A quiet but profound revolution is taking place in suburban America, affecting the way people there think about government, taxes, property rights, the free market, and the idea of community itself, and it is being sparked by that most mundane of phenomena: the traffic jam.
From New York, where 80,000 more cars a day enter the city than did two years ago, to Los Angeles, where it takes an average of 20 minutes to negotiate the interchange of interstates 10 and 405; from Miami, where the forever-clogged U.S. 1 has been dubbed "Useless 1," to Chicago, where a spaghetti-like section of I-290 is known as the "Hillside Strangler," Americans are spending more and more time trapped in their cars. Over the course of a year, drivers in the nation's largest cities spend about 40 hours--a full work week--stuck in traffic.
And Americans, famous for loving their cars, are getting fed up. In communities across the country, lawsuits and grass-roots protests have stymied efforts to widen highways. Cities large and small are considering new plans for light rails, trolleys, and bike paths. And TEA-21, the $217 billion transportation act of 1998, makes unprecedented sums available for mass transit.
It's not just cars that are coming under attack, but the whole culture built on them. The endless strip malls that line the nation's roadways; the ever-expanding housing subdivisions, where one must get into a car to buy a quart of milk; the voracious devouring of farmland and green fields by real estate developers; and all the other noxious manifestations of urban sprawl are galvanizing communities across the country.
To a degree, liberals are leading the new movement. Vice President Al Gore has proposed a "Livability Agenda" for the twenty-first century providing communities with funds and tax credits to purchase green space and rebuild urban areas. Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, a liberal Democrat, has made "smart growth" a pillar of his administration. And the Sierra Club has made the fight against sprawl one of its top priorities; every year it issues a list of the nation's 30 most threatened cities.
What's striking, though, is how many conservatives have joined the movement. The chairman of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, that state's top antisprawl group, is Terry Kauffman, a Republican and former building supplier. In New Jersey, Governor Christine Todd Whitman has allocated $1 billion to preserve the state's remaining green spaces. Paul Weyrich, the president of the right-wing Free Congress Foundation in Washington, has become a strong advocate of mass transit, co-authoring a pamphlet titled "Conservatives and Mass Transit: Is It Time for a New Look?"
In his recent novel A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe--long known for lampooning chic radicals and hedonistic hippies--skewers the bloated ambitions and materialistic excesses of real estate developers in Atlanta. The protagonist, a megalomaniac good ol' boy named Charlie Croker, undergoes a spiritual conversion and ditches his failing real estate empire to preach the virtues of ascetic stoicism.
Now, in a case of life imitating art, Atlanta's business establishment is mobilizing to combat sprawl. After years of dizzy growth, the city has the longest commutes in the nation and air so foul that the federal government has threatened to withhold highway funds. Concerned over such developments, Hewlett-Packard shelved its plans to expand in Atlanta's suburbs. In 1998 Roy Barnes, a Democrat, was elected governor on a growth-control platform, and in 1999, backed by local businesses, he set up the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, empowered to veto construction projects that seem likely to add to congestion.
Similarly, in Silicon Valley, where commutes can take up to two hours and where the average price of a new home has soared to $400,000, a trade group representing Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Cisco, and 120 other companies has embraced smart growth. The Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group has backed tax increases to fund transportation projects, called for expanded light-rail services, and pushed local governments to build more housing so that employees needn't look two counties away to find a home they can afford.
Of course, these are only baby steps. The measures being pushed in Silicon Valley would offer only minimal relief to the region's harried commuters. And the money set aside by Governor Whitman will help save only a sliver of New Jersey's green fields. There, as in many other states, the heavy reliance of local governments on property taxes impels them to approve new shopping malls and office complexes. Even when states and counties do pass antisprawl measures, they often lack teeth and are subject to evisceration by the courts. Certainly few localities have been willing to impose the type of strict "urban growth boundary" that Oregon has used to powerful effect. [See Robert Geddes, "Metropolis Unbound: The Sprawling American City and the Search for Alternatives," TAP, November-December 1997.]
Can Sprawl Be Cured?
The sheer scale of the chaos, unsightliness, and soullessness left by 50 years of uncontrolled growth has caused many planners to despair of ever fixing it. The pessimism was palpable in a recent round-table discussion among urban planners published in Harvard Magazine. Michael Sorkin, a planner based in New York City, complained that the "design palette" for remaking the suburbs is "extremely limited. It's a kind of 'deck chairs on the Titanic' syndrome, where we're taking the same limited set of suburban typologies--single-family houses, garden apartments, small office buildings, shopping malls--and tweaking them in the hope that we will produce something slightly more urban and slightly more rational."
Strongly objecting to such talk was Robert Yaro, the executive director of the Regional Plan Association in New York. Chiding the planning profession for regarding the suburbs as "a vast wasteland," he maintained that "there are so many opportunities to redesign those places and make them work." He added, "We can't simply write off a half-century of places that may have been badly designed. We're working now in several places in suburban New York on plans to essentially reinvent these faceless, amorphous suburban centers. This is where a lot of the action has to be. It's where most of our employment is, most of our retail, most of our housing. You've got to redesign these places so they begin to create the mix of activities, the mix of transit modes, and so forth that we're talking about for cities."
Deep down, most planners would surely agree with Yaro that the suburbs need to be reinvented. The question is, can they be? Or have they been scarred beyond repair? In an effort to find out, I journeyed to Tysons Corner, Virginia, the heart of sprawl. And I found some remarkable things taking place there.
Located eight miles west of Washington, D.C., Tysons Corner is one of the nation's premier "edge cities," made famous by Joel Garreau's book Edge Cities. As recently as the late 1950s, Tysons was a rural crossroads with a general store and a gas station. In the early 1960s, however, developers, led by the resourceful and remorseless John T. "Til" Hazel (a model for Tom Wolfe's Charlie Croker), began throwing up office buildings, and within a decade Tysons Corner became a sprawling agglomeration of glass-sheathed boxes and vast shopping complexes.
Today, Tysons Corner has 35 million square feet of office space--more than downtown Denver. A huge section of town is given over to two immense shopping malls (known blandly as Tysons I and Tysons II). Tysons is also home to many high-tech companies as well as to the accountants, consultants, and law firms that serve them. It is impressive to drive along Route 7, Tysons's main artery, and see the corporate brand names glowing from the tops of the towers lining the street: KPMG, Merrill Lynch, Tiffany's, UUNET, SAIC, and Nortel.
But it's also depressing. The buildings, generic and dull, all seem to resemble giant household appliances. Most are fronted by parking lots, and trees are conspicuously absent. There are numerous car dealerships and gas stations, plus the ubiquitous PETCOs, Vitamin Shoppes, Cellular Ones, and other cheesy outposts of chain-store America. Most distressing of all is the traffic. During rush hours, it can take 20 minutes to travel the mile and a half from the Capital Beltway on the eastern edge of town to the Dulles Toll Road on the west.
Unlike some edge cities, Tysons Corner does have sidewalks, but the place is so oriented to the car that it's hard to get anywhere on foot. Many of the guests at the Marriott Hotel, where I stayed, have business at Fairfax Square, an office complex directly across Route 7, but the hotel strongly warns against walking to it on the grounds of safety. Instead, guests are urged to take the hotel shuttle.
I spent part of a morning interviewing shoppers at Tysons I about traffic, and everyone, it seemed, had a horror story to tell. "It's a nightmare," said Pete Saia, a 29-year-old who works at a bookbindery in suburban Maryland. To get there, he has to drive halfway around I-495, the notoriously gridlocked Capital Beltway. Because Saia works the late shift, he does not have to leave home until 2:00 p.m., and so the ride normally takes about 35 minutes. But on Fridays, when he gets off at 6:00 p.m., it can take up to 90. "It's stop-and-go the entire way," he sighed. These days, Saia added, every conversation "seems to be about traffic."
He's not alone. Washington is rated the nation's second-most congested area, after Los Angeles. According to the American Highway Users Alliance, the area is home to four of the nation's 18 most congested intersections, including the infamous "Mixing Bowl," a daunting maze of ramps and overpasses where the beltway meets I-95 heading south to Richmond.
The region's traffic problem is, to an extent, a function of its prosperity. While the District of Columbia itself continues to struggle economically, the Maryland and Virginia suburbs are booming. Fairfax County, where Tysons Corner is located, is among the richest counties in the country. Fueling the expansion has been the surge in the high-tech industry. The Internet was basically born in northern Virginia, with the military contractors of the 1970s and 1980s becoming the go-go dot-coms of today. Most of them are located in the 14-mile corridor between the Capital Beltway and Dulles Airport. At Reston, a planned city near Dulles, cranes tower over the toll road as expanding companies rush to build ever-larger quarters. Further west, in Loudoun County, America Online has built a giant new headquarters, and MCI WorldCom is about to follow suit.
Unfortunately, most of these companies can be reached only by car, helping to feed the area's congestion. And that has led to calls for more roads. Particularly outspoken in this regard has been the Greater Washington Board of Trade, representing the area's business establishment. The board has issued a huge wish list of projects, including widening the two bridges that currently cross the Potomac, building three new ones, and constructing a giant outer beltway that would encircle the current one miles further out.
Growth-control advocates in the region do support some new road projects. Stewart Schwartz, the director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth in northern Virginia, favors widening the overwhelmed Woodrow Wilson Bridge and improving the overtaxed Mixing Bowl. Over the long term, though, Schwartz believes that building more roads will do little to relieve the region's congestion. To illustrate his point, he invokes the concept of "induced travel," which holds that the more roads are widened, the more drivers they attract.
Schwartz cites as an example I-270, which runs from the Capital Beltway northwest to Frederick, Maryland. By the mid-1980s, the road had become so congested that Robert McGarry, the transportation director for Montgomery County, asked Maryland to expand it six years ahead of schedule. Responding, the state put up $200 million to widen more than a dozen miles of the road, making it 12 lanes in some places. By early 1999--less than eight years after the project's completion--the highway had become as jammed as ever. "I personally thought it would last much longer than this," McGarry told The Washington Post last year. "I just didn't in my wildest dreams think it would fill up that fast."
Rather than add roads, smart-growthers like Schwartz want more mass transit. And, in the Metro system, Washington has one of the best transit networks in the country. Already, three lines serve northern Virginia, and plans are afoot to extend service even more. The most ambitious is to run a line to Dulles, which, in addition to linking downtown Washington with the airport, would serve the many towns and businesses along the way.
Yet, as even smart-growthers concede, extending Metro by itself will not accomplish that much. For while Metro excels at getting commuters to and from the District, it isn't as good at moving them around the suburbs. And, given the dispersed nature of suburban housing, many Metro riders would have to get into their cars to reach a station; this not only deters use but also puts more cars on the road. As it is, most trains leave the stations in suburban Virginia nearly empty, contributing to a $300-million-a-year shortfall that must be made up by the government.
To get the maximum benefit from mass transit, urban planners believe, it must be joined to better land-use policies. "Transit-oriented development" is their reigning catch phrase, and by it they mean encouraging commercial and residential development around transit stops. With more housing near stations, commuters can walk to the subway in the morning. And with more office buildings near stops, employees arriving by subway can walk to work. "Getting Metro to an area will help, but you have to do something different with the land or you won't get the benefits," says Christopher Zimmerman, a member of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors.
Located across the Potomac from Washington, Arlington itself is something of a showcase. In the 1960s, when Metro was being planned, a group of local officials went to Europe to look at transit patterns, and they were impressed by how stations were surrounded by shops, office buildings, and apartments. Back home, they enacted zoning regulations to encourage the same. Thirty years later, most of the Metro stations in Arlington are surrounded by offices, restaurants, and--a short distance away--townhouses and apartments. As a result, Arlington's Metro stops have a much higher ridership than those in neighboring Fairfax, most of which are surrounded by parking lots. "It's one of the best models of transportation-related development in North America," says Ed Risse, a veteran planner in Fairfax County.
Learning to Love Density
In short, the antidote to sprawl is density--encouraging clusters of buildings that serve a mix of uses. The problem is, most Americans don't like density. The word conjures up visions of Manhattan-size towers looming over their homes and of alien elements invading their neighborhoods. This aversion has long stymied planners in their efforts to combat sprawl.
Yet, as I found in Tysons Corner, this may be changing. In the course of an interview, Katherine Hanley, the chair of Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors, mentioned the county's plans to turn Tysons into Fairfax's "downtown"--in other words, to make it more urban, more dense. When I asked for details, Hanley sent me a copy of Fairfax's "master plan" for Tysons Corner. It makes for fascinating reading. Tyson's "sprawling size," it states,
has resulted in an auto-oriented suburban development pattern in which buildings are generally developed on individual lots, set well back from roadways, and surrounded by large areas of surface parking. Although Tysons Corner contains many unique and attractive buildings, there is little visual integration and few pedestrian and transit linkages among developments. The overall effect of the current development pattern is a lack of cohesiveness and identity.
According to the plan, the pattern of tall buildings separated by parking lots and "the dispersion of uses--a restaurant here, an office building a fair distance away--forces people to get into their cars to travel even short distances." Such a land-use pattern, it adds, is "difficult to serve by transit because places where people can be picked up or dropped off are spread out."
The plan proposes to change this. "Over the next 20 to 30 years," it states, "Tysons Corner is envisioned to evolve into a more urban environment, while retaining the best features of a suburban activity center." To that end, it says, future buildings should be placed closer together and nearer roads and should be linked by tree-lined sidewalks that "will make walking safe and pleasant." It urges the creation of urban parks and plazas offering art works, benches, and fountains, plus abundant opportunities for recreation. In all cases, the plan states, parking should be located "at the side, back or underneath" buildings. Route 7 itself is to become a "boulevard" with trees, better lighting, coordinated signs, and office buildings with restaurants and shops on the ground floor. The plan also calls for the construction of housing units within walking distance of the office buildings.
Overall, the Tysons Corner master plan reads like a charter document of the New Urbanism, a school of urban planning that seeks to use pedestrian-friendly architecture and design principles to create vibrant communities. Today, the New Urbanists are everywhere at work transforming aging shopping malls, making roadways more walkable, and even building whole towns, such as Seaside, Florida, and Kentlands, Maryland. That the master plan for Tysons Corner, the prototype of sprawl, so reflects the New Urbanism shows how far its ideas have penetrated.
Of course, the plan for Tysons Corner is nothing more than that--a plan--and it's tempting to see it as the utopian vision of out-of-touch planners. And initially, the document had little impact. Its provisions were not mandatory, and developers had little incentive to comply. Little by little, though, the times have caught up with the plan, and its vision is beginning to take hold.
Consider, for example, the changing fortunes of the 17-story Tycon Tower, one of Tysons Corner's tallest buildings. Designed by Philip Johnson, the building--known as the "shopping bag," after the curve at the top of its façade--sits just south of the Tysons II shopping center, but the site's steep grading and the large parking structure in back make it hard to reach on foot. That was Johnson's intent. "He wanted the building to be a monument that makes a statement, that is isolated from everything else," observed Sterling Wheeler, a Fairfax County planner who helped draft the Tysons plan. "It's like a huge Wall of China separating it from the world around it."
Johnson's design called for the building of two more towers that were just as isolated as the first. That, however, ran counter to the county's goal of better integrating buildings with their surroundings. Gently prodded by Fairfax planners, the owners of the site brought in an innovative firm named RTKL to do a redesign. RTKL had won acclaim in the area for its design of a new town center in Reston, a complex of shops, restaurants, and offices intended to have an urban feel. To a real city dweller, the center seems a bit artificial. It's located on the edge of town, and visitors must drive to get there. But once they park, they can stroll down the center's main promenade in an approximation of the urban experience.
The center's popularity convinced the developer of Tycon Tower to bring in RTKL to produce an alternative plan for the site. Its new design called for reducing the grading around the building and introducing stairs, an elevator, and a bridge to make the towers reachable on foot. Whereas Johnson expressly did not want the site accessible 24 hours a day, RTKL is making sure that it is. "At every point, they're attacking the Philip Johnson design," Wheeler told me. "It's a very key project that used the master plan to develop the site."
Given that compliance with the plan is not compulsory, why was the developer so willing to follow it? "In order to be competitive," Wheeler said. Companies, he explained, were feeling a need to change their work environments so as to become more attractive to employees. Increasingly, those employees want to work in a place where they can walk to a restaurant for lunch or sit at an outdoor café after work. "If the market itself hadn't changed," Wheeler noted, "we'd still be fighting to get our plan adopted."
In the end, however, Wheeler and his fellow planners believe that no plan to revitalize Tysons will work unless Metro comes there. (Currently, the nearest station is about two miles away.) Following Arlington's example, the master plan envisions several stations surrounded by offices, shops, and housing. Until recently, a proposed line to Tysons languished because of concerns about its cost (estimated at $700 million to $900 million). But in the past two years, local business and political leaders have become convinced of mass transit's importance to the city's future, and a rail link seems sure to become a reality.
So even here, in the ultimate edge city, the move is toward a more pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented culture. Even the most extreme product of the automobile age, it seems, can be transformed. Clearly, the suburbs are open to reinvention.
Developers Still Rule
Now, one should not get too carried away. In Virginia, as in many other states, the regulatory climate remains highly favorable to developers. With shopping malls and office properties continuing to provide a lucrative tax base, many towns and counties are still eager to approve them. And while the business community is waking to the benefits of smart growth, it is doing so slowly. Even as high-tech companies have embraced a rail line to Tysons, for instance, they are making other decisions that seem likely to feed sprawl. America Online is a leading culprit. Its recent move from Tysons Corner to Loudoun County makes sense from a narrow business perspective: AOL wanted one of those artificial-lakes-with-a-geyser campuses so popular in high-tech America, and only in Loudoun could it find the necessary cheap land. Furthermore, the new site is near Dulles Airport, affording its globe-trotting executives ready access. But while Steve Case is up in the air, his 6,000 employees will be battling it out on the ground, inching their way to work along the Dulles Toll Road.
Meanwhile, developers--seeking to house this burgeoning work force--are pushing further and further into the countryside. Already, the eastern half of Loudoun County has become a patchwork of townhouses, shopping malls, and office parks; now the developers are moving into the county's western, more scenic half.
But a rebellion is brewing. In November, Loudoun residents threw out the former, pro-development board of supervisors and voted in a new, more militant one; eight of its nine members advocate stricter controls on growth. I arranged to meet one of them, a retired Air Force colonel named James Burton. At 62, Burton is no stranger to combat. During a 14-year stint at the Pentagon, he caused an uproar by claiming that one of the Army's most prized projects (the Bradley fighting vehicle) had not been properly tested. Now he is preparing to take on the developers.
To see Burton, I drove 25 miles west on Route 7 to Leesburg, the county seat. We met at the five-story county office building. "This is a mostly Republican county," said Burton, a silver-haired, straight-backed, plainspoken man. "But the growth in the region is creating tremendous turmoil." A traditionally rural county, with many old estates and a lively hunt scene, Loudoun today is the fourth-fastest-growing county in the country, with 1,000 new residents arriving each month. Many of them work for AOL and other high-tech companies in the Dulles corridor. And their arrival has placed a great strain on the county's school system. "We're building four schools a year," Burden noted. "We need to build 23 more in the next six years." The cost was increasing the tax burden on longtime residents, and many were protesting.
And far more than money was at stake; Burton, eager to show me, took me out in his white Subaru station wagon. Heading west along Route 7, we were soon in rolling farm country. "That's Beacon Hill--Arthur Godfrey's farm," Burton said, pointing to a hilly tract of land off to the right. A new road was being carved into it, and large patches of trees had been chopped down to make way for townhouses. Further along, he pulled off to the side and gestured at the wooded hills that stretched out before us, gently lapping up against the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. "It's such gorgeous land," Burton said. "If we're not careful, though, the developers will build right up to the edge of the mountains. They'll turn this into the L.A. Basin."
We headed back toward Leesburg, then turned south on Route 15, the dividing line between eastern and western Loudoun. As we drove along, Burton pointed out the pleasant sights (a large plantation anchored by a Georgian mansion, a manor home once owned by James Madison) and the unsightly ones (townhouse complexes being gashed into the land, giant cookie-cutter "McMansions" being plopped down on hillsides). "What is so sad," he said, "is that we are quietly destroying the very things that attracted people out here in the first place--the quality of life, the beauty, the scenery."
Loudoun's problems date back to the early 1990s, when the county, mired in a recession, opened itself to developers. In 1995, with the economy roaring and young professionals pouring in, a group of local residents, upset at the pace of change, approached Burton about running for the board. He said he would, as long as they took care of fundraising. They did, and Burton (an independent) won handily over a pro-growth Republican. As a lone voice on the board, however, he was limited in what he could do. But with the developers running amok and the tax burden growing, a group of citizens came together last year to form Voters to Stop Sprawl. For months, they rang doorbells, handed out leaflets, and spoke at meetings. And in November, their entire slate won.
"The new board is going to make some very drastic changes in the direction the county is going," Burton told me. "We're going to place more stringent requirements on the developers." And the developers were preparing to fight back. "It's going to be a battle royal," he said.
In that battle, he's not expecting much support from the political establishment. "All the power's in Richmond," Burton notes. "And the developers own the legislature. They've fought every attempt by local governments to get new tools to manage growth." The real estate and construction industries are the state's largest campaign contributors, giving legislators more than $1 million since 1996. "People in the legislature are totally out of touch with what's going on in local communities," Burton said. "But a backlash is growing around the state."
As Burton's comments suggest, the effort to contain sprawl in places like Loudoun cannot be separated from the role of money in the political process. In Richmond, as in state capitals across the country, developers constitute a rich and powerful lobby that can easily stymie efforts at the grass roots. But as events in Loudoun also show, the developers are coming under growing pressure as the antisprawl movement expands from its traditional bike-riding, tree-hugging base to include suburban mothers, rural homeowners, retired military officers, and corporate executives.
A word of caution: All the positive developments taking place in the land could come to a crashing halt if a recession were to hit. When jobs are scarce, people do not care how far they have to drive to reach them. Even now, in economically sluggish states like Pennsylvania, smart-growthers are having a hard time getting their message across. Meanwhile, SUV sales remain brisk--a sign of how entrenched America's car culture is.
Still, it's striking to hear business leaders endorsing rail systems, county supervisors sounding like Jane Jacobs, and Republican farmers taking on local developers. Just a few years ago, the suburbs seemed bedrock Republican. Now, on local issues at least, sprawl is pushing them to the left, in a development that could alter the nation's political--and physical--landscape for many years to come. ¤
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)