By Allison Arieff
“Sprawl … It’s the American dream unfolding before your eyes.”
That’s L. Brooks Patterson’s irresistible description of sprawl, proving yet again how masterful the stalwarts of the status quo are at messaging that which they hope to preserve in amber.
In a speech to his constituents earlier this year, Patterson, the county executive of Oakland County, Mich., continued to wax poetic on the topic: “I love sprawl. I need it. I promote it. Oakland County can’t get enough of it. Are you getting the picture? Sprawl is not evil. In fact, it is good … [it] is new jobs, new hope and the fulfillment of lifelong dreams.”
Patterson’s rousing stump speech for sprawl is emblematic of how we as a culture are far too invested in a vision of the American dream that doesn’t make sense in the 21st century. Over the past 30 years we’ve stripped away the supporting mechanisms of sprawl but have continued to create it.
We’ve built more houses than we’ve needed — and built them farther away from jobs. This has led to longer commutes, which has created more traffic. In response, we built more highways, increasing fuel consumption and, as transportation planners acknowledge, doing little if anything to reduce traffic. It’s a vicious, seemingly endless cycle, and at its core is the notion that the American dream can exist only within the framework of the single-family home on a large lot.
Indeed, we’ve become so fixated on this as the sole delivery mechanism of that American dream that we’ve spent a disproportionate amount of our collective energies (home-) improving it without considering meaningful alternative visions — or devoting at least a smidgen of attention to what’s outside the front door or down the block. Everything in our culture today reinforces this idea of home as castle (or fortress) rather than home as part of a larger whole (i.e., neighborhood). We need to find our way to the latter view, and part of that means finding a better way to talk about it.
The good news is that more and more people are.
It’s true that for years, homebuilders and home-sellers were touting Patterson’s sprawl-friendly sales pitch. If you were to walk into the sales center of any subdivision or master-planned community, from Modesto, Calif., to Tampa, Fla., the first question you’d be asked was, “How much square footage are you looking for?” Not “What kind of community would you like to be a part of?”
But increasingly, many of those looking for places to live found that the market had nothing for them. Houses were too big, too isolated, too generic, too hard to maintain. Or they were designed for the quintessential nuclear family that exists more in our cultural imagination than in reality. Few homes offered options for aging in place, for returning college kids or elderly parents, or even decent home office space. Would-be residents lamented the lack of amenities like a café or a playground within walking distance in master-planned communities of 5,000, 10,000 or even 40,000 homes (!), an absence often explained away with “a community of this size couldn’t support it.” For years, I heard from builders and developers who said they knew there was a market for smaller, more sustainable properties — they just couldn’t get such projects to pencil out.
Now, it seems those pencils have been sharpened.
“The giants of the building industry, the creators for decades of massive communities of cookie-cutter homes, cul-de-sacs and McMansions in far-flung suburbs” are doing an about-face, suddenly building smaller neighborhoods in and close to cities, noted an article in USA Today last month.
The market slowdown, the article went on to explain, “has given builders time to assess sweeping demographic changes that are transforming the way Americans want to live.”
In short, builders are recognizing that buyers (and renters, too!) value the neighborhood as much as — if not more than — the house. And what they want from that neighborhood might not be McMansions and four-car garages after all. Resale value may not in fact trump all else. Young and old, whether they’re in the city or the suburbs, want to walk to places like restaurants and shops. (And let’s stop talking about the integration of things like cafes, public transit and bike racks as “urbanizing” an area, which only reinforces the divide between two entities that are divided enough already.)
People have begun to wake up to the fact that the more time spent in the car means poorer health and less time with their families — and they’re seeking shorter commutes. They’re interested in smaller homes that are easier to maintain (and less expensive to heat and cool). Young millennials and older baby boomers are also showing less and less interest in car ownership and a corresponding greater interest in public transit, walking and biking. And again, it’s likely that we’re all less interested in continuing to discuss “urban” and “suburban” as dueling polar opposites — and more interested in recognizing there’s mutual benefit to some overlap.
The aforementioned changes point to the fact that a paradigmatic shift in our concept of the American dream is underway. And this shift is not just because of the recession, says Gregory Vilkin, managing principal and president of MacFarlane Partners, quoted in that USA Today piece, “It’s no longer the American dream to own a plot of land with a house on it and two cars in the driveway.”
The country could be moving toward something much better, something that’s less about consumption (of stuff, of such essential resources) and more about quality of life. Neighborhood groups have perhaps never been so strong a force, joining together to create an array of community-building offerings that make shared space the place to be (rather than the place to enter the garage from). Groups like Western Massachusetts Alliance to Develop Power have been building a “community economy” to address problems of jobs, housing and energy; the ever-expanding Build a Better Block shows that citizens care about their neighborhoods enough to begin to improve them on their own. It seems every day there are hybrid fix-it shops/cafes (instead of tossing that coffee maker, have a neighbor repair it and join her for a cup when it’s working again), sharing programs that encourage collaboration over competition (everything from tools to office space, babysitting services to garden plots) — even cargo-bike sharing (the latter to facilitate car-free, short-distance errands like food shopping), and an infinite number of smartphone apps to facilitate everything from easier use of public transit (Routesy or NextBus are great examples) or the effortless swapping of kids’ clothes.
For years now, people have been looking for an alternative, and the market — and the culture — is responding. A recent piece in Next American City demonstrates that even parts of notoriously sprawled-out states like Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are recognizing that investments in downtown cores will pay far more dividends than investments in their peripheries.
Government can play an important role here, too: Since 2009, the Obama administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities has supported this shift, promoting more transportation choices, equitable and affordable housing, and efforts to make government work better.
And yet … there are still those who are having none of it. And they are a vocal and often breathtakingly well-funded minority. For them, the sprawl that characterized the years leading up to the financial crisis remains a dream to strive for. Any threat to the McMansion of yore is equated to “feudal socialism” (I kid you not). And these opponents not only excel at mobilizing the troops but at mastering the message. Take a look at the rhetoric of, say, the Texas Republican party, which recently passed “Resist 21” in opposition to Agenda 21, the United Nations’ sustainable communities strategy adopted in 1992. Taken together, proclaims Resist 21, those strategies aspire to “the comprehensive control of all our population and its reduction to sustainable levels and the socialization of all activities by their relocation to highly restricted urban settlement centers.”
Living better and smarter shouldn’t be a partisan issue, nor should attempts at facilitating it be equated with destroying “our fundamental rights and liberties as a people.” (Come on, Texas!) It is true that advocates for livable communities err in presenting their case with soulless terms like “smart growth” and “transit-oriented development” and, yes, “Agenda 21,” which is far from anyone’s idea of “home.” Those in favor of keeping things as they are, foreclosures and foreign oil be damned, go too far in demonizing good intent.
As Jeremy Madsen, the executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance explained to me recently, “Everyone from environmentalists to the Tea Party deserves a voice. Even if over the next 30 years the majority of new communities consist of town homes and apartments near transit there will still be plenty of single-family homes available for those who want them.”
The only difference? People who want another option will have a greater opportunity to live their own version of the American dream.