Exiles From Main Street


Suburbia’s failings have been obvious for half a century. Housing subdivisions have stranded kids and mothers in communities devoid of communal life. They have forced residents to spend more time in cars than in conversation. They have chewed up God’s green earth. And yet: Two out of three Americans now live there, up from one-third of the 1960 population.

Fifteen years after Joel Garreau’s classic book Edge City spotlighted the clustering of malls and glass-cube office parks next to interstates, a spate of authors (Alan L. Berger, David Brooks, and James Howard Kunstler among them) are revisiting suburban supremacy. Why have Americans climbed over hills and fanned through valleys to move into new exurbs, even as traditional cities have revived?

The plainest reason, Anthony Flint writes in This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America, his crisp new dissection of how suburban development steamrollered its foes, is that Americans want roomy and affordable houses located in safe places near edge-city jobs. The heart of Flint’s book, though, is his tracing of the repercussions of this shift. His report: Moving to the fresh air, opening the door, and shooing out the kids—the American dream—has devolved into an unhealthy, financially unsustainable, and ecologically destructive habit. Glimpsed through Flint’s eyes, suburban development looks unstoppable, too bound up with the American pursuit of material comfort. The suburban split-level has become an addictive drug, offering a fantasy of escape. But after a blissful honeymoon, a new development rises next door, and traffic grows constipated. Local taxes rise to pay for new pipes and schools and wider roads. Craving cash, the town welcomes big-box stores and office parks. The physical toll keeps growing; water bans and power brownouts increase.

Flint zeroes in on suburbia’s layout, which wastes fuel, land and water.Developers scatter the key parts of life, creating a jumble of thrown-together anyplaces where (as Tom Wolfe noted) you can’t tell where towns start and end until the 7-Elevens and Home Depots repeat. Flint, who created a development beat for The Boston Globe, observes that the suburban landscape dictates the routine of tens of millions of people, yet it seems to have been built by stoners: “The guiding principle for arranging the physical environment isn’t feng shui. It’s nonsequitur.” And now suburbanites winding trips between work, school, store, and home have grown longer than ever. They compensate by recovering in big garage-Mahal homes that require lots of fuel to heat and cool.

This Land documents troubling trends such as the USA’s need to double housing construction over the next 50 years as the population grows and houses fall apart. Continuing current building patterns will require land equal to “the combined areas of Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia.” (Developers have been bulldozing a Delaware’s worth of land annually.) Most of this building is set to occur in a dozen mega-regions, imperiling watersheds and other biological assets.

Despite decades of local backlash against the loss of open space, Americans haven’t rallied around the land-development issue. We’ve spent the last decade obsessing over real estate—fixating on home values, watching cable shows about other people’s cribs and castles—yet ignoring the damage suburbs have done to family life and economic productivity.

Flint suggests that reining in developers will be near impossible. He smoothly connects the dots between many forces perpetuating sprawl, among them vast public and private investment, misguided zoning and transportation policies, and a tangle of arcane local laws. Perhaps most importantly, a huge number of folks have pinned their dreams on suburban living. A single-family house is the pinnacle purchase for consumers. Average Americans these days may be contrite about fast food and Teflon cookware, but they hardly see personal space as a convenience. It’s the place where they forge an identity.

The rational response to suburban wastefulness? Move to the city. But even with cities spiffing up, even with volatile gas prices taxing suburban budgets, none of the new sprawl commentators expect people to leave suburbia. Why do so many people exile themselves from the theater of life? Urban historian Richard Ingersoll offers one explanation in his meandering but incisive Sprawltown: Americans’ love of driving—and movies. Suburbanites, he argues, don’t miss urban bustle and spectacle because they can edit their own road movies, splicing together images that speed past the car window. “It is not by chance that the American word for film is movies“—nor a surprise that city gridlock sent Americans racing to the suburbs, where they found (at first) room to move.

“We have sprawl because Americans believe it satisfies their needs,” Flint writes, calling for homebuyers to revolt. Unfortunately, he would have roused consumers more had he dug more vividly, with some hammering lyricism, into development’s dirt, its wrecking, paving, reshaping, and parching of the earth.

Flint claims to have some good news. Surveys show that suburbanites wish to stop using their cars for everything and would consider housing close to mass transit. But isolationist instincts may doom efforts to rework suburbia. The New Urbanist movement—which pushes for mass transit–oriented villages that intermingle with shops, compact housing, and greenspace—hasn’t even been able to keep its own congregants in line. The residents of Seaside, Florida, a landmark development that served as the backdrop for The Truman Show, not long ago blocked a similar neighboring development from connecting its grid of designer streets to theirs. More neighbors might spoil the neighborly aura. After all, they spent good money for that aura.

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