubled its developed area. Despite much-vaunted revitalizations in Chicago, Cleveland and Boston, central cities nationwide have withered as commerce and industry have headed for the "green fields" around urban perimeters.

Until recently the analysis of economists including James Q. Wilson predominated: Americans want a lifestyle involving large houses and areas friendly to cars rather than pedestrians. "Low-density development is enormously beneficial to all sorts of people and all sorts of groups. In many cases it makes a lot of economic sense," says Ned Hill, a moderate conservative who teaches urban affairs at Cleveland State University. Growth, planned or not, also tends to benefit not only local contractors and building trades but established politicians as sleepy suburban hamlets all over the country have seen their tax bases grow enormously from tax revenue brought in by shopping malls and tract homes.

The decline of schools in urban centers, steady increases in crime from the early 1970s to the early 1990s, racism and the flight of whites and middle-class blacks from court-integrated schools also played a role in the decline of most U.S. cities.

Since the mid-1980s, however, some architects, economists and urban anthropologists calling themselves "New Urbanists" have opposed the trend. New Urbanists tend to agree that the dense manner in which cities dependent upon public transportation traditionally were built tends to create a more pleasant physical environment that makes it easier for people to get to work, promotes economic efficiency, preserves farmland and strengthens community bonds. Sprawling American suburbs, New Urbanists say, tend to create anonymous "neighborhoods" and leave poor people without cars out of the job market.

Suburban sprawl has a tendency to make liberals sound like conservatives. Joe Persky, a left-leaning economist at the University of Illinois-Chicago, or UIC, describes sprawl as a result of government interference with the working of markets. "It's all a matter of people not seeing the right price," says Persky. "In many cases, governments are subsidizing highway construction over mass transit and doing all sorts of other things that result in people paying too little for the resources they use; the result is sprawl and traffic congestion and it's becoming a major problem."

The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank with a great deal of influence on the policies of the Democratic Party, apparently agrees. It has gone from essentially ignoring the issue of sprawl two years ago to creating a special urban-affairs institute with a budget in excess of $4 million, nearly a quarter of which goes directly to studying sprawl and with much of the rest going to issues that affect it. …

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