The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery

By Howard G. Wilshire; Jane E. Nielson et al. | Go to book overview

8
No Habitat but Our Own

Smart growth” [is] a euphemism for predictable and voluntary disaster.

A. R. Palmer, GSA Today March, 2000

Americans tend to think of the western United States as open spaces and the east coast as urban and crowded. After all, the northeast corridor from Washington, DC to Boston, Massachusetts, exemplifies the modern “mega-conurbations” of cultural historian Lewis Mumford—“nearly unbroken belt[s] of residential and commercial development, dotted with isolated parklands but little actual countryside.”1 Ironically, the eastern urban centers melded together in imitation of Los Angeles, California, that haphazard collection of zoning-defiant industrial-residential-commercial mélanges.2

By now, Los Angeles’s cement-and-asphalt environment has become the very model of a modern human habitat and the nation’s poster child for suburban sprawl. In an attempt to emulate its glittery lifestyle, every prosperous American town has snaked strip developments out along major highways, spraying cheap commercial-residential urban–suburban developments in all directions. Supported and encouraged by enormous public investment in roads, highways, and other infrastructure, the sprawl constantly expands until it displaces all other land uses and human habitat becomes the dominant or only habitat.

We seem to have little concept that clean environments, and clean air and water in particular, support the physical, mental, and economic health of human societies (see chapter 1). This is why environmental guru Paul Hawken and co-authors termed them “natural capital.” Sprawling urban–suburban habitats are not very healthy because they foul the air and make numerous contributions to water pollution. Developments are dominated by gas-belching automobiles, gas stations with leaky underground storage tanks, and asphalt roads and parking lots. Residential suburbs shed megatons of lawn fertilizers and pesticides into local streams and lakes. All these relatively uncontrolled chemical releases make cities and suburbs into sources of land, water, and air pollution, which damage both human health and livelihoods. Urban wastes come back to haunt us through our air and water and also come floating onto our beaches.

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