Sprawl Talk

In his review of several books on suburbia ("Room to Grow," February), Sam Staley contends that sprawl-and-mall suburbs are simply what people want and implies that any alternative is bound to be something bossy and over-planned like Celebration, Florida. This claim strikes me as simplistic and ahistorical.

Forty years ago, in The Death and Life of the Great American Cities, the great Jane Jacobs laid waste to the idea that a town or city can be built like a machine. She showed that the "ethnic" urban neighborhoods that the planners wanted to tear down were models of community in action, not deplorable "slums." She also showed that the planners were stuck in a Newtonian "two-variable" view of the world and had not entered the era when science attempts to deal with "organized complexity" (ecology, information theory). There is the same debate today in forestry, where the environmental community sees a forest as an interwoven set of biological systems of awe-inspiring complexity, while the timber industry sees a forest as a "tree farm."

It is somewhat fashionable to defend contemporary sprawling suburbs as somehow the spontaneous result of people doing their thing. Those who believe otherwise are accused of advocating the sort of planning Ms. Jacobs deplored. This theory ignores the extent to which sprawl development is the result of deliberate government policy, both federal and local. Tax law, lending regulations, and numerous perversities in planning, zoning, and tax codes, all contribute to some of the worst features of sprawl development: its waste of land, its artificial separation of functions (you can't walk down to the store or to a movie) and its transportation nightmares (work is further and further away—there are people in California who commute for four hours a day).

There are restrictions and there are restrictions. Without urban growth boundaries such as those Portland has so wisely adopted, much of the open space and natural beauty that most Americans treasure will be lost. (I note that it is voters who are putting in UGBs by referendum—politicians and bureaucrats tend to resist them.) So planning is needed, but not the totalitarian kind of either the Disney traditionalists or the New Deal modernists. We need planning that makes more room, not less, for people to do their thing in their many and varied ways. Planning that is based on the way people are in the real world, not on what officials and bureaucrats think they should be like.

None of this implies that suburbs are a bad thing, or that everybody has to live in a big city. It is simply a matter of acknowledging that what worked well in 1957 doesn't necessarily work well in 2001, and that we need to look at new ways of getting what we want while avoiding some of the unintended consequences of past ways of doing things.

Mr. Staley writes, "It's residents who create communities, not architects or planners. Urban design can certainly facilitate community building, but it can't dictate it." I couldn't agree more. Planners, politicians, developers, and just plain folks all need to keep that philosophy in mind.

Joe Willingham
Berkeley, CA

Thank you for Sam Staley's very interesting article on suburbs past and present. Yet I think that he has missed the appeal of New Urbanism to those of us who are neither Marxist nor especially interested in community life.

What withers in suburbia is quality of life. The maddening inconvenience of having to drive everywhere (and sit in the parking lots we call "commercial streets" and "freeways"); the total dependence it forces on our children, who require full-time chauffer services for any activity outside home; the alienating quality of living in a landscape you don't (and by design can't) walk through—this is the core of suburban misery, from which most of my friends have tried to escape by moving to a relatively urban center.

Yes, the ugliness of suburban sprawl is depressing, but let's admit that most American cities are no great beauties either. It's just that living in a city or town of walkers and public transportees is so much less labor-intensive and more stim-ulating than the coma of the Sherwoode Forestes and Foxcrofte Pointes.

Sonya Nikolsky
Durham, NC

"Room to Grow" was excellent. I was especially glad to see the review of the Levittown material. Have you ever seen the Zippy comic series? It dealt with the evolved landscape of Levittown. The cartoonist (Bill Griffith) apparently lived there as a child, and notes how those cookie-cutter homes, together with the landscape of which they are a part, have evolved in a most diverse and complex manner over the past 50 years.

Michael Martin
Assistant Professor
Iowa State University
Ames, IA

Sam Staley replies: I concur with Sonya Nikolsky's point that New Urbanist design appeals to many preferring a denser, more urban living environment. The New Urbanist vision provides an alternative, and public policy should be directed toward maximizing the amount of choice available to households and families. Unfortunately, Suburban Nation is promoting New Urbanism as a general urban-design principle that doesn't value diversity of housing and neighborhoods.

But Ms. Nikolsky's point that "quality of life" is withering in suburbia is a bit too sweeping. While some may bridle at the automobile dependence of many suburbanites, others may embrace the car as a way to give them more choices than would exist in a traditional urban center.

Joe Willingham takes my perspective too far. I didn't write that "sprawl-and-mall suburbs are simply what people want" or that alternatives are bound to be "bossy and overplanned." I merely pointed out in my review of Picture Windows that the first post-World War II suburbs (e.g., Levittown) responded to a desire for something different than the dense, urban living of traditional cities. Many Levittown residents did voice misgivings about aspects of their community (e.g., long commutes), but they stayed anyway. The move to the suburbs was the result of complex trade-offs when considering housing and neighborhood.

Mr. Willingham questions whether suburban development would have occurred without subsidies. This is an important point, and I acknowledged the federal role in providing financing to William Levitt. In fact, without it, it is unlikely Levittown would have been built (at least not in 1949). The federal loan guarantees offset uncertainty in the financial sector about the viability of Levitt's new product: affordable, single-family homes away from the urban center. Whether Levittown would have eventually been built anyway is speculative, but given general housing and land-use trends, Levittown or some similar development would likely have been built later.

Mr. Willingham then lauds planning as a way to address growth issues, arguing that Portland's growth boundary and others like it help preserve "the open space and natural beauty that most Americans treasure." As an empirical statement, this is simply incorrect. Only a little over 5 percent of the nation is developed, and about 4 percent is urbanized. Only about 2 percent of Oregon is developed, and the rate of sprawl may have actually increased in the period after the growth boundary was adopted. Growth boundaries provide the illusion of protecting significant open space, but constrain housing choices in the process. Even if development had occurred at pre-growth boundary rates in Oregon, Oregonians would have been awash in open space and so-called "view sheds."

Instead of more Portland-style planning, policymakers and citizens should support a dynamic land market that responds to the varied needs and desires of consumers.

The Rainbow Phenomenon

I have been aware of the Rainbow Gatherings since 1975, attended the one in Idaho in 1982, and have heard of them from various friends ever since ("Take Me to Your Leader," February). I also knew Barry Adams, who is featured in Sam MacDonald's article. That the authorities went after Adams is an excellent example of just what different universes the Rainbows and the Forest Service inhabit.

Barry is one of the people who has been articulating the Rainbows' world-view since before the first Gathering in 1972. If the Rainbows had leaders, Barry might well be one. But they really don't. Were Barry or any of the older attendees to cast himself as a leader, the rest of the Rainbows would just tell him he was being a horse's ass. This has often happened. As I have heard it, Barry Adams himself has gotten a good laugh out of it many times, sometimes at his own expense.

Be all that as it may, Forest Service officials in Montana know who Barry is. They live in a world in which having someone on whom to pin legal accountability is a daily necessity. It probably does make some sort of sense to them to cast Barry as a leader and thus cite him for not getting a permit. But that doesn't make it true.

What is going on here is an interaction of two different cultures. The Forest Service uses the definitions that are "real" within its cultural context. An analogy is the United States presenting treaty documents to Native American tribes, ceding lands to the U.S., and insisting that someone sign them, when in fact there was no one in the tribe who, by the tribe's definition of reality, could take such an action.

The Rainbows descended from the cultural phenomenon that began to flower in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury and various other places in the mid-'60s, just in time for Ronald Reagan to become governor of California and to attack colorful, chaotic, youthful questioning with all the fury of ethnic cleansing. People involved in the cultural experiment who either would not or could not reintegrate into the dominant culture headed for the hills.

The Rainbow Gatherings have continued at least in part because there are a lot of people for whom mainstream America has no place. One of the things I was much impressed to watch at the one Gathering I attended was how Rainbows taught what I would call "social ejectees" both material and spiritual survival skills, including the values of honesty and honest work. Are some of the people in need of such a lesson a social nuisance? You bet. But Rainbow has been a largely constructive response for those who need a cultural alternative.

And it really is an alternative. Sam MacDonald found barter an inefficient way to get a souvenir. Well, yes, it is an inefficient way to do business. But that's not how the Rainbow Gathering works. Giving what one has and sees as needed is the economic base. Could a gift economy work long-term for millions or billions of people, as it actually does work for a few weeks for thousands at a Gathering? Would it be a better world if we all did things that way? I don't know. To ask if their way is better or worse than the one most of us are used to is no more meaningful than to ask if Basque or Iroquois traditional culture is better or worse.

Uncle River
Blue, AZ