Suburban Cowboys

You know your conservative pet cause has arrived when it gets an event at the Heritage Foundation. Every kooky right-wing crusade, from denying global warming to teaching creationism in public schools, will eventually have its moment in the sun at the conservative think tank.

So it is no surprise that the honor was recently granted to a growing group of reactionaries who think that America's sprawling, post-war development pattern is actually a good thing -- and that the nascent anti-sprawl "smart growth" movement needs to be stopped. These pro-sprawl views have begun to find their voice on the op-ed pages and, on May 22nd, with a discussion at Heritage modestly titled "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life."

The event took its name from the title of a new book by Wendell Cox, a public policy consultant (critics call him a "hired gun for the roadway industry") and visiting fellow at Heritage. Cox was introduced by another Heritage fellow, Ron Utt, who is perhaps best known as the man who led the Reagan administration's privatization efforts. The two are longtime colleagues (Utt boasted at the outset that they have "co-authored more papers than I can count"), so there was no alternative view presented.

The new right-wing bogeyman that Utt and Cox devote considerable energy to destroying is the smart growth movement. Smart growth advocates seek to present an alternative to the suburban-sprawl model of development. They suggest that local governments undo restrictions that require separation of residential and commercial property and requirements that every business be surrounded by a massive parking lot. Simultaneously, they seek to redress the severe imbalance of public funding that currently favors highways over mass transit. The desired result is a walkable, transit-accessible, mixed-use community that is more integrated and has less environmental impact than its suburban counterparts.

But commentators like Utt and Cox counter that sprawl enables home-buying by constructing cheap new houses in cornfields, and cuts down on congestion by dispersing traffic into ever-expanding networks of new highways. Of course, there are elements of truth in both propositions, but Utt and Cox never address whether their preferred pattern is environmentally sustainable or culturally desirable.

The shallow logic of the pro-sprawl propagandists is apparent in listening to the audio recording of Cox and Utt's discussion that's available on the Heritage website. Utt noted in his introduction that housing prices are lower in Houston and Atlanta than in Washington, D.C. or Chicago, implying that the greater affordability of the Southern cities can be explained by their sprawling development patterns.

This is an interesting inversion of the typical conservative faith in the efficiency of the market. Says Dan Emerine, project manager for the Smart Growth Network, a coalition of non-profits and governmental agencies devoted to assisting local communities in developing in a smart growth pattern, "One of the problems that isn't being addressed in such a claim is simply the desirability of living in those locations. To the extent that there is a premium for living in such locations as D.C. or Chicago, it's because those locations are scarce. If you have a scarce good, simple economics tells you that you will get a higher price than otherwise might exist." He went on to explain that smart-growth advocates want to level the playing field to ensure that all communities can develop in ways that allow "many more opportunities for people to live in communities that are transit-oriented and pedestrian friendly."

The pro-sprawl movement, like most right-wing cultural reactions, is remarkable for the paranoia of its worldview. Even as the exurbs continue to grow uncontrollably, they are threatened by the existence of a few authors, architects, and non-profits pushing, mostly unsuccessfully, for smart growth policies. Cox began his speech by characterizing his opposition as a "hysterical anti-suburbanization movement out there, led by people like James Howard Kunstler."

Kunstler is the author of several books on sprawl, most notably The Geography of Nowhere, and an ardent opponent of sprawl on aesthetic, spiritual, and ecological grounds. (Cox quotes Kunstler calling the suburbs "a trashy and preposterous human environment with no future.") Kunstler told the Prospect that Cox is part of "an interesting cohort of observers whose basic argument is that suburbia is OK because people seem to like it." He fingers New York Times columnist David Brooks, Peter Huber of Forbes magazine and the Manhattan Institute, Robert Bruegmann of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Joel Kotkin of the New America Foundation as other members.

"The interesting thing is that their argument doesn't go beyond that," Kunstler says. "It absolutely fails to take into account whether circumstances will permit us to keep living this way. The fact that people like something doesn't mean it's sustainable." Like many smart-growth advocates, Kunstler argues that the era of cheap oil cannot last forever, and that the environmental impact of paving over ever more land and driving greater distances is devastating. Even if the suburban lifestyle offers a higher quality of life, as Cox maintains, it simply cannot be accommodated indefinitely.

Cox (who had to correct himself at one point when he accidentally referred to "anti-sprawl" policy as "smart growth") has become omnipresent in the growing anti-anti-sprawl reaction. He has been cited repeatedly by the libertarian former New York Times columnist John Tierney, and by other reporters in pieces on the various downsides of suburban sprawl.

Cox's contributions generally take the form of misleading observations, such as his estimate, quoted in The New York Times, that tripling federal mass transit funding would only reduce the average driver's commute by 22 seconds. This is not very meaningful. First, since mass transit funding is so anemic, tripling is not as significant an offer as it may seem. (It would need to go considerably higher than that to approach parity with highway funding, and would still be a tiny fraction of, say, the defense budget.) Second, averaging the savings out over all drivers isn't very informative. Drivers in rural locales where mass transit isn't feasible would see no benefit, while those in or near cities would see an enormous one as they would be able to stop driving in favor of taking the train or the bus. The benefits can be measured in more than just commute time: many commuters feel that taking a train to work, even if it takes just as long as driving, is psychologically beneficial because they can sleep or read on their way to work. Empirically, it's better for the environment and it's safer than risking a traffic accident.

Utt, meanwhile, was once quoted in the New York Times denying that the sedentary lifestyle of suburbia contributes to obesity. Instead Utt points his finger at the washing machine, arguing, "you're fat for a lot of reasons, like the fact that you don't do laundry by hand." This kind of deliberate obtuseness typifies pro-sprawl advocates' style of argumentation. Of course Americans are gaining weight for a wide array of reasons, including the picayune one that Utt chooses to harp on. But the fact that the lifestyle that accompanies suburban sprawl is one factor in the obesity epidemic -- and a greater one than the rise of the laundry machine -- should be undeniable to anyone without an ideological predilection towards strip malls and highways.

The same article that quoted Utt noted, "In Atlanta, at the lowest-density levels 68 percent of white men were overweight; at the highest-density levels, 50 percent were overweight. At the lowest density, 23 percent were obese; at the highest levels, 13 percent were obese." If that does not prove the intuitively obvious point that living in an environment where you walk more means you burn more calories, it's hard to imagine what evidence an ideologue like Utt would accept.

Ultimately the pro-sprawl reaction, a sort of Reagonomics of urban planning, betrays many of the peculiar traits of modern conservatism: the impulse to demonize any opposition, no matter how minimal or common-sense, and a proclivity to selectively pull bits of information out of context (Cox mentioned at the event that the world's largest freeway -- 20 lanes wide -- is in Bangkok. This is proof, he says, that the entire world is heading in the same direction we are, but he fails to note that Bangkok has notoriously horrible traffic nonetheless.)

As the Smart Growth Network's Emerine argues, "I think the criticism stems from a real misunderstanding of what advocates of smart growth and better community planning are trying to accomplish. I think the evidence shows that we are really about leveling the playing field for the market and types of development that there is a real market demand for." The question is, why don't pro-sprawl conservatives like Utt and Cox want to allow the free market to work?

You may also like