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See an index of Atlantic articles on sprawl.

Related feature:

Interview: "Towards a New Urbanism" (April 26, 2000)
The authors of Suburban Nation tell Gore and Bush to listen up -- the antidote to sprawl is good old-fashioned town planning

Previously in Politics & Prose:

Tagging After Teddy (March 22, 2000)
Christopher Caldwell on why Teddy Roosevelt -- "an egomaniacal weirdo" -- is an unlikely hero to both Republicans and Democrats.

Bush vs. Gore (March 8, 2000)
Scenes from the first presidential debate of the 2000 election campaign. By Jack Beatty.

The Populists' Progress (February 24, 2000)
Right-wing populists, like Austria's Jörg Haider, are gaining ground in Europe. Is America next? Christopher Caldwell looks at populism on both continents.

Reform Politics! (Then What?) (February 16, 2000)
Does John McCain have an agenda beyond reforming the political process? What, Jack Beatty asks, would a McCain Administration do?

The Electorate Bobby Built (January 26, 2000)
A new biography paints Robert F. Kennedy as a Machiavellian monster. How then, Christopher Caldwell asks, did he get to be a liberal icon?

Sidewalk Economics (January 26, 2000)
Mitchell Duneier's Sidewalk, a new study of street vendors on Manhattan's Sixth Avenue, turns assumptions about race, class, and social values upside down. Charles Davis reviews.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Related features:

"Home From Nowhere," by James Howard Kunstler (The Atlantic, September 1996)
Can the momentum of sprawl be halted? America's zoning laws, intended to control the baneful effects of industry, have mutated, in the view of one architecture critic, into a system that corrodes civic life, outlaws the human scale, defeats tradition and authenticity, and confounds our yearning for an everyday environment worthy of our affection.

Flashback: "The Godfather of Sprawl" (Atlantic Unbound, May 26, 1999)
On the seventieth anniversary of Jones Beach, the legacy of Robert Moses is as controversial as ever. Atlantic articles by Moses from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s offer a glimpse into the mind of this father of the postmodern American landscape.

Interview: "Landscape Artist" (Atlantic Unbound, July 14, 1999)
Witold Rybczynski, the author of A Clearing in the Distance, talks about Frederick Law Olmsted, the importance of Central Park, and the shape of our urban and suburban landscapes.

The Uses of Sprawl

In Suburban Nation, the founders of the New Urbanism movement point to how Democrats can reap the benefits of the sprawl they helped to create

by Christopher Caldwell

April 6, 2000

That American suburbia can look sterile and uniform is uncontroversial. But far worse, according to Miami-based architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, is the life that goes on there. Most modern "communities" are highway-bound islands where nothing pleasant or interesting ever happens. They are segregated pods devoted to shopping, working, or sleeping, all of them dead half the day.

The new towns Duany and Plater-Zyberk have designed -- like Seaside in Florida and Kentlands in Maryland -- work on different principles. By planning for commons, narrow streets, storefronts on the sidewalk, and a mix of apartments, mansions, playgrounds, and retail stores, Duany and Plater-Zyberk try to create old fashioned neighborhoods. They elaborate the principles of this "New Urbanism" in their manifesto Suburban Nation, written with Jeff Speck. It is revolutionary for reasons that are as much political as architectural.

This book attacks sprawl, not suburbia. The two are not synonyms. "Sprawl" is any disorienting landscape built for cars, not people, where everything, from getting the kids to school to picking up a quart of milk, requires a drive. Such areas can be in cities, on their periphery, or in the boondocks.

Focusing on sprawl lets the authors break a phony ideological stalemate that has endured for decades. Battles over suburbia typically pit left-wing environmentalists (and urban snobs) against right-wing developers (and suburbanites seeking cheapo housing). Americans often agree with the left's position that the suburban landscape is aesthetically repugnant. But they agree even more with the right's viewpoint that attempts to have the government regulate the suburbs are repugnant to Americans' libertarian sensibilities. On balance, better to let our metropolises grow naturally.

The authors think both sides are deluded.

Left-wingers paint with too broad a brush. Not all suburbs run roughshod over the environment, and not all of them lack for community. More important, the typical suburban house -- inside, at least -- is a splendid place to live. "Dollar for dollar," Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck write, "no other society approaches the United States in terms of the number of square feet per person, the number of baths per bedroom, the number of appliances in the kitchen, the quality of the climate control, and the convenience of the garage. The American private realm is simply a superior product." Nor do the authors buy the left's aesthetic argument. "The problem with suburbia is not that it is ugly," they write. "The problem with suburbia is that, in spite of all its regulatory controls, it is not functional." The houses themselves are fine. But when they're laid out in the form of sprawl, they waste resources and undermine everything that people traditionally move to suburbia for. Kids don't walk to school with their chums; they sit in traffic jams with their frazzled parents. There's nothing to walk to at all, except streets that look exactly like your own. Those too old or too sick to drive are ejected from suburban "communities."

Right-wingers make a more fundamental mistake in seeing the blank landscape of sprawl as the result of laissez-faire. Sprawl is as much a matter of regimentation as of anarchy. It was shaped by three villains you'd hear invoked at any Republican fundraiser:

Government subsidies. Since World War Two federal mortgage guarantees have subsidized home building by taking much of the risk out of buying a new home. The IRS's mortgage-interest tax deduction covers the cost of borrowing for buyers -- but not renters. Home ownership is undeniably a good thing, but these well-meaning incentives fostered sprawl. Meanwhile, the Interstate Highway Act (and the trillions spent on roads since) gave a free transport network to suburbanites willing to endure traffic, paid for by starving the public-transportation system non-suburbanites rely on. The pipe that gets laid and the asphalt that gets poured to equip new suburban neighborhoods is another freebie, subsidized by the tax base in the older, more compact parts of town.

Regulation. Ubiquitous zoning laws made life more pleasant when they separated houses from soot-belching factories and stinking slaughterhouses. Today, all they do is strand people in isolated cul-de-sacs, segregate residential blocks ruthlessly by income, and replace downtowns with shopping-mall parking lots. Besides which, zoning laws are "overcomplicated and vulnerable to influence-peddling," according to Duany and Plater-Zyberk.

Litigation. Engineers design towns according to stringent codes that favor cars over people. Residents who want to build something livable get sued. In Dade County, where the authors work, local firemen's unions threatened to sue if streets weren't built wide enough for the largest fire-trucks to make a 180-degree turn. The result? Everyone lives on a highway.

In short, Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck claim that sprawl is the product not of the free market but of vested interests, central planners, and intrusive government. We've thus misunderstood the battle over suburban development. It doesn't pit a messy libertarian regime (sprawl) versus a prettier authoritarian one (cutesy building codes). It merely pits two unsatisfactory, knee-jerk visions of government against one another (Republicans: suburbs good; Democrats: suburbs bad). If this reading is correct, then new opportunities should be opening up for adventurous politicians. But which ones?

At times the authors sound decidedly conservative. They link modernist architecture to totalitarian regimes. They back gentrification, provided it occurs naturally. ("The cry of 'gentrification' is less often sounded by citizens who fear displacement than by politicians who suspect that racial and economic integration will undermine their power base.") And they defend their Kentlands development by bragging that home values are going through the roof.

Too bad the Republicans aren't listening. The GOP's old message is weakening in the 'burbs, which are now home to two thirds of voters. In this economy, we have a surfeit of what Republicans traditionally offer (private luxury) and a dearth of what Democrats increasingly promise (a sense of community). Bill Clinton is the first presidential candidate since LBJ to fight Republicans to a draw in the suburbs. One could even argue (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck don't) that sprawl's lack of community spurs voter demands that the government provide it, through Clintonesque programs. Republicans somehow need to make themselves the allies of suburban communities. The authors' analysis points to ways they could do this. The GOP's plans for tort reform and deregulation -- which up to now they've peddled almost exclusively to corporate donors -- could appeal to suburbanites, too, if Republicans made the effort to understand them.

But for now, Republican opportunities remain theoretical. Democrats and their allies are poised to reap the real political bonanza from sprawl, for three reasons:

First, they know the issue. Al Gore has been attacking sprawl ever since two of its bored inhabitants murdered their classmates at Littleton High School. The left is even proving adept at teasing Reaganesque appeals out of the sprawl issue. The Sierra Club recently issued a pamphlet subtitled "How uncontrolled sprawl increases your property taxes and threatens your quality of life."

Second, while there's a libertarian side to Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck's vision -- overturning zoning regulations that segregate land use, for instance -- there's a regulatory agenda behind it, too. Democrats are bound to be more comfortable with establishing federal codes for land use around transportation stops, or a "mandate for balanced resources among school systems," to take two of the authors' proposals.

But third, and most important, is the Republicans' generalized lack of vitality on issues of interest to American voters -- a listlessness so total that Democrats are increasingly capable of winning votes on both sides of the big issues. It started in 1996, when Bill Clinton won the gratitude of suburbanites for gutting the welfare entitlement -- and then swept inner cities by promising to protect what was left. Today Hillary Clinton's most loyal allies, the teachers' unions, push the prescription drug Ritalin on millions of schoolchildren, while Hillary poses as spokesperson for those who think Ritalin is overprescribed. Al Gore emerges from a campaign-finance scandal as a leading apostle of campaign-finance reform.

And so it may be in suburbia. Democratic-style regulation may have caused a lot of the problems of sprawl. But that doesn't mean the public will entrust the solutions to Republicans.

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Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He writes a weekly Washington column for New York Press and is a regular contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

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