The Pleasantville Solution

The war on "sprawl" promises "livability" but delivers repression, intolerance--and more traffic.


If Bill Clinton and Al Gore denounced soccer moms, told us everything was better in the good old days, and demanded that we let their friends redesign our lives to fit their sense of morality, you might think they'd thrown away their political ambitions and joined the religious right. You would, however, be wrong.

Welcome to the war on "sprawl"–otherwise known as the suburbs.

Gore described the problem this way in a much-praised September speech: "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."

It's a bizarre tale, raising many questions: How exactly did those houses in "easy suburbs" catapult themselves miles away 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? (The average commute remains no more than 20 to 30 minutes.)

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 in fact the definition of "sprawl." The anti-sprawl critique is that houses with yards, shopping centers with ample parking, and commuters who drive to work are ruining the country.

"In too many places across America, the beauty of local vistas has been degraded by decades of ill-planned and ill-coordinated development," Gore said in January. "Plan well, and you have a community that nurtures commerce and private life. Plan badly, and you have what so many of us suffer from first-hand: gridlock, sprawl, and that uniquely modern evil of all-too-little time." (The breathtaking conceit that "all-too-little time" is a "uniquely modern evil" simultaneously exhibits great insight into baby boomers' psychology and gross ignorance of history and literature–the perfect combination, perhaps, for a Gore 2000 campaign.)

"Sprawl" is a strange issue with which to launch a presidential race: City planning is not a constitutional responsibility of the federal government, much less of the chief executive. And most voters prefer living in the suburbs. Yet Gore thinks he can win the White House on a platform that calls for the government to force everyone to live in townhouses and take the train to work. All he has to do is stick to the right rhetoric. If no one pays attention to the programs behind the slogans, the plan might just work.

After all, this moral crusade isn't plagued by peskily telegenic intellectuals who say what they mean. Its crusaders deliberately use phrases, such as "quality of life" and "livability," that mean one thing to them and something entirely different to the general public.

If you listen only to Gore's speeches, you'd think that the anti-sprawl campaign is about magically making all the nasty tradeoffs in life go away. Abandon "ill-planned and ill-coordinated development," and houses will be cheap everywhere. No one will ever sit in traffic. By reducing commuting costs, we'll even have more money to send those once-neglected kids to college (a point the vice president includes in every speech). We will all enjoy "quality of life" and "livability." Who could be against that?

Attacking "sprawl" is a way of blaming an evil, impersonal force for the tradeoffs individuals have made in their lives–most prominently the choices to work long hours and to 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. The problem is "sprawl," which can be prevented by better planning.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who is always looking for ways to rehabilitate technocracy, explains the issue this way: "Advocates of unplanned growth cleave to the idea of `spontaneous order,' the view that the sum of all our individual decisions creates a better, more interesting and more exciting life….The alternative view is that a slew of individual choices taken together can create circumstances few of us like. Many move to the suburbs in search of larger, more affordable homes with yards and, often, better schools. Yet when so many people make the same decision, the suburban dream gives way to those choked roads, crowded schools and the loss of the very green spaces that inspired the journey beyond city limits…. Smart-growthers argue that better planning might get individuals more of what they want."

To paraphrase the president, Dionne's conclusion depends on what the meaning of "they" is. If "they" are the individuals who moved to the suburbs, then Dionne's "smart-growthers" are engaging in the Big Lie. Proposals to slash road building, require denser construction, and punish private auto commuting will leave suburbanites with more traffic congestion and less chance for private green space. There are no "affordable homes with yards" in the smart-growth utopia.

If "they" refers to "smart-growthers" themselves, however, then Dionne's argument is accurate. They will get more of what they want: more multiunit housing, more traffic congestion, more collectively owned open land, more fixed-rail transit. "Smart growth" means confining family life to dense cities with little privacy so that the countryside can be left open for wildlife, recreation, and a few farmers.

At a recent conference of high-tech executives in Austin, Texas, local environmentalist Robin Rather attacked sprawl for degrading the area's quality of life, threatening its ability to compete for employees with such "hell holes" as Los Angeles, Boston, and San Jose. "Sprawl is the number one enemy of the environment," she declared, rallying attendees to endorse "transportation and mobility measures that reduce sprawl."

It was clear from the conference, as it is in Gore's speeches, that what listeners really want is less traffic congestion. Austinites are unhappy that their 15-minute commutes have stretched to 30 minutes as the city has grown. And I know enough people who've moved from California to Austin to know what "quality of life" means to the transplants Austin businesses are eager to attract: Austin isn't boring, like a lot of other small cities, but you can still buy a big house for around $200,000, compared to $750,000 or more in Silicon Valley or Los Angeles (where the yard will be much smaller). That means, among other things, that it takes only one professional income to support a family in a comfortable suburban lifestyle.

The anti-sprawlers have something entirely different in mind when they talk about dealing with traffic or protecting quality of life. They want to pile everyone on top of each other, make traffic as slow and congested as possible to discourage driving, and keep housing out of farmland. Such anti-sprawlers 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. (Portland, Oregon's Metro planning authority, among the most influential "smart growth" authorities, has in fact acknowledged that Los Angeles "displays an investment pattern we desire to replicate," with its high density and low per capita road mileage.) That lifestyle appeals to cosmopolitan professionals with no kids and no particular desire for peace and quiet, but it is not how most Americans want to live.

To anti-sprawl technocrats, the single-family home is almost as evil as the automobile. Thus a study highlighted on the Sierra Club's smart-growth Web site, "The Conservation Potential of Compact Growth," celebrates multiunit housing: "Sharing walls shares and saves heat. Exposing less wall and roof area to the sun reduces summer air conditioning loads…. The single family houses consume 4 times as much land for streets and roads and 10 times as much for the houses themselves. The single family houses use nearly 6 times as much metal and concrete, the mining of which threatens many of our natural areas." The study's ideal city is San Francisco, with densities of 50 to 100 units per acre, but it also praises the wonders of New York City, which "even with its bright lights and cold climate…uses half as much energy per capita as the US average."

This conflict is not, as Dionne would have it, simply a matter of unintended consequences. It is a conflict of visions. Smart-growthers have no sympathy for suburban family life, which they find wasteful and sterile. 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.

And they hate the automobile, which they view more as a source of sin than as a mode of transporation. Rather than reduce traffic, they seek to increase it, blocking new roads and putting transportation money into unused mass transit, especially rail. Given enough pain, they hope, people will get out of their automobiles. "As traffic congestion builds, alternative travel modes will become more attractive" is how Minnesota's Twin Cities Metropolitan Council put it, justifying a decision not to build any roads for the next 20 years. Congestion "signals positive urban development," notes Portland's Metro. (See "Dense Thinkers," January.)

"Smart growth" encourages transportation priorities set by noisy political action groups, with no consideration of demand. The pressure works. "We expect a 100 percent increase in our population by 2020, but our plan calls for only a 33 percent increase in highways," brags Texas state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, chairman of the Austin Transportation Study, which has developed a 25-year plan for the area. Responding to a Sierra Club critic, he says ATS has also "set aside 15 percent of our discretionary funds for bicycle and pedestrian projects although only 5 percent of the adult public reports using those methods to get to school or work."

The anti-sprawl campaign isn't just a bunch of slogans. It's a vision of one best way to live, and the determination to impose that way by political action. Like the black-and-white establishment in the movie Pleasantville, the anti-sprawlers are upset with the changes unleashed by other people's choices. And as in the movie, they intend to convene the right sorts of people to pass "democratic" regulations to keep everything "pleasant"–with no room for deviation. Instead of banning double beds and colored paint, as the movie's establishment did, they'll ban free parking and new single-family houses. They, too, will make sure there's nothing "outside Pleasantville," no homes outside their jurisdiction or control.

William McDonough, dean of the University of Virginia school of architecture and a leading advocate of "smart growth" planning, describes an example of the process. In Williamsburg, he had "140 citizens working at 10 different tables to articulate 10 different plans….The plan that we ended up with is their plan….You now have 150 citizens who are key players in each sector walking around with the same mental image of what the plan is. If somebody says, `What's the plan?,' they can say, `Well, that's going to be our night life center and this is going to be a place for a series of nice five-minute walks and here's our transportation system.'"

In other words, well-connected "key players," with the time and patience to sit in meetings, will decide just what the future will look like. The other 12,000 or so residents of Williamsburg have no say in the matter.

The anti-sprawl campaign is about telling Americans how they should live and work, about sacrificing individuals' values to the values of their politically powerful betters. It is as coercive, moralistic, and nostalgic as anything Bill Bennett, Robert Bork, or Gary Bauer ever proposed. It is just a lot less honest.

For more background on the sprawl debate, see the new Breaking Issue on Reason Online.