Suburban sprawl threatens the viability of our cities, the health of our environment and even the viability of commercial agriculture. There are a lot of commentators making that case, but many of them do it from the viewpoint of an urbanite, attacking the fundamentally anti-urban culture of the suburbs. This is a self-defeating approach to the problem.
It’s easy to make fun of suburban development. Here’s James Kunstler, a past master of the art: “We drive up and down the gruesome… suburban boulevards of commerce, and we’re overwhelmed at the… awesome, stupefying ugliness of absolutely everything in sight…”
And an excerpt from his blog: “…one of the reasons that Americans are so anxious to get away on a holiday weekend… is because we did such a perfect job the past fifty years turning our home-places into utterly unrewarding, graceless nowheres, where the private realm of the beige houses is saturated in monotony.”
Kunstler, and other rhetoric similar to his in numerous books, articles and film documentaries, get a lot of readers and viewers, because roughly 20 to 30 per cent of North Americans agree with him, and a few others love to hate him. However, though I agree with both quotations, they represent a really unhelpful way to combat the environmental, physical and social damage caused by sprawl, because of the other 70-80 per cent. If we’re serious about dealing with sprawl, we shouldn’t seek to abolish conventional suburbs, for three reasons:
We can’t. True, suburban commercial strips are surpassingly ugly. Stand at the corner of Dakota and St. Mary’s Road in Winnipeg, or any of many other, similar intersections, and do a 360-degree turn. Unless you happen to catch a glimpse of a tree, you won’t see a single thing that isn’t ugly.
But the suburbs aren’t just the ugliness of commercial strips and the monotony of residential districts, they are also places where people can have homes on quiet streets, surrounded by greenery once the trees have matured, and where, rightly or wrongly, they feel safe. They can’t walk anywhere, but they have a two-car garage, and they can travel where they want in privacy, to the accompaniment of their favourite music.
This is the life a majority of the buyers of residential real estate seek, and that is unlikely to change, even if the rising price of oil forces them to trade their gas guzzlers in for electric cars, and forces a reduction in the number of trips they take. And suppose circumstances do force them to abandon suburbs: Hostile rhetoric will have had little or nothing to do with it.
We shouldn’t. Spitting in the majority’s eye is a good way to sell books, but it’s political suicide. You won’t get better legislation by ridiculing people whose support you need. Try persuasion, try to modify behaviour, try to calm fears of change.
Above all, consider that diversity is a bedrock reality of 21st Century life. The physical and social mobility of the world we live in demands a politics of accommodation and compromise. Rhetorical bludgeoning is not so much wrong as it is wrong-headed. It won’t work.
We don’t have to. We need cities to be more densely settled, and we need more mixing of residential, commercial and light industrial developments, in order to reduce our dependence on automobiles; stop stranding disabled people, the young, the old, and people who can’t afford cars; bolster the viability of rapid transit, and tread more lightly on the earth. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have single-family homes, and it doesn’t even mean we can’t have exclusively residential districts – though it wouldn’t hurt to try to persuade people that a restaurant within walking distance won’t necessarily destroy the value of their houses!
So what should we do? Going into the details would take me far beyond the scope of a blog entry, but for starters, here are some modest suggestions:
Put a stop to leapfrogging. It’s expensive to extend roads and municipal services past empty fields to more subdivisions beyond. Fill the empty fields first.
Locate higher-density developments where they will support the transit system. For example, don’t put isolated apartment buildings in the middle of single-family residential neighbourhoods. Locate them along transit routes.
Deal with the free-rider problem. People want roads and municipal services extended to wherever they happen to want to live, but they don’t want to pay the real cost. Anyone ought to be able to see that that’s not right.
Don’t make it so hard for developers to locate houses near stores and workplaces. There’s a good market for such neighbourhoods, and a major obstacle to its exploitation is rigid bureaucratic regulations.