Sprawl for Me, But Not for Thee

April 26, 2000 • Commentary

Perhaps the oddest political coalition in America today is that of anti‐​suburban intellectuals and suburban “slow growth” activists. The two movements are allied in a campaign to combat suburban sprawl and promote strict governmental controls over land use and communal organization (controls termed “smart growth” by their advocates). So why would suburbanites make common cause with those who loathe both their communities and their way of life, who sneer at their tacky, soul‐​less neighborhoods? Because both factions seek the same goal: the end of migration from the major cities.

Consider the survey results published last month by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Wisconsinites were asked where they would like to live. Only 6 percent said in a major city. The largest group, 44 percent, said in rural areas; the second largest group, 27 percent, said they preferred the suburbs. At first glance, one might think that the Clinton/​Gore campaign to promote “livable communities” (i.e., densely developed communities) would be resisted by a majority voters.

But look at what the survey went on to ask. “If you could control things, where would you prefer development to occur?” The most popular response (34 percent) was “in a major city”! Another question: “Do you favor zoning laws that would encourage communities to have smaller houses on smaller lots within walking distance of shopping and work?” Yes, said 76 percent of Wisconsinites. But when the survey asked, “Would you be interested in living in such a development?” 65 percent said no.

The Milwaukee Journal’s findings are typical of survey results throughout the nation. Most people clearly prefer living in suburbia and exurbia but are opposed to other people living in suburbia and exurbia. That is, their ideal arrangement is to get into the castle and pull up the drawbridge the minute they cross the moat.

This is particularly true of people who already live in low‐​density communities. The campaign against more roads and more development reflects an attempt to preserve suburbia and exurbia from “invasion” and to prevent the areas from morphing into the communities that the inhabitants have just escaped.

This “I got mine, Jack!” attitude runs rampant through suburbia today, coloring the opinions of suburbanite Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Conduct a poll on whether the government should promote mass transit, and 70 percent or so of respondents will reliably respond yes. Ask those same people whether they regularly use mass transit or would if it were more available, and the same number (or even larger) respond no. Sure we need buses and trains, they say … for the other guy.

Or consider the related question of scenic pastures outside suburban and exurban windows. “How important is it to maintain farming in Wisconsin?” the Milwaukee paper asked. “Very important,” said 73 percent of Wisconsinites. And no wonder; farmland is the reason that a drive through Vermont is more charming than a drive through Connecticut. But to “Do you approve of using tax revenue to pay farmers not to develop their land?” 62 percent replied no.

So are respondents hoping that the state will charmingly talk farmers out of selling to developers? Of course not. They’re hoping that the state will ban development in farm country and to heck with the farmer who loses a chance to retire comfortably by selling his back forty.

This attitude is nothing new in suburbia. Twenty years ago, in his classic book The Environmental Protection Hustle, Bernard Frieden, a professor of urban planning at MIT, blasted the alliance between suburban homeowners and anti‐​sprawl activists to restrict development. The anti‐​sprawl crusade, said Frieden, was founded on “phony issues” so as to “legitimize arrogant public policies designed to keep the average citizen from using the land, while preserving the social and fiscal advantages of the influential few.”

But they don’t make “progressives” like Frieden anymore. Today, the left perversely cheers Portland’s anti‐​growth polices despite the fact that they have increased housing costs, which reduces housing prospects for the poor. “Hurrah!” say the fortunate incumbent homeowners who just happen to have bought their property before the new controls were put in place.

Unfortunately, the people most harmed by “smart growth” policies are poorer, younger Americans, who seldom vote and certainly don’t vote in the communities that are busy walling them out. The stampede to harvest votes from soccer moms, however, will not be denied. If you’re looking for a working definition of “unholy alliance,” then this is it.

About the Authors