Friday, June 22, 2012

Arieff On Sprawl

Pry my 2-hour commute from my cold, dead hands...
“Sprawl … It’s the American dream unfolding before your eyes.”

Patterson’s rousing stump speech for sprawl is emblematic of how we as a culture are far too invested in a vision of the American dream that doesn’t make sense in the 21st century. Over the past 30 years we’ve stripped away the supporting mechanisms of sprawl but have continued to create it.

We’ve built more houses than we’ve needed — and built them farther away from jobs. This has led to longer commutes, which has created more traffic. In response, we built more highways, increasing fuel consumption and, as transportation planners acknowledge, doing little if anything to reduce traffic. It’s a vicious, seemingly endless cycle, and at its core is the notion that the American dream can exist only within the framework of the single-family home on a large lot.

Indeed, we’ve become so fixated on this as the sole delivery mechanism of that American dream that we’ve spent a disproportionate amount of our collective energies (home-) improving it without considering meaningful alternative visions — or devoting at least a smidgen of attention to what’s outside the front door or down the block. Everything in our culture today reinforces this idea of home as castle (or fortress) rather than home as part of a larger whole (i.e., neighborhood). We need to find our way to the latter view, and part of that means finding a better way to talk about it.

Houses were too big, too isolated, too generic, too hard to maintain. Or they were designed for the quintessential nuclear family that exists more in our cultural imagination than in reality. Few homes offered options for aging in place, for returning college kids or elderly parents, or even decent home office space. Would-be residents lamented the lack of amenities like a café or a playground within walking distance in master-planned communities of 5,000, 10,000 or even 40,000 homes (!), an absence often explained away with “a community of this size couldn’t support it.”

People have begun to wake up to the fact that the more time spent in the car means poorer health and less time with their families — and they’re seeking shorter commutes. They’re interested in smaller homes that are easier to maintain (and less expensive to heat and cool). Young millennials and older baby boomers are also showing less and less interest in car ownership and a corresponding greater interest in public transit, walking and biking. And again, it’s likely that we’re all less interested in continuing to discuss “urban” and “suburban” as dueling polar opposites — and more interested in recognizing there’s mutual benefit to some overlap.

The aforementioned changes point to the fact that a paradigmatic shift in our concept of the American dream is underway.

And yet … there are still those who are having none of it. And they are a vocal and often breathtakingly well-funded minority. For them, the sprawl that characterized the years leading up to the financial crisis remains a dream to strive for. Any threat to the McMansion of yore is equated to “feudal socialism” (I kid you not). And these opponents not only excel at mobilizing the troops but at mastering the message. Take a look at the rhetoric of, say, the Texas Republican party, which recently passed “Resist 21” in opposition to Agenda 21, the United Nations’ sustainable communities strategy adopted in 1992. Taken together, proclaims Resist 21, those strategies aspire to “the comprehensive control of all our population and its reduction to sustainable levels and the socialization of all activities by their relocation to highly restricted urban settlement centers.”
The American Dream: Phase II. Allison Arieff, New York Times.

"...We as a culture are far too invested in a vision of the American dream that doesn’t make sense in the 21st century." Boy, if that isn't our epitaph.

I particularly like her description of the American house as a fortress. So you can sit in your oversized  plywood castle and have everything delivered to you in your digital fortress like a modern-day mad prince. What kind of culture builds it's homes as fortresses from the outside world? Certainly not a culture that one would expect to hold together in hard times. And our balkinization along income lines has led to not only the lowest social mobility in the developed world, but one in which classes never even see one another, and so can be played off against each other by the elites while they grab what's left. Truly sad.


  1. I remember working in Indonesia in the seventies building oil rigs for a US company (I'm an Australian) and asking my boss, a lovely gentle man, what he would do when he got back to the States with all the money he'd made. His answer: "I'm going to buy a ranch as far away from every other bastard as I can get".

  2. And that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Americans. I remember meeting an Australian on the bus when I was in Seattle, and she was amazed at how many homeless people there were and how we just let them wander the street and sleep rough. She couldn't believe a modern Western nation would allow that.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.