From the Bronx to Sprawl to Smart Growth

(by Joel S. Hirschhorn) About four years ago, “Smart Growth” grabbed my attention and became an intellectual obsession. Being over 60 made me cynical about many changes in American society. But until I learned about Smart Growth I did not understand the importance of the built environment, land use, and suburban sprawl as root causes of what I viewed as rotten aspects of our culture and landscape.

Growing up in a small walk-up apartment in the Bronx, I was fascinated by the public spaces of the city. I needed public spaces, and I was a committed walker. I walked to elementary, junior high, and high school. I would spend weekend days walking for hours throughout Manhattan. My parents did not have a car until I started college. Back then using public transit was the norm, and riding in a car was a treat.

After college I lived in several suburban areas where I became a “good American,” totally dependent on a car for all transportation. I lived in areas where no one walked, where there were no sidewalks. I once lived in the last row of big houses in a sprawl subdivision where farmland was beyond my backyard. Eventually, I gave up on suburbia and lived in the center of Madison, Wisconsin, where once again I became a walker, and from there I came to the Washington, D.C., area, where again walking is my recreational pleasure.

And then Smart Growth came to my attention–this was when I worked for the National Governors Association (NGA). The proverbial light bulb went on. So much became clear. Having neighbors that were like family, as we did in the Bronx, had disappeared with the proliferation of sprawl. Auto dependency was a hallmark of sprawl. The loss of walkable neighborhoods and local shopping was a result of sprawl. Widespread alienation and loss of social fabric was a result of sprawl. And so on. City living was a lot more “normal” than suburban sprawl. The phrase “sprawl kills”came into my head and stayed there.

I saw sprawl not just as land use, but as a culture and a mindset that defined American society. I conceived of and directed many projects at NGA and produced a number of reports promoting Smart Growth. Early on I connected sprawl with poor health, because of the lack of regular physical activity. Community design supports either sedentary behavior or active living. Sprawl had created the Sedentary Death Syndrome. Now, over 400,000 people die prematurely because of the sprawl lifestyle, which will soon overtake cigarette smoking as a cause of death. “Sprawl kills” made more and more sense.

And then another light bulb lit up. So many of the most brilliant minds in America had after World War II said all the correct things about sprawl and how it would destroy so much of our land and society. The criticisms of sprawl went on for decades. Yet sprawl kept expanding its gluttonous consumption of land and promoting sloth among Americans. Studies and reports had clearly specified true alternatives to sprawl long before terms like “New Urbanism” and “Smart Growth” became commonplace.

I found studies and surveys that proved large numbers of Americans wanted something other than sprawl living. There were millions of people like me, people who would like a more urban lifestyle, but not necessarily in city centers. Something had to explain why sprawl stayed so dominant, something other than consumer demand. The proverbial American dream of a big house in suburbia should have imploded long ago, if for no other reason than most Americans were suffering from never ending traffic congestion.

What became clear to me was the explanation of why sprawl had defeated all its enemies. And my answer made perfect sense in view of what everyone knows about true power and influence in America. The answer was the “sprawl industry.” Not some conventionally defined industry, not just the housing industry, but an industry nevertheless.

The sprawl industry is a cluster of businesses that profits from sprawl, most notably land developers, home builders, real estate interests, and road builders, as well as many other related sectors. And the more I researched these ideas, the more proof there was that a politically powerful sprawl industry, operating through a sprawl lobby and libertarian and conservative shills for sprawl, had kept the market distorted in favor of sprawl. Few politicians could afford to get on the wrong side of sprawl interests, which were usually major sources of campaign funds.

At some point I realized that with all the books attacking and explaining sprawl, and more recently promoting new urbanism and smart growth, something was missing. I never found a book that was written for a truly general audience, aimed at all people who make critical housing decisions. A book that would help consumers reject sprawl living in favor of authentic communities that were walkable, mixed-use, and not totally auto-dependent. I wanted to make the case for Smart Growth not on the basis of environmental issues or emotion, but from a market perspective, basing it on how individuals and families could best serve their self-interests through Smart Growth living.

And I never found a book that revealed the truth about the power and influence of the sprawl industry, a book that shed light on sprawl politics. Truth has the potential to enlighten and anger Americans. To make tough decisions that reverse behavior against “conventional wisdom,” people need a “push” and a “pull.” The push can be all the many negative impacts of living in sprawl and the truth about the sprawl industry’s corruption of government that has removed consumer options; the pull should be the many quality of life benefits of living in a Smart Growth or New Urbanist community.

And so I wrote Sprawl Kills–Better Living in Healthy Places, which will be out soon. I don’t think I would have worked so hard to help energize a housing revolution if I had not been raised in the Bronx and been a lover of city life. After all, the New Urbanism is really the old urbanism, and Smart Growth is just common sense–if we care about our future.

Joel S. Hirschhorn

About Contributing

Once upon a time, environmentalists lived in the forests, while the many of the rest of us moved the suburbs to be near the forests. Today we’re on our way back. Living near nature is an attractive notion, but many who tried it found nature soon vanished and they were left isolated. For both environmental and social reasons, living in the suburbs or the forest is not sustainable. Today we know cities are good for people and for forests. We know that the less land each of us occupies, the more space there will be for nature. In a city, we have a smaller footprint. Living in a city isn’t only good for the planet, it’s good for all of us. When home, work, shopping end entertainment are close, it encourages walking and promotes the active lifestyle that keeps us healthy. The New Colonist is about moving in from the suburbs, moving into and reclaiming towns and cities that have been depopulated, and building more housing in healthy cities. It’s about building smarter and closer-in new developments; building transit-oriented, mixed-use developments in new communities, and bringing more transportation options to communities where a car is presently the only option. Sustainable city living–chronicling the return from the suburban diaspora–is the focus of …Move In. City Life is good for you. It’s good for the your health. It’s good for the planet. Eric Miller Richard Risemberg