Sprawl for me, but not for thee

Published January 1, 2001

Perhaps the oddest political coalition in America today is the alliance between anti-suburban intellectuals and suburban “slow growth” activists. The two movements are allied in a campaign to combat suburban sprawl and promote strict government controls over land use and communal organization (controls termed “smart growth” by their advocates).

So why would suburbanites make common cause with those who loathe both their communities and their way of life, who sneer at their tacky, soul-less neighborhoods? Because both factions have the same goal: the end of migration from the major cities.

Consider the survey results published recently by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Wisconsinites were asked where they would like to live. Only 6 percent said in a major city. The largest group, 44 percent, said in rural areas, and the second largest group, 27 percent, said they preferred the suburbs. At first glance, one might think the Clinton-Gore campaign to promote “livable communities” (i.e., densely developed communities) would be resisted by a majority voters.

But look at what the survey went on to ask. “If you could control things, where would you prefer development to occur?” The most popular response (34 percent) was “in a major city”! Another question: “Do you favor zoning laws that would encourage communities to have smaller houses on smaller lots within walking distance of shopping and work?” “Yes” said 76 percent of Wisconsinites. But when the survey asked “Would you be interested in living in such a development” 65 percent said “no.”

The Milwaukee Journal‘s findings are typical of survey results throughout the nation. Most people clearly prefer living in suburbia and exurbia, but are opposed to other people living in suburbia and exurbia. That is, their ideal arrangement is to get into the castle and pull up the drawbridge the minute they cross the moat. This is particularly the case for those who already live in low-density communities. The campaign against more roads and more development reflects an attempt to preserve suburbia and exurbia from “invasion” and to prevent it from morphing into the communities they have just escaped.

This “I got mine, Jack!” attitude runs rampant through suburbia today, coloring the opinions of suburbanite Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Conduct a poll on whether the government should promote mass transit, and 70 percent or so will reliably respond “Yes.” Ask those same people whether they regularly use mass transit or would if it were more available, and the same number (or even larger) respond “No.” Sure we need buses and trains, they say . . . for the other guy.

Or consider the related question of those scenic pastures outside suburban and exurban windows. “How important is it to maintain farming in Wisconsin?” the Milwaukee paper asked. “Very important” said 73 percent of Wisconsinites. And no wonder; farmland is the reason a drive through Vermont is more charming than a drive through Connecticut. But “do you approve of using tax revenue to pay farmers not to develop their land?” “No” said 62 percent.

So are respondents hoping the state will charmingly talk farmers out of selling to developers? Of course not. They’re hoping the state will ban development in farm country, and to heck with the farmer who loses a chance to retire comfortably by selling his back forty.

This attitude in suburbia is nothing new. Twenty years ago, Bernard Frieden, a professor of urban planning at MIT, blasted the alliance between suburban homeowners and anti-sprawl activists to restrict development in a classic book titled The Environmental Protection Hustle. The anti-sprawl crusade, said Frieden, was founded on “phony issues” so as to “legitimize arrogant public policies designed to keep the average citizen from using the land, while preserving the social and fiscal advantages of the influential few.”

But they don’t make “progressives” like Frieden anymore. Today, the left perversely cheers Portland’s anti-growth polices despite the fact that they have increased housing costs there, absolutely devastating housing prospects for the poor. “Hurrah!” say the fortunate incumbent homeowners who just happened to have bought their property before the new controls were put in place.

Unfortunately, the people most harmed by “smart growth” policies are poorer, younger Americans, who seldom vote and certainly don’t vote in the communities that are busy walling them out. The stampede to harvest votes from soccer moms, however, will not be denied.

If you’re looking for a working definition of “unholy alliance,” this is it.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resources studies at the Cato Institute, and Peter Van Doren is editor of Regulation, a Cato Institute publication.