On the pages of nearly every newspaper in the nation, there are daily articles on suburban sprawl. Attempts to get sprawl under control started in the 1950s relatively soon after sprawl exploded after the end of World War II. They all failed. Even now, with a strong national “smart growth” movement, unless sprawl-haters understand sprawl politics and the power of the sprawl lobby, by mid-century with a population lunging toward 400 million, it will be too late to save so much of what so many Americans value, including public greenspaces, rural lifestyles, farmland and social capital.
Sprawl is not propelled simply by market forces. The land development and home building business sectors would have us believe that they are simply responding to the public demand for housing in general and suburban homes in particular. They lie. The housing market is remarkable because supply influences demand much more than demand affects supply. What this means is that although there is a huge fraction of Americans who do not want to live in suburban sprawl un-places, they have little choice in the market. These people want to live in true communities that are walkable, loaded with parks and other greenspaces near their homes, and where they can greatly reduce their car use.
An enormous amount of market research and surveys over recent years shows that well over one-third of home seekers want an alternative to suburban sprawl un-places. The odds of them finding a home in a place designed on the basis of New Urbanism, smart growth, or traditional neighborhood design principles, however, is over 500 to 1 against them.
To understand this remarkable mismatch between demand and supply it is crucial to understand that there a strong national “sprawl industry” with a powerful “sprawl lobby.” The sprawl industry consists of land developers, home and commercial builders, real estate agents, land use attorneys, banking and finance institutions, road builders, and planning professionals. Closely aligned because they benefit so much from the sprawl land development paradigm, that includes ever rising levels of vehicle ownership and mileage as well as sedentary health problems and mental stress, are the fast food, automobile, petroleum, and pharmaceutical industries. In truth, much of the American economy is now closely connected to continued sprawl development. Indeed, when the sprawl industry fights smart growth, as it does nearly everywhere at the grassroots level, regardless of deceptive support for smart growth from their national associations, it actually says things like smart growth is a weapon of mass destruction. It paints smart growth as some communist conspiracy attempting to deprive Americans of their freedom, trying to force them to live in inner cities. While such accusations are utterly false, the strategy often works. The more that the smart growth movement succeeds and the more that home buyers want true alternatives to sprawl, the uglier the tactics of the sprawl industry to defend the sprawl status quo.
The way that the sprawl industry maintains its grip on the housing market is through its sprawl lobby. Literally everywhere in the United States, from Florida to Hawaii, enormous sums of money, both legal and illegal, are provided by sprawl industry groups to politicians, local government officials and state legislators. Whenever data are collected on the monies provided by various business sectors to local and state campaigns, and in battles over certain ballot initiatives, the sprawl industry ranks at or near the top. Long ago sprawl interests understood that they had to spend money to control local planning and zoning systems to keep sprawl land development’s primacy.
Just weeks ago, it became clear that the New Jersey sprawl lobby had succeeded in defeating Governor James MeCreevey’s bold smart growth initiative. Attempts to shift land use power away from politicians to citizens are routinely opposed by the sprawl lobby; it succeeded in Colorado. In Hawaii, the former governor vetoed a simple non-spending bill to support smart growth.
Almost everywhere in the nation, where there is government planning and zoning, it is either illegal or extremely difficult and expensive to build true alternatives to sprawl. Sprawl developers routinely bitch about government regulation and bureaucrats, but sprawl remains ubiquitous. Sprawl projects face speed bumps as they roll downhill. Opponents to sprawl and developers trying to create smart growth, mixed land use type projects face considerable barriers trying to go uphill on the slippery slope lubricated by the sprawl lobby.
Despite sprawl’s power, about 200 true smart growth and New Urbanism communities and neighborhoods have been built around the nation, with more going up all the time as innovative and courageous developers conquer the obstacles the sprawl lobby has nourished over decades. Most importantly, these places are achieving considerable financial success because the actual and latent consumer demand for alternatives to sprawl is so great. Most importantly, most of these smart growth type projects are in suburbia. In other words, there is no longer any reason to equate suburbia with sprawl.
Consumers will only obtain true options in housing and transportation if they offset the political influence of the sprawl lobby. This means more opponents to sprawl running for public office, and more citizens voting their values, as they have when voting to tax themselves in ballot initiatives to preserve open space all over the country. There are also a large number of conservative and libertarian groups supporting the sprawl industry with ridiculous rhetoric, including the lie that we have so much land that continued sprawl is just fine. Nonsense. Land shortages are cropping up where people prefer to live. Sprawl apologists assert that they are seemingly protecting the property rights of Americans. This too is nonsense. They are protecting the business sectors that profit from sprawl, not ordinary Americans who are not large land owners and who simply want a healthier lifestyle which requires a built environment that is designed for people, not cars and not business interests.
Know this: Sprawl is killing people, some 300,000 premature deaths annually because of the sprawl sedentary lifestyle, and it is killing our natural environment, scenic vistas, biodiversity, rural towns, and much more. The pursuit of happiness by the few profiting from sprawl land development is killing the future pursuit of happiness by the many. Spread this idea virus: sprawl kills.
Until recently, Joel Hirschhorn was Director of Environment, Energy and Natural Resources at the National Governors Association; he is the author of the forthcoming “Sprawl Kills – Better Living in Healthy Places” and can be reached through www.sprawlkills.com