The Social Significance of the Sprawl Controversy

Steven Hayward

April 1, 1999

There is something amiss, and more than a little perverse, about the ruckus over urban sprawl that has the chattering classes in a full lather at the moment.

Take Time magazine as an example. Three weeks ago Time decided to dramatize the issue of sprawl with a two-page photo spread of a new housing subdivision in Gwinnett County near Atlanta. This tableau would once have been regarded as a sign of pride and progress, of how the traditional American Dream of homeownership is being extended to ever more middle class people in our country. But Time’s headline carried the opposite connotation: "Is there hope?"

This represents a remarkable turnabout in the public mood. To be sure, new neighborhoods have been growing faster than kudzu vines in Georgia for the last two decades. This growth has helped transform Atlanta into one of the world’s pre-eminent cities, yet the rapid pace of growth and change has struck many people as the worst thing to happen to Georgia since General Sherman’s march to the sea.

The controversy over urban sprawl continues to be discussed as an environmental issue, though the facts about the matter suggest that the environmental impacts of suburban development are comparatively minor. Less than 5 percent of the land area of the continental U.S. is developed, and the rate of development is less than .07% a year. Traffic congestion is less a function of low density development patterns than it is a function of affluence and lifestyle.

But these are the kind of statistics that are almost irrelevant to the politics of the issue, because sprawl is a potent social issue. I am reminded of President Roosevelt’s famous quip to critics of the long-run effects of the New Deal: "People don’t eat in the long run; they eat every day." Similarly, nearly every piece of open space that yields to the bulldozer occurs in the line of sight of a populated area where people live now, and the change and disruption it brings locally trumps the fact that the land area in question represents a statistically miniscule portion of the nation. People in Columbus don’t care that 99 percent of Wyoming is going to be open space forever.

When we focus on sprawl as a social issue instead of an environmental issue, we come at last to the recognition that what is really going on is the latest chapter in the long-running odyssey of the Baby Boom generation, whose most characteristic trait is to complain and wreak havoc on American society. Back in the 1950s, we had to build thousands of school classrooms to accommodate the burgeoning numbers of Boomers needing schooling. In the 1960s, one new college or university opened every week to keep up with the swelling ranks of college kids, and of course we had to hire more cops and build more jails to hold all the protestors arrested at campus demonstrations. In the 1970s, we had to hire psychotherapists to handle the various head trips the Boomers were having. In the 1980s, the Boomers started discovering the stock market, and we had an explosion of stock brokers and mutual funds (which continues to this day).

Now, as Boomers reach middle age in the 1990s, we are experiencing a rush to build large, relaxed-fit suburban houses to go with our relaxed fit jeans and slacks. Like everything else the Boomers have done, they are doing this on a large scale. Have you noticed at fast food restaurants that you can’t order a "small" drink any more? They start at "medium" now, and go up through "supersize." It is a nice metaphor for our suburban lifestyle today. The average size of a new home today is nearly one-third larger than it was in 1970. That means were going to use a lot of land compared to the houses our parents had 50 years ago.

The social friction arises because although we all want the nice suburban home for ourselves, we get grumpy when everyone else has it too. But if you think Boomers are mad about sprawl, wait till you see how loud they will scream if government seriously tries to force us into smaller houses on smaller lots, which is the cornerstone of "smart growth." (Smart growth essentially proposes to conquer the "not-in-my-back-yard" syndrome by the simple expedient of getting rid of back yards.) Do you really think Boomers who have CD changers and cell phones in their plush sport utility vehicles are really going to give them up to ride on light rail trains? When understood this way, smart growth seems merely clever rather than intelligent.

The change and disruption that growth is bringing to suburban communities is undoubtedly a profound cause of anxiety for the ever anxious Boomers, but once this issue is understood as a part of the Boomer saga, we can relax a bit because, like other chapters in the Boomer story, this too shall pass.

Steven Hayward is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.