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Suburban Sprawl and Human Ecology

The modern environmental movement originated during the 1970s in response to serious environmental conditions–polluted rivers, blighted landscapes, and noxious air. We owe great tribute to those who worked tirelessly to remind us of our obligation to be good stewards of the earth. In a relatively short time, we responded to the environmental calls to action, and the results are noteworthy. Our land, air, and water have improved markedly during the past two decades, yet one cannot help but notice that as each environmental challenge becomes increasingly manageable, new crises seem to arise in turn. The newest environmental threat, according to the latest environmental wisdom, is suburban sprawl.

To some, sprawl is simply an American phenomenon. Since America is blessed with plenty of land, it seems only natural that some folks choose to live in central cities, some on the cities’ edge, and some in the rural hinterlands. To others, however, the migration to suburbs represents everything wrong with our nation. Large-scale road building and other landforms designed around the automobile are said to be responsible for the American abandonment of the city. With this abandonment comes all manner of environmental degradation: air pollution from daily commutes, conversion of farmland to suburban uses, altered wildlife habitat, depletion of fossil fuel resources, and a host of associated environmental concerns.

Is suburban sprawl bad for the environment? Furthermore, how do these issues square with concerns raised by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical letter Centesimus Annus–that “too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic ‘human ecology’”? In his words, “In addition to the irrational destruction of the natural environment, we must also mention the more serious destruction of the human environment, something which is by no means receiving the attention it deserves.” In fact, sprawl has become the new platform for environmental activists to pursue alternative social agendas. Proposed growth-control policies ultimately lead to restrained individual choice regarding where we live, work, and play. These policies directly undermine the right of self-determination to make the most basic of choices, cutting right to the core of human ecology.

The Current Debate on Sprawl

The Sierra Club, a leading environmental advocacy group, defines sprawl as “low-density development beyond the edge of service and employment, which separates where people live from where they shop, work, recreate, and educate–thus requiring cars to move between zones.” The Sierra Club’s publication, The Dark Side of the American Dream, details its perceptions of the costs and consequences of sprawl.

It cites “unplanned, rapid growth and poor land-use management” as responsible for “increased traffic congestion, longer commutes, increased dependence on fossil fuels, crowded schools, worsening air and water pollution, lost open space and wetlands, increased flooding, destroyed wildlife habitat, higher taxes, and dying city centers.” These problems, in turn, are “threatening the quality of life and eroding the national progress we’ve made protecting our environment under legislation such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act.”

Consequently, the Sierra Club’s “Challenge to Sprawl” campaign is dedicated to slowing development and encouraging “smart growth,” which channels development to areas with existing infrastructure and consumes less land for roads, houses, and commercial buildings.

Urban sprawl is not a new concern. Urban planners have long tackled the question of how to efficiently design cities, developments, and neighborhoods. Some planned developments–such as Radburn, New Jersey; Reston, Virginia; and Columbia, Maryland–are notable because they remain in existence today. More common are the abandoned high rises (like those located south of the Loop along the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago) that stand in testimony to failed attempts at urban renewal. Perhaps most noteworthy of all is the famed Pruitt Igoe high-rise housing project in St. Louis. Designed and built in the 1960s to address all kinds of human ills, the Pruitt Igoe won architectural accolades and awards, only to be demolished in 1972, a miserable experiment in which the human inhabitants failed to behave as engineered.

The new momentum behind urban sprawl and suburbanization, however, is different. It goes beyond the traditional urban concerns of crime, unemployment, and the like. This time, the focus is on environmental destruction. The Sierra Club propels the threat of sprawl into the American consciousness by claiming “many Americans consider overdevelopment–‘sprawl’–to be the fastest-growing threat to their local environment and quality of life.”

Additionally, environmental activists cite the more traditional consequences of sprawl: higher taxes for infrastructure and services; erosion of the inner-city tax base; destruction of downtown commercial centers; dwindling investment opportunities; concentration of poverty in urban centers; and the “robbing” of city character as “abandoned factories, boarded-up homes, and decaying retail centers dominate the landscape.” While each of these economic problems is an important issue, this article is limited to a consideration of the environmental concerns associated with sprawl.

Can the aforementioned list of environmental consequences be fairly attributed to sprawl and urbanization? Surely this calls for an examination of a complex, interwoven set of interactions. Perhaps the best that can be offered here are some odd facts and contrary perspectives to consider as fuel for the fire.

Contrary Perspectives

Farmland Conversion. People fear we are losing a cherished way of life–the Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian nation. Consequently, many land preservation policies have been proposed and adopted during the past two decades.

Yet a way of life is a difficult thing to legislate through public policy. As our opportunities and abilities evolve, our lifestyles change. Thanks to ever-evolving new technologies, we produce more food on less land than ever before, leaving fewer people to endure the relatively difficult agrarian lifestyle. Despite the tendency to romanticize agrarian living, farm life is grueling.

Fortunately, some people love to live and work on the land, and those hardy farmers and ranchers provide valuable goods for the rest of us. Without a doubt, they should be free to do so. The reverse, however, is cause for concern. City dwellers who pursue farmland policies that make it difficult for farmers to sell their land–all in the quest of farmland preservation–are relegating their fellow man to a life-style he prefers to leave behind.

Finally, there are the actual agricultural land acreage statistics. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, cropland has remained unchanged–24 percent of United States land area–during the past fifty years. In contrast, urban land uses comprise about 3 percent of total land area. Combined urban and suburban land uses account for less than 5 percent of total land area in the continental United States.

Air Pollution. Despite the increase in suburbanization, air quality in the United States has shown a trend of improvement during the last two decades. Since 1980, overall air quality has improved by more than 40 percent. Ambient levels of the six air pollutants targeted by federal regulations have declined since the 1970s. Proponents of growth regulations typically cite pollution from increased traffic congestion, yet ambient levels of carbon monoxide caused mostly by car emissions decreased 63.7 percent between 1975 and 1995.

Traffic Congestion. The Sierra Club cites “longer commutes that steal time from family and work” as another consequence of sprawl. Yet the last three surveys by the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey found that average work trip speeds are increasing–from 28 mph in 1983 to 32.3 mph in 1990 and 33.6 mph in 1995. Census data show that as people and jobs have moved to the suburbs, commute times have not increased. This should not be surprising, since people routinely make housing selections based on a combination of factors: distance to work and schools, neighborhood character, and so on.

Energy Consumption. Energy consumption concerns, like those of air pollution and congestion, are also somewhat suspect. Cars use more energy and pollute more in congested city traffic than they do in the more open areas of the lower-density suburbs. This consideration aside, sprawl is not likely to lead to legitimate concerns about fossil fuel depletion. Estimates of oil reserves have increased every year for the past two decades, thanks to new technologies that aid in the discovery and recovery of fossil fuels.

Forests. Suburban sprawl is said to be eating up our nation’s forests. Contrary to popular belief, forested areas in America are expanding, rather than contracting. According to the United States Forest Service, annual timber growth in the United States exceeds harvest by 37 percent and has exceeded harvest every year since 1952. The increase is mainly due to marginal farmlands that grew back into forests as a result of technological developments in agriculture.

Global Warming. And of course, no issue is complete without a direct link to the mother lode of all environmental problems–global warming. The Sierra Club contends that “sprawl is also contributing to one of the biggest international environmental problems today– global warming. Cars zipping around highways, or, worse, cars stuck for hours in traffic jams, spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere each year. Even though sprawl is considered a regional problem, its consequences are global.” The global warming debates have been highly polarized with regard to the anthropocentric contribution. It is sufficiently compelling, however, to observe that the noted rise in global temperatures occurred before 1940–prior to the rise of urban sprawl and its associated traffic flows.

How Smart Is Smart Growth?

The environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth tells its followers to persuade politicians to act. “Every urban authority should be urged to undertake a comprehensive urban capacity assessment, and to promote more medium density residential developments near public transport nodes, with reduced car parking provision.” It argues that “perceptions of both town and country need to change; and the Government needs to take a lead in reducing the exodus [from the cities].”

Vice President Al Gore is one politician taking their lead. His “Better American Bonds” campaign, announced in January 1999, enlists a dozen federal agencies to preserve and enhance green space, parks, and urban waters. State and local governments will vie for Environmental Protection Agency approval to secure $10 billion in bond money for public transit, air quality preservation, and coordination of transportation and planning in urban regions.

Not everyone agrees with such tactics. According to Friends of the Earth, the Town and Country Planning Association, which is an opponent of “packing people into existing urban areas,” has suggested that environmentalists are “militant” in their smart growth targets. The tcpa may be on to something. A growing number of policy analysts see smart growth policies as little more than restricting Americans’ freedom of choice in housing and transportation.

In Portland, Oregon, which leads the nation in government-regulated growth, the effort to concentrate development inside an “urban growth boundary” has driven up housing prices and increased congestion, reducing air quality and lengthening commuting times. A Portland State University economist found that the city’s housing prices rose by 63.8 percent from 1990 to 1995, faster than the United States median of 18.2 percent. Land prices in Portland have more than doubled since 1990. Metro, the city’s regional planning authority, controls the boundary created in 1979 to “in-fill” vacant land in developed areas. As Metro deliberates whether to add more land to the boundary, the city’s fate hangs in the balance. Without boundary expansions, projected population growth will force residents to live in more crowded cities, smaller houses, and more congested neighborhoods.

Urban policy expert Sam Staley writes, “Suburbanization is the result of a healthy economic and social process: families earning high enough incomes to exercise choice over their quality of life and housing. The task before cities is to provide competitive options for these families, not limit them in the name of ‘urban sprawl’.”

Before launching new and broader government programs to respond to the task of cities, Gore and other politicians would be wise to focus on the consequences of existing state efforts to shape our landscapes. Government subsidies, including home mortgage loan guarantees, federal grants for municipal infrastructure development, state and local tax incentives to lure businesses to the suburbs, and regulations that increase the cost of doing business in the inner cities, have effected the mass exodus of families, businesses, and churches from the cities. Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith writes in his book, The Twenty-first Century City, “Federal urban policy drives wealth out of cities. In fact, if we specifically designed a ‘suburban policy’ to drive investment out of cities, it would look a lot like the current system.”

Parting Comments

During the failed attempts of the 1960s, social engineers believed they could transform human action by simply changing the physical circumstances of man’s existence. Efforts to reach out to the soul and spirit were notably absent. It failed then, and there is no reason to believe it will not fail again. Like other coercive visions, the new environmental quest to regulate and channel human activity is a challenge to our individual freedom and a challenge to the preservation of the human environment.

Is suburban sprawl a serious threat to our existence? While the debate may seem irrelevant to many, it is an issue to keep in the fore. Environmental issues typically have far-reaching effects, and the sprawl issue is no exception. Under its wings, social engineers have increasing opportunities to have an impact on virtually every aspect of our lives–right down to the nature and character of our neighborhoods, countryside, and hinterlands. And, consequently, to the nature of the family, which, as John Paul reminds us, is the “first and fundamental structure for ‘human ecology’.”