Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's a Sprawl World After All

It's a Sprawl World After All: the Human Cost of Unplanned Growth -- and Visions of a Better Future
©  2005 Douglas E. Morris
245 pages

Shortly after the Second World War, the United States completely changed its approach to urbanism.  Abandoning concentrated city centers, the nation instead emphasized outward, horizontal growth, all low-density.  The automobile allowed cities to expand far beyond their original boundaries, and what technology allowed, government mandated. What followed is the scene that every American is familiar with: sprawl, the great mat of highways, housing developments, commercial strips, and office parks that goes on and on, seemingly without it. Sprawl has profoundly shaped American culture since then. It promised the solitude and beauty of the countryside coupled with the many attractions of the cities, but there is no action without an unintended consequence...and suburbia's are many. Suburbia has long had its critics, and a growing body of critical literature is gaining in strength and pointing out the variety of failures in the suburban plan, chief among them its financial unviability.   Douglas E. Morris takes a different tack, however, focusing on how this way of living impacts our quality of life. In particular, Morris sees sprawl as the chief destructor of community (which Robert Putnam hinted at in his Bowling Alone) and the reason why the United States is so fantastically violent as compared to other developed nations. While his account is not as meaty as the subject deserves,  he offers considerable food for thought, especially to those who have never considered that the environment in which they live might influence their happiness.

Morris' idea is that communities are defined by a sense of place: just as a family lives in the same house, so too does a community need to be centered about the same area. This is a need at odds with the design path Americans have chosen, which favors widespread expansion across the land. After over a half-century of this kind of development, American society has not only lost its focal points; it has become so diffuse as to lose cohesion altogether. Our lives are no longer connected, and this is a situation that social creatures such as ourselves cannot tolerate. Before sprawl, people walked the streets with one another; they saw their neighbors at the local stores.They congregated in the shared spaces -- the parks, the nearby cafes. Now we lie in homes distant from one another; we travel alone in our cars to work and on errands. We now travel to huge box stores where we are strangers to the hundreds of other people present -- where we are customers, not patrons. Robbed of the opportunities to fellowship with one another, we console ourselves with television, the Internet, and the creation of what Morris calls "niche communities" like book clubs. Because our lives no longer connect us to one another as a matter of course, we must purposely arrange meetings with one another. Niche communities hardly fill the void, however, and the result is chronic feelings of isolation, of depression and loneliness. Because our lives no longer connect to one another, the behaviors we used to improve those connections, like manners and civility, are lapsing...and the culture of anonymity allows violence impulses to go unchecked, to grow into violent actions.

In addition to this, the new auto dependency marginalizes great portions of the population: the elderly, who when their vision fails cannot go anywhere without assistance; young people, who are forced to rely on their parents for transportation anywhere and are robbed of opportunities to act like autonomous individuals, a necessary part of learning to be an adult; and the poor, who are separated from job opportunities if they happen to be carless, which is quite likely considering the cost of maintaining an automobile.

Morris points out that not only is the United States drastically more violent than any other developed nation, but the usual factors cited for this violence -- television, video games, and violent music -- are present in much safer nations. He doesn't mention America's unique relationship with gun ownership, though, and I'd question whether the saturation of violent music and television is the same in other nations. How much more television do Americans watch than Germans, for instance?

The section outlining the problems of sprawl is disappointingly short: a mere 92 pages. The rest of the book contains solutions for creating a more fulfilling life, which I did appreciate.This section's solution range from individual measures (creating niche communities, being mindful of others, emphasizing the need for manners, volunteering) to community-oriented actions, like removing zoning laws which mandate sprawl, increasing the gas tax to force people to confront the true cost of cars, and adjusting tax policies (for instance, not taxing farmers based on how much their land would be worth if it were developed commercially).  He also includes several lengthy appendices, one of which is a history of sprawl.

I'm left with mixed feelings after reading It's a Sprawl World After All. The subject fascinates me and demands more attention, especially considering the current state of America's economy, finances,  and national spirit.  The lengthy section how we might begin to rectify this sorry situation is commendable, and if someone is completely new to the subject I think it more than adequate to prompt them to think about their own experiences in the light of its criticism. I never realized how fulfilling living in a community could be until I did it -- and didn't realize what I had until I moved away again. Morris' account could provide this perspective to people who haven't experienced it for themselves. Although I would have preferred a more thorough approach, as Morris seems hurried, it's definitely worth reading for Americans. In a few weeks I'll see how it stacks up against Suburban Nation.


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