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How to Reclaim Suburban Sprawl

New Urbanism and rail transit offer a humane alternative to America's artificial development model.
How to Reclaim Suburban Sprawl

Regardless of your political persuasion or your views of suburban style development, you will find Ben Ross’s scholarly and precise writing style captivating and edifying. This journey through the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of the American suburbs to the sprawl miasma of today is peppered with surprising facts and meticulously supported conclusions. Sifting through a wealth of materials, the MIT-trained author articulates a well-researched, compelling narrative that documents how and why we have arrived at today’s urban-suburban dichotomy. This dichotomy is itself fast approaching its shelf life and does not fully portray the blurring overlap between traditional suburban boundaries and renewing urban cores. Ross makes the case that today’s sprawl suburbs, created and sustained by the three pillars of zoning, covenants and historical preservation, stifle the ability of developers to offer products desired by the free market. These three pillars, in concert, dictate what can be built (single family dwellings, office parks and strip development, for the most part). Ross also argues persuasively that status and the desire for exclusivity were primary motivations for suburban development.

Some conservatives cite statistical evidence that the preponderance of growth is occurring in the suburbs, reflecting the middle class’s continuing fealty to that single family dwelling sited on a quarter acre plot of land. Ross maintains that consumer choice is stifled by the aforementioned building codes, zoning restrictions and other exclusionary devices (that effectively separate residential from shopping and business activities) that keep the suburban development machine going. This adversely affects the ability of the market to respond to demand for rental housing, especially since the suburbs have the greatest supply of land available for new apartment construction. Rising rents indicate both changing consumer preferences (especially among Millennials) and the relative scarcity of new rental housing construction. Ross also describes the myriad of subsidies that benefit the suburbs, including free parking, which, Ross points out, exceeds the value of all cars and trucks in the U.S. Ross also points out the contradictory positions that libertarians have taken regarding subsidies, especially when they advocate abolishing them but hedge on when to do so. Ross writes that they are “the St. Augustines of the free market – end government regulation and make me chaste some day, they pray, but don’t take away my subsidy just yet.”

Ross lauds the efforts of New Urbanism adherents to chip away at the zoning juggernaut. He sees these efforts coalescing around form-based building codes that give the zoning commissions control over the shape and size of structures but not what goes on inside them. Currently, developers who wish to build to the new urbanist mode must carve out sometimes hundreds of variances in order to build New Urbanist communities. This can be enormously expensive and discourage the heartiest of developers. Some New Urbanist developments have emerged but many have been compromised on some aspects to placate zoning boards and reduce expenses.

A paper written by the late Paul Weyrich, William S. Lind and Andrés Duany, one of the original founders of the New Urbanist movement, explored what the New Urbanism represented (the 27 point Manifesto) and whether conservatives could (or should) support New Urbanist principles (Conservatives and the New Urbanism: Do We Have Some Things in Common?). Weyrich and Lind found, among other things, that conservative and New Urbanist interests clearly intersect on the issue of codes. Both Weyrich and Lind believed that communities should have the ability to choose between codes that perpetuate current suburban development and the New Urbanist codes that promote (in their view) a return to time-honored traditions in how we develop our cities and towns. Ross makes a similar point in that suburban development represents a sharp deviation from how cities and towns were successfully developed and nurtured in the past and gives a detailed description of the obstacles New Urbanists face in suburbia.

As an alternative, Weyrich and Lind strongly advocated the adoption of a dual codes approach as one that conservatives could whole-heartedly support. It would allow developers to continue to build suburban sprawl if they so desire or opt for New Urbanist-aligned communities. This would allow the free market to work. Bth Weyrich and Lind expressed their apprehension over the culture-killing aspects of suburban developments – – where meeting your neighbor can be a difficult task, and any movement requires an automobile to accomplish. They viewed more traditional developments as fostering conservative norms and morals. Invoking Edmund Burke, they spoke of his view that “traditional societies are organic wholes. If you disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as [suburban] sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.

Unlike many other works on suburbia, Mr. Ross has covered all aspects of this story. It is not an easy picture to paint, with so many factors and policies to describe and account for. He has traced the origins of suburban sprawl, its metamorphosis over the years, and its pervasive and saturating effects on all levels of society. He has detailed the associated devastating impact of the over-reliance on the automobile; the ghastly urban forms that have arisen to accommodate the automobile; and the traffic engineering that decrees that the automobile has premium claim on all street space and that all other street-based activity is subordinate (in effect, one automobile equals one streetcar loaded with passengers- no wonder the streetcar almost disappeared). He has documented the crippling effect on transit in this country, the attendant policies that resulted in the demolition of huge swaths of American cities in the name of urban renewal or new highways (through old but viable neighborhoods) distorting our national and state policies to service growth, and ramming tentacles of roads throughout America.

Ben Ross ends on a positive note, stating that we have the tools to redirect the ship, to successfully fight the status quo and to return to quality developments that serve all Americans. To our delight, Mr. Ross contends that it is rail transit that has the ability to light the spark of urban (and inner suburban) revival. He has drawn on his experience with the Purple Line in suburban Maryland to reach some conclusions on how a rail project can capture the imagination of citizens! He quotes the likes of Daniel Burnham, who said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” Ross cites the ability of rail transit to “remake cities” and in doing so, “rail lines bring rethinking.” It is this characteristic that strikes fear in the heart of defenders of the status quo. While certain groups will fight tooth and nail, write endless editorials, and set up inflammatory websites to stop a rail project, no such fervor is ever directed by these groups toward a highway project. The reason, as Ross points out, is the ability of rail projects to force a rethinking of the urban and suburban paradigm. This has to be done one project at a time. While success is not always assured (witness the demise of Arlington’s Columbia Pike Streetcar), every new rail project that survives this process brings the day closer when a true level playing field will be established and flourish, whether for rail versus other competing modes, or being able to freely choose building codes for new developments.

I unequivocally recommend reading this book. The different perspectives are illuminating and clarifying. In my view, Mr. Ross has confronted a maddeningly difficult subject and successfully laid a meticulously documented foundation on which he builds his narrative. You may not agree with his conclusions but you will be challenged to formulate an equally vigorous reply.

Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation 



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