Suburban Sprawl and the Collapse of the City


September 16, 1992|By KENNETH TREISTER

COCONUT GROVE, FLORIDA — Coconut Grove, Florida.--The looting, arson and violence that marked the bloody Los Angeles riots has awakened America to the incredible problems that exist in its core cities and posed the question, ''What is the basic, root cause?'' The answers and proposed solutions are usually superficial and predictable: the disintegration of the family, more money for black entrepreneurship or for ghetto programs, etc. But these ideas are symptomatic and do not relate to the root cause.

The underlying cause of America's urban ills is the complete segregation of American society caused by suburban sprawl and the flight of the white upper and middle class from the inner city over the last 40 years. Middle America, the strength of our country, has retreated to suburban cocoons, leaving the unmanageable, empty shell of the cities to the poor blacks and Hispanics who could not flee. The cities are left without the tax, educational, cultural and economic bases needed to sustain a healthy urban environment.

The country in the long run cannot support a fractured, two-tier society -- a prosperous suburban white society and a separate poor urban Black-Hispanic one. Unfortunately,the recent riots will encourage more suburban sprawl as many of the remaining urban residents and businesses flee for the protection of the suburbs.

The pleasures of city life have diminished over the years, replaced by the hassles of heavy taxation, pollution, stress, crime, homelessness, filth, decaying schools, drugs and other problems that drown America's once proud cities in a sea of neglect. The problem is that these urban ills are thought of as individual unrelated problems, when in reality they are closely interrelated.

Sprawl rode out of town in a shiny new automobile, facilitated by federal programs such as the Interstate Highway System and FHA/VA financing of tract housing. The 20th century has seen the automobile's complete domination of American society. The car has created the suburbanized anti-city, spreading almost continuous settlements over the once tranquil countryside.

The cities and countryside of America are being sliced, diced, dissected, bisected and disemboweled by the never-ending construction of expressways, cloverleaves, bypasses, overpasses, underpasses and all the other devices for moving cars. Each addition is defensible, since it makes the traffic flow more smoothly, but the cumulative effect of these separate changes increases reliance on the car and eats away the warp and woof of society's fabric. Life becomes more scattered, segregated, fragmented and unworkable.

Yet the federal government is planning to spend $119 billion over six years to build more highways to take Americans farther away from where they have to be.

The total cost of suburban sprawl is staggering. More sprawl means more demand for suburban schools, police, fire and other services; it means more air and water pollution, more land and environment consumed, more accidents, more commuting time, more stress.

The solutions are simple but not quick. Rather,a long-term commitment is required to gradually reverse suburban sprawl. To start, we must stop building expressways and subsidizing the automobile and its fuel. In the long run, the only way for America to end the inequality among its citizens and the resulting problems of the cities is to meld the two societies into one, to tear down the walls of the ghettos and create cities that are truly for all races.

We must stop helping the black businesses, the black neighborhoods, the black communities. Rather we must obliterate the very concept of racial separatism. The federal government must not ''help'' the slums but destroy them. We must not only make the cities better for Afro-Americans but better for whites as well. We should concentrate on making the cities such a great place to live that all Americans will happily choose to live in them.

We must counter ''suburban sprawl'' by making ''urban return'' the watchword of the 21st century.

Kenneth Treister is an architect and urban planner.

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