What do soccer moms, bored teenagers and weary commuters have in common?
They are identified as just a few of the "victims of sprawl" in "Suburban Nation," a book by leading new urbanist designers and implementors: Andres Duany, Elizatbeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. With the subtitle, "The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American Dream," the authors answer the sometimes elusive question: "What Is Sprawl, and Why?" Based on their extensive on-the-ground experience they give specific proposals for how cities can really get to "good growth."
The beginning sentence of the book is "You're stuck in traffic again." It goes on to ask, "What has happened to our manner of growth, such that the thought of new growth makes your stomach turn?"
People are against growth because they believe it will make their lives worse, and they are reinforced in that belief because, "for the past 50 years, we have been building a national landscape that is largely devoid of places worth caring about."
They seek to define a third choice beyond bad growth or no growth: good growth.
"Few would dispute that man has proved himself capable of producing wonderful places, environments that people cherish no less than the untouched wilderness. They too, are examples of growth, but they grew in a different way than the sprawl that threatens us now."
The book is a history of two different models of urban growth, both of which are relevant to San Diego: the traditional neighborhood and suburban sprawl.
"Unlike the traditional neighborhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system. It is not without a certain beauty: it is rational, consistent and comprehensive. Unfortunately, this system is already showing itself to be unsustainable. Sprawl is not healthy growth; it is essentially self-destructive. Even at relatively low population densities, sprawl tends not to pay for itself financially and consumes land while producing insurmountable traffic problems and exacerbating social inequity and isolation."
Also on the list of sprawl victims: cul-de-sac kids, stranded elderly, bankrupt municipalities and the immobile poor. "It is difficult to identify a segment of the population that does not suffer in some way from the lifestyle imposed by contemporary suburban development."
"Originally conceived as youth's great playground," ironically, suburbs are proving to be less than ideal for America's youth -- in large part due to the unintended and largely unforeseen consequences of car-dependency as a result of suburban design. They are careful to distinguish this from community or neighborhood design.
Far and away, car crashes are the largest killer of American teenagers. "A child is 20 times more likely to die from an automobile mishap than from gang activity." Carried everywhere by car -- and without safe places to walk and bike -- we see rising rates of youth diabetes and obesity. The second most likely cause of death among teenagers -- suicide -- is also, shockingly and surprisingly, correlated with the growth of sprawl. "Teenage suicide, almost unheard of before 1950, had nearly tripled by 1980s Sociologists who cite 'teen isolation and boredom' as a contributing factor, confirm that national rates of teenage suicide are much higher in suburbs than in cities."
If sprawl truly is destructive, why is it allowed to continue? "The beginning of any answer lies in sprawl's seductive simplicity, the fact that it consists of very few homogenous components -- five in all -- which can be arranged in almost any way."
The five components of sprawl are: housing subdivisions, shopping centers, office parks, civic institutions and finally, the roadways needed to connect the other four separated components. As commuting patterns evolved to become predominantly suburb-to-suburb, many city centers became expendable, and traffic congestion began to rise.
How did sprawl come about? "Far from being an inevitable evolution or a historical accident, suburban sprawl is the direct result of a number of policies that conspired powerfully to encourage urban dispersal, mainly the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration loan programs."
Intentionally or not, these programs discouraged renovation and turned investment away from construction of row houses, mixed-use buildings and other urban housing types. In addition, "the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 provided for 41,000 miles of roadways, 90 percent paid for by the federal government - 75 percent of government expenditures for transportation in the United States in the postwar generation went for highways as opposed to 1 percent for urban mass transit. Still, 'the government pays seven times as much to support the operation of the private car as to support public transportation.'"
What is to be done now to achieve good growth?
A "city can best achieve true predictability by replacing its zoning ordinances with a physical plan -- there are many benefits to creating a physically prescriptive master plan for a city, not the least of which is that it allows government to return to the business of governing. Currently, city commission agendas are overwhelmed by a disproportionate number of contests over individual real estate projects, as if real estate were more important than schooling, public safety, economic development or quality of life. These battles are fought precisely because there is no master plan in place to guide development."
Some readers of this column will protest that my criticisms of the City of Villages have undermined this very process being recommended. To them, I doubly recommend this book. The authors note, "One wonders why more cities have not completed effective master plans, and why some cities create master plans but fail to enact them -- most successful plans seem to share two qualities: first, they were completed through a fully open, interactive, public involvement process; and second, they include a physically based urban code that was passed into law." The City of Villages must continue the former and create and commit to the latter.
This is not just a matter of aesthetics. Building strong neighborhoods and cities is a matter of social, economic and environmental health that determines our quality life and thereby America's -- and San Diego's -- ability to compete in the global marketplace.
Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times and chair of the mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.