Sprawl for Me, But Not for Thee


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 MilwaukeeJournal Sentinel. Wisconsinites were asked where they would like to live. Only 6percent said in a major city. The largest group, 44 percent, said in ruralareas; the second largest group, 27 percent, said they preferred thesuburbs. At first glance, one might think that the Clinton/Gore campaign topromote "livable communities" (i.e., densely developed communities) would beresisted by a majority voters.

But look at what the survey went on to ask. "If you could controlthings,where would you prefer development to occur?" The most popular response (34percent) was "in a major city"! Another question: "Do you favor zoning lawsthat would encourage communities to have smaller houses on smaller lotswithin walking distance of shopping and work?" Yes, said 76 percent ofWisconsinites. But when the survey asked, "Would you be interested inliving in such a development?" 65 percent said no.

The Milwaukee Journal's findings are typical of survey resultsthroughoutthe nation. Most people clearly prefer living in suburbia and exurbia butare opposed to other people living in suburbia and exurbia. That is, theirideal arrangement is to get into the castle and pull up the drawbridge theminute they cross the moat.

This is particularly true of people who already live in low-densitycommunities. The campaign against more roads and more development reflectsan attempt to preserve suburbia and exurbia from "invasion" and to preventthe areas from morphing into the communities that the inhabitants have justescaped.

This "I got mine, Jack!" attitude runs rampant through suburbiatoday,coloring the opinions of suburbanite Republicans and Democrats, liberals andconservatives. Conduct a poll on whether the government should promote masstransit, and 70 percent or so of respondents will reliably respond yes. Askthose same people whether they regularly use mass transit or would if itwere more available, and the same number (or even larger) respond no. Surewe need buses and trains, they say . . . for the other guy.

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

So are respondents hoping that the state will charmingly talkfarmers outofselling to developers? Of course not. They're hoping that the state willban development in farm country and to heck with the farmer who loses achance to retire comfortably by selling his back forty.

This attitude is nothing new in suburbia. Twenty years ago, in hisclassicbook The Environmental Protection Hustle, Bernard Frieden, a professor ofurban planning at MIT, blasted the alliance between suburban homeowners andanti-sprawl activists to restrict development. The anti-sprawl crusade,said Frieden, was founded on "phony issues" so as to "legitimize arrogantpublic 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, theleftperversely cheers Portland's anti-growth polices despite the fact that theyhave increased housing costs, which reduces housing prospects for the poor. "Hurrah!" say the fortunateincumbent homeowners who just happen to have bought their property beforethe new controls were put in place.

Unfortunately, the people most harmed by "smart growth" policies arepoorer,younger Americans, who seldom vote and certainly don't vote in thecommunities that are busy walling them out. The stampede to harvest votesfrom soccer moms, however, will not be denied. If you're looking for aworking definition of "unholy alliance," then this is it.