Smart growth, not sprawl, has made today's suburbia

The Argument

Elistist sneering can't obscure this: Modern American housing trends are democratic and sound.

October 17, 1999|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

'Smart growth" is what many planners and politicians advocate as a cure for metropolitan problems. The phrase is but the latest sneer directed at suburbia. It implies that those who facilitated and participated in suburbanization were dumb. Unfair, even if true. And it's not true. The median IQ in the suburbs is 26 points higher than the median IQ in cities and rural areas.

As you may have suspected, I made up that statistic. I doubt there ever been any such study. But does anyone doubt that suburbanites are smarter than urbanites as a group?

An even worse sneer is "sprawl" as a description of the outward expansion of metropolitan growth. One critic has defined sprawl as "the awkward spreading out of the limbs of either a man or a community. The first is a product of bad manners, the second of bad planning." In some planners' vocabulary, sprawl has become a synonym for suburbia and a four-letter word.

That haughtiness is now under counter attack. For instance, in their defense of suburban development, scheduled for publication by Basic Books next year, "Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened," Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen devote a chapter to the "snobbery" of most of those who write disapprovingly about it. In it they quote from a 1949 magazine article by poet Phyllis McGinley:

"To condemn suburbia has long been a literary cliche. I have yet to read a book in which the suburban life was pictured as the good life or the commuter as a sympathetic figure. He is as much a stock character as the old stage Irishman: the man who spends all his life riding to and from his wife, the eternal Babbitt who knows all about Buicks and nothing about Picasso."

Ah, Babbitt. That inspired my return visit to Sinclair Lewis's 1922 satirical novel, "Babbitt," in which Lewis puts this in the mouth of "realtor" George Babbitt:

"We've got a lot to do in the way of extending the motor boulevards, for, believe me, it's the fellow with four to ten thousand a year, say, and a nice little family in a bungalow on the edge of town, that makes the wheels of progress go round!"

Babbitt, one reviewer wrote, "typifies complacent mediocrity," which was Lewis's intent.

Ownership of a bungalow or something grander has become the heart of the American dream, as Brookings fellow Anthony Downs, a veteran and respected scholar of American growth and planning, says in his 1994 book "New Visions for Metropolitan America," (Brookings Institution Press, 272 pages, $16.95). He notes that 73 percent of all Americans dream that dream. Such development, he noted, has to be low-density, thus farther and farther from central cities as metropolitan population grows.

Downs is no fan of such sprawl. In that book and elsewhere, he advocates planned rather than haphazard (democratic) growth. But he is sympathetic to the motivations of those who move out of or stay out of cities. Not just for a home of one's own, but also to be safer, closer to jobs, comfortable with one's neighborhood, less taxed, he notes.

David Rusk, an expert on metro areas in general and Baltimore in particular, is sympathetic, too. Rusk crunches demographic and economic numbers and understands and describes the problems of metropolitan development (inefficiency, unfairness to those left behind, racial segregation) as well as or better than anyone. But he can also resort to a criticism that is scathing and unfair.

Here are three examples from his new book, "Inside Game Outside Game" (Brookings Institution Press, 384 pages, $28.95).

1. Rusk spins a "fable" in which the devil himself and other evildoers devise a plan to make the suburbs "the new purgatory" and cities "Hell on earth." The plan is exactly what governments have been doing (and citizens favoring) in the past few decades, such as subsidizing highways and homes more than mass transit and apartments.

2. He berates Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski for not supporting a program that "would systematically shift poor black families out of inner city projects into voucher-subsidized private rental housing in the suburbs." He says of the senators: "Though card-carrying liberals, they were alarmed during an election year. They were not interested in trying to quell racial fears with facts."

3. He compares economic segregation achieved by private decision-making to racial segregation achieved by laws and brutish law enforcers: "While America was officially dismantling Jim Crow by race, it was substituting Jim Crow by income. Throughout the nation (North and South) suburban zoning boards, usually filled with earnest, likable citizen volunteers, assumed the functional role of the stereotypical Southern sheriff."

I covered the civil rights movement as a reporter in the South and elsewhere in the 1950s and 1960s. The worst zoning commissioner Towson ever saw wasn't in the class with stereotypical Southern sheriffs.

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