November 2, 2000
By Steven Hayward
Many voters across the nation are paying close attention to an
issue barely mentioned in the presidential debates: "urban sprawl."
Vice President Al Gore has endorsed plans to build more transit
lines and encourage "smart growth," and the Sierra Club is running
an $8 million ad campaign to support anti-sprawl candidates in key
But the concern over sprawl is more than a mere byproduct of
increased traffic jams or the loss of open space. It shows that
Americans have arrived at a defining moment, where growth is no
longer considered a visible sign of social progress but an enemy
that must be rolled back or at least stopped in its tracks.
To see the shift, try this experiment: Imagine you could bring
back the architects of FDR's New Deal policies. You show them a
photo of a new suburban neighborhood and explain that neighborhoods
like this are going up all over the country. You add that the
homeownership rate in America is near 70 percent - a rate few other
nations come close to matching - and that minorities are the
fastest-growing demographic group of new homeowners.
At this point, our reincarnated New Dealers would swell with
pride and say, "We did it. Our goal of expanding prosperity and
extending it to the working class worked." But you quickly correct
them: "Oh, no, you don't understand. This is called 'sprawl,' and
it's a huge source of controversy. Lots of people want to stop the
spread of suburban housing." Your New Dealers undoubtedly would be
And who could blame them? In the 1930s, growth was the soul of
policy and the challenge of each generation. How would you explain
to them, or even to an early Great Society liberal, the controversy
of this achievement? The answer can be found in an obscure 1976
book called "Social Limits to Growth" by British economist Fred
Hirsch was writing to refute errors in the then-new "Club of
Rome" report, which suggested that Western civilization was pushing
the physical limits of growth because of scarce resources,
increasing pollution and the fabled "population boom." But though
Hirsch disagreed, he did admit that middle-class people might come
to doubt the value of economic growth.
This change would occur, Hirsch said, when the link between
growth and personal well-being was broken. All of us naturally want
more income, more education and more luxuries. This used to mean
people were generally pro-growth - which meant, for example, that
we were happy to hear about a new factory going up across town. We
understood that growth would benefit all, even if we weren't
working at the new factory ourselves.
But at some point, that understanding would end, he said.
Growing traffic congestion would be one of the first causes of this
shift. "Once this growth brings mass consumption to the point where
it causes problems of congestion in the widest sense - bluntly,
where consumption of jobholding by others tends to crowd you out,"
Hirsch wrote, "then the key to personal welfare gain is again the
ability to stay ahead of the crowd" and oppose change.
If Hirsch is right - if the large scale and fast pace of change
is fueling opposition to sprawl - then even the "smart growth"
agenda is doomed. Its proponents think they can solve the sprawl
problem by getting Americans to live more densely in cities and
suburbs (which, given the population projections of the next 20
years, will be a real challenge). But if the mere scale of growth,
and not its particular form, is sprawl, then even "smart growth"
isn't the answer.
It's possible that certain smart-growth proposals, such as
consumer-oriented neo-traditional communities and the revival of
main street-style neighborhood centers, will cause some to drop
their opposition to "sprawl." But when people say they want growth
"controlled" or "managed," they might be using euphemisms meaning
they just want it to stop.
There could be a bright future for smart-growth plans that
emphasize individual choice and allow the marketplace to create
communities of character. But if smart growth merely results in
more social engineering, it's easy to predict that this attempt at
"suburban renewal" will be a failure as disastrous as that of urban
renewal 40 years ago.
This essay by Steven Hayward, a senior fellow at the Pacific
Research Institute, is adapted from the Heritage Foundation
Guide To Smart Growth"
Distributed Nationally by Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Wire
A Sprawling Discontent
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