Misplacing the Blame for Our Troubles on 'Flat, Not Tall' Spaces

Culture:The anti-sprawl technocrats crave 'density,' which they believe is more efficient and more interesting.


If Al Gore denounced soccer moms, told us everything was better in the good old days and demanded that we let his friends redesign our lives to fit their morality, you might think he'd gone over to the religious right. You'd be wrong, however.

Welcome to the war on sprawl, otherwise known as the suburbs.

Gore describes the problem this way: "Acre upon acre of asphalt have transformed what were once mountain clearings and congenial villages into little more than massive parking lots. The ill-thought-out sprawl hastily developed around our nation's cities has turned what used to be friendly, easy suburbs into lonely cul-de-sacs, so distant from the city center that if a family wants to buy an affordable house they have to drive so far that a parent gets home too late to read a bedtime story."

This tale raises many questions: How did those houses in "easy suburbs" catapult themselves to become "lonely cul-de-sacs" reachable only by hours on the road? Why did that transformation make housing more expensive? How early do those kids go to bed?

Gore is clearer on one thing. The problem is that "we've built flat, not tall," putting houses and offices on inexpensive outlying land instead of packing them tighter and tighter in crowded, expensive cities. "Flat, not tall" is the definition of "sprawl." The anti-sprawl critique is that houses with yards and businesses with ample parking are ruining the country.

If you listen only to Gore's speeches, you'd think that the anti-sprawl crusade is about magically making all the nasty trade-offs in life go away. Abandon "ill-planned and ill-coordinated development," and houses will be cheap everywhere. No one will ever sit in traffic. We will all enjoy "livability."

It's a myth, of course. But attacking "sprawl" is a way of blaming an impersonal force for the trade-offs individuals have made in their lives, notably the decisions to work long hours and buy elbow room. The anti-sprawl campaign simultaneously indulges baby boomers' guilt and excuses their life choices, treating them as victims rather than actors. It tells voters that they're bad parents who are destroying the Earth, but then says that it's not their fault.

Harried commuters just want fewer traffic jams. But anti-sprawl technocrats have something more grandiose in mind. They want everyone to live the way I do: in an urban townhouse off a busy street, with no yard but plenty of shops and restaurants within walking distance. Their "smart growth" planning means confining family life to crowded cities so that the countryside can be left open for wildlife, recreation and a few farmers. They crave "density," which they believe is more efficient and more interesting.

Thus a study highlighted on the Sierra Club's Web site celebrates multi-unit housing: "Sharing walls shares and saves heat. . . . The single-family houses consume four times as much land for streets and roads and 10 times as much for the houses themselves. The single-family houses use nearly six times as much metal and concrete, the mining of which threatens many of our natural areas."

The ideal is San Francisco's densities of 50 to 100 units per acre. Crowding is good. Density means more traffic–more cars in a smaller space, plus no new road construction. Given enough pain, anti-sprawlers hope to get people out of their cars. They favor inflexible rail systems and other mass transit. "As traffic congestion builds, alternative travel modes will become more attractive" is how Minnesota's Twin Cities Metropolitan Council justified a decision not to build any more roads for the next 20 years.

"Smart-growthers" have no sympathy for suburban family life, which they find wasteful and sterile. And they have no patience for the way contemporary cities have evolved to spread out jobs and houses, to build "flat not tall" in response to the desire for privacy and personal space. They disapprove not merely of the congestion generated when people flock to a new area, but of the reduction in congestion in the city created at the same time.

The anti-sprawl campaign seeks to impose a static, uniform future through nostalgic appeals to an idealized past. It does indeed have much in common with the least tolerant elements of the religious right. It is just less honest.