Battle over sprawl is matter of choice

November 17, 1996|By Elise Armcost

JAMES HOWARD Kunstler, the country's most passionate critic of suburban development, recently warned that slowing sprawl will be like slaying the seven-headed Hydra.

Too many people have a stake in holding on to the formula for ugly commercial strips and cookie-cutter subdivisions.

"Any change in a rule about land development makes or breaks people who seek to become millionaires," Mr. Kunstler, author of several books on the subject, wrote recently in Atlantic Monthly. Those who figure to be on the losing end will rise up one after the other, like Hydra heads, to defend the status quo.


It is happening already, though the backlash against sprawl has yet to make discernible impact on the ugliness of the national landscape.

Last month the California Building Industry Association, Wells Fargo Bank and the Building Industry Institute released a study that spiritedly defends sprawl, specifically low-density residential development. The report, a reaction against data showing California will go bankrupt if sprawl continues, makes the inventors of the first subdivisions sound like modern-day Christopher Wrens.

"Forward-looking architects of America's future," it calls them. It pronounces suburbia a "utopia," a "social and economic triumph."

The study argues that sprawl (the authors prefer the term "discontinuous development") does not cause traffic congestion; does not cost more in public services than it generates in taxes; that it can't be bad if people are willing to buy into it, so the government ought to stop trying to control it.

To which I echo the sentiments of David Thaler, Baltimore-area engineer and proponent of traditional town designs: "Cow pie." He notes that builders in California, where the earmarks of suburbia are acres of identical houses, smog and the worst freeway gridlock in the nation, should be the last ones bragging about what they have wrought.

More than that, the study's conclusions are just plain wrong, even if some of its observations are correct. For instance, it argues that there is no simple correlation between suburban growth and loss of farmland. This is true. Nonetheless, sprawl is destroying rural landscapes and communities. If current trends continue in Maryland, development will devour more land in the next 23 years than it has since the state's inception.

The study correctly notes that the relationship of suburbs to cities has changed, with more people commuting between suburbs than between city and suburb. But the conclusion -- that this kind of commuting is more efficient -- is ridiculous.

From 1980 to 1990, when sprawl took off, the number of vehicle miles traveled in Maryland jumped 47 percent. Taxpayers are spending $55 million to add one extra lane to a four-mile stretch of the Baltimore Beltway, largely to handle the growing number of commuters who use the highway to move from suburb-to-suburb. And suburb-to-suburb commuting overloads roads never intended for anything but local use.

Sprawl defenders

The sprawl defenders contend that the cost of keeping up all these roads, of building new schools and providing other services eventually will be offset by revenues from the commercial growth that, they predict, will follow housing. This may happen. But anything more than shopping centers is a very long time in coming.

Residential development has been booming in Carroll County for 15 years, yet citizens are seeing substantial tax increases because there still is no commercial tax base to help pay to service all these new homes.

And here's a question worth asking: Does it make sense aesthetically and practically to let office parks, malls and major businesses follow the housing market to Hereford, Shady Side or the middle of some cornfield outside New Windsor? I'll bet many subdivision dwellers would answer "no."

As Mr. Kunstler observes, "Voters who live in suburban sprawl don't want more of the same built around them -- which implies that at some dark level suburban sprawl dwellers are quite conscious of sprawl's shortcomings."

The California study turns on the premise that "home buyers overwhelmingly prefer detached homes in low-density neighborhoods."

The truth more likely is this: Some home buyers actively seek the big lots, isolation and car-friendliness of classic sprawl. Many, however, choose sprawl because that is becoming the only option for people who want a non-urban lifestyle and a safe place to raise their children. Zoning laws and building codes don't allow anything else.

Americans of this generation are not versed in civic planning principles. When they buy they think about schools and family rooms, not the benefits of a street network or whether buildings do a good job of defining space.

But I'll wager a lot of people would rather live on a street built according to these principles -- one that looks like it could belong in Annapolis or a New England village -- than in sprawl.

Growth can't stop

No reasonable person, including hard-core sprawl haters like Mr. Kunstler, believes growth must stop. It can't, and it shouldn't. Home building drives our economy. And there will always be a market for Happy Acres.

But let's not pretend there's a case to be made for continuing to smear sprawl from sea to shining sea. There isn't. As David Thaler says, "Anybody who would defend it is insane. It's worse than trying to defend O.J."

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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