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Visions for a New American Dream
Reprinted with permission from Visions for a New American Dream, by Anton C. Nelessen, © 1994 by the American Planning Association, Suite 1600, 122 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60603—and is available for $55.95 by writing to Planners Press at the above address.
Sprawl is a pattern of physical development characterized by the decentralization of land uses. The sprawl pattern is Euclidean—formed by separate zones of single-use buildings—based on the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court case, Euclid vs. Ambler. Fundamentally, this case upheld the municipality’s right to designate areas as single-use zones. The need for single-use zones was primarily a response to the awful conditions created by the mix of polluting and unhealthy industrial uses and residential areas. Modern zoning since the late 1920s has primarily involved such a separation of uses.
Sprawl is the physical/financial image of the American Dream as envisioned in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Sprawl requires the use of a private vehicle to move from one single-use zone to another. It augmented the auto, oil, rubber, concrete, and road construction industries. Its success destroyed the walking suburb and the streetcar. Jobs, grocery stores, community centers, even schools are separated from housing, thereby requiring new roads and vehicles that fuel the consumer economy. The sprawl pattern discourages a sense of community. It encourages land speculation. It requires high infrastructure investments. It requires high consumption and is a major source of air and water pollution. Sprawl is the ultimate pattern of secular consumerism.
It is ironic that the separation of uses, the basis of the Euclid case, is today causing so much pollution and the destruction of natural resources. The many cars traveling to and from the separated uses now cause the same kind of pollution that single-use zones were created to eliminate. What was validated for health, safety, and welfare in 1927, has destroyed communities and created negative visions which today are the catalyst for the formulation of small communities.
There are other unfortunate psychological and economic effects of sprawl development. Sprawl is privately expensive to maintain. The financing of home and car ownership is getting more difficult for most wage earners. Both members of a couple must work in order to cover the high suburban costs, including the house mortgage, credit payments, insurance, taxes, and two or more cars. On average, a two-year-old car costs $5,000 per year to own and maintain, according to the American Automobile Association. Commuters moving along at stop-and-go speeds, spending one hour, or more, per day—totaling five weeks per year—in their cars traveling between their subdivision house and the office park or the mall. The visual impact of constantly looking at the negative road edge causes cognitive pain.
The public costs to maintain suburban mobility are high, approximately $4,000 to $9,400 per car per year depending on how many miles are driven. Six to seven parking spaces are required for each new car. Municipal and state taxes for continued road improvements, drainage, and police protection are high. User fees are growing. We seem to get less and less mobility for our tax dollar.
Considerable amounts of time are required to use the current pattern of sprawl. Time is at a premium. Time spent with children, the family, with neighbors, and with the community is limited. Sometimes parents have little time for themselves. Often both parents, in the shrinking number of nuclear families, must work long hours to make all of the payments to maintain the programmed consumer status; some even hold two jobs to support their large house and two cars. Imagine the new sprawled developments with 3 people living in 3,500 square feet, and attached two- or three-car garage, and several rooms with no furniture. You bought it so your friends and associates will think "you’ve made it." Have you? Congratulations, you’re now a major contributor to sprawl, the ultimate consumer. "But," you say, "there are no alternatives that I can afford half way between where we work."
Who suffers most in this? I think it is the children first and the community next. We have less time for children. Too many children don’t get the opportunity to have a daily meal with their parents. They learn the values of consumerism from their parents, or on TV, or from their peers, who come from similar backgrounds. On the bottom of the social economic ladder, many cannot afford a house, or health care, or good schools, in addition to all of the consumer items that the media tells us we must have. Is something wrong? You bet there is.
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