The sprawl virus

March 04, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

FROM THE heart of Middle America, in a major Kansas City Star report, comes some of the most alarming news yet of the damaging effects of sprawl development.

Our continued ''national obsession'' with moving out to the edges of suburbia, write reporters Jeffrey Spivak and Chris Lester, ''has spawned a virus eating us from the inside out. Sprawl has hollowed out the urban cores of America, feeding on racism and government handouts. It has incited a civil war among neighboring towns fighting for business development.''

Low-density development drives up infrastructure bills. Desperate for tax revenue because residential development doesn't pay for itself, politicians offer tax abatements and other inducements for footloose firms. Homeowner taxes soar to fill the gap -- even while street repairs, schools, libraries, other services suffer.

The inefficiencies of hundreds of splintered suburban governments -- described by the Star as ''minimonuments to social and class division'' -- run up costs in ways the first home buyers never imagined. Add the end of generous federal water and sewer grants and the scene's set for distrust of government and taxpayer revolts.

Around Kansas City, the paper found, each decade property values crest in a ring about two miles further from downtown. The ''golden ring'' of values is now about 16 miles out -- a circle of profit for developers, contractors, bankers, lawyers and realtors.

But yesteryear's homebuyers are not so fortunate. Property values, not just in center city but in most older suburbs, are stagnant and declining. The region, writes the Star, ''is cannibalizing itself.''

The injury to the spirit seems just as grave. A ''can-do'' spirit once made Kansas City an object of envy across the nation. When the city's Convention Hall burned to the ground in April 1900, just a few months before a scheduled Democratic National Convention, leaders and citizens pitched in to rebuild it. Almost miraculously, it was ready when the Democrats arrived in midsummer.

Yet today, the Star reports, ''the Kansas City spirit might as well be dead.'' Why?

An incoherent region

''Blame it on sprawl,'' write Messrs. Lester and Spivak. ''It scattered us like ashes to the wind. A cacophony of separate, often competing governments provokes political polarization. When localities try to work together, they often bump against barriers that have dogged them for decades -- parochialism, racism, animosity. Distrust dominates civic debates.'' The result? ''An incoherent and dysfunctional region."

The Star's list of remedies is familiar: Manage growth better, combat crime, fix up infrastructure, resist new loop highways, fund the arts regionally, stop wealthy suburbs from offering tax abatements to steal the city's industries, consolidate governments, confront racism.

When will Americans listen to these warnings seriously enough to make a real difference?

A year ago the Bank of America joined environmentalists to warn that ''unchecked sprawl has shifted from an engine of California's growth to a force that threatens to inhibit growth and degrade our quality of life.''

Anthony Pilla, Roman Catholic bishop of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, preaches that sprawl to far suburbs divides people physically and spiritually, isolating the poor most egregiously.

The Chicago Tribune, in its recent ''Nation of Strangers'' series, warns that the ''hypermobility'' of the suburban era -- working, sleeping, playing, schooling at locations reached only by long auto rides -- has broken down community, created sterile environments, impoverished our national spirit.

''What were once the country lanes of the outer reaches of Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Tampa, Los Angeles and so many other American cities,'' the Tribune reporters wrote, ''have become four-lane highways through a mercilessly franchised landscape'' ranging from Arby's to Midas Muffler to Taco Bell.

People exposed to the glaring jumble of such sprawlscapes, Texas A&M environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich discovered through simulator driving tests, suffer much higher stress levels than others exposed to rural or parkway driving conditions. Today's roadside blight appears, in short, to be a health hazard.

The privately based New York Regional Plan Association, in 1929 and 1968 reports, called uncontrolled growth the greatest threat to the three-state New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan region. Officials failed to listen. Land was devoured 12 times faster than population grew. Suburbia became the region's engine of growth.

In its 1996 report, the association notes that suburbia suffered as much as the cities through the 1992-93 recession. The myth of suburban economies' invincibility was shattered.

Today, says the association, the threat isn't uncontrolled growth, it's continued region-wide decline. Failing to modernize its infrastructure, the fractured New York citistate is in peril of losing its global economic leadership to smart, investment-minded European and Asian regions.

Our presidential campaigns have yet to produce a murmur about the scandal of sprawl as it decimates our great cities, devours our landscapes, undermines our sense of community, threatens our economic security.

Republicans routinely reject restraints or guides on growth as anti-business. President Clinton comes from a lightly urbanized state. One of his early backers was the late Sam Walton, prime town killer and sprawl spreader of the age.

But sprawl is a disease, and a dangerous one. Light a candle that today's cacophony of warning signals will finally wake us up.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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