Sunday, February 15, 2015

America's Sprawl Albatross

One of history's greatest values as a practice is that it explains how the world we live in came to be.  I have been reading up recently on suburbanization and its attendant politics, and that history has a lot to tell us.  Most people tend to look at the ways our metropolitan areas are structured and laid out and assume that the the suburban sprawl and urban cores just happened to form that way naturally.  Of course, our built environment is in actuality the intentional result of reams of legislation and trillions of dollars.

Decisions made in the recent past are currently having a massively deleterious effect on the present, when it comes to our cities and suburbs.  The automobile was elevated to an exalted throne where neighborhoods and treasure would be sacrificed to it, rail transport left for dead, economic and racial segregation ruthlessly enabled, and sprawl encouraged from sea to shining sea.

The bill is coming due.  The millions of car exhaust pipes spewing carbon monoxide now threaten the very existence of life on the planet.  The roads and bridges built to handle the cars are crumbling while the political will to raise the taxes necessary to fix them has disappeared.  Neglected mass transit systems can't pick up the slack, and have their own infrastructure nightmares.  In cities like New York gentrification is pushing residents into the Sprawl and making urban housing increasingly less affordable. (Which is one reason why I live in north New Jersey, and why practically all the new people I meet in my town moved here from Brooklyn.)

The giant swaths of sprawl surrounding our cities are becoming a dead weight that cannot be shed.  To maintain the current system would be insanely expensive and destructive, of course, but hardly anyone in positions of power is willing to completely upend the current system that rewards sprawl and punishes concentration. That would mean dethroning the car and promoting mass transit at moon shot levels of commitment, something that will never happen.  Instead we'll just keep on muddling through in yet another chapter in a future volume about the downfall of an empire that in a moment of supreme hubris willfully destroyed its own cities.

Every now and then my wife and I drive into Newark via Springfield Avenue, and I look around at a city that was abandoned by the state and by white New Jerseyans only fifty years after it had been so dramatically built up.  What has happened to Newarkers since the 1950s is a brutal injustice, but it has been a tremendously wasteful one at that.  A perfectly fine city was gutted by "urban renewal" and its people left to the wolves while the highways that ripped neighborhoods to shreds were used by white suburbanites to speed on through from the suburbs to Manhattan without having to so much as stop at an intersection in Newark.  That failed, wasteful, and unjust social experiment has yet to be repudiated, and sixty years later remains an albatross around this nation's neck.


Terry said...

Your assessment of the situation is accurate but only to a point. There is more cause for hope than you seem to think. Change is not going to happen swiftly, but it is happening. I'd offer a couple of URLs for you to check out. The first is for Streetfilms, a site where they post films of progress towards the re-humanization of urban environments from around the world. The URL:

The other is one from Omaha (where I live) and there are two points about this: 1) if this level of interest is happening here, it really is more widespread than we've imagined. and 2) it has links to other "smart streets" and "walkable cities" web sites and events. The URL for Mode>Shift> Omaha:

There is an excellent book titled "Walkable Cities" that is very informative and it includes references to many more. It's happening, we're going to take back the world from the automobile, but it's going to take time and the efforts of a lot of individuals. Have hope!

Buddy H said...

Early in our marriage, we lived in Bloomfield NJ. There were breathtakingly beautiful homes, where generations of families had raised children, which were unlivable because highway on-ramps had been constructed right next to them.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

@ Terry Thanks for the links. I went to college in Omaha and am glad that it's frightening sprawl is being addressed. My worry is that the situation calls for a radical rethinking of things that developers and politicians will resist.

Terry said...

Oh, for sure developers & politicians are slow to change - but nowadays it's all "Why don't the youngsters want to move here to work?" and they're astounded when the answer (part of it, anyway) seems to be "Because Omaha is a fuck-ugly city because you've all been worshipping at the Car Altar for way too long. There are very few human-oriented places that aren't mainly designed to extract money from everyone's pockets. There are much nicer places to live." They're getting the message, I think. Millions of $$ have already been spent in certain areas to make them more attractive to the highly educated tech-savvy young adults. Omaha's hills might make the bicycling renaissance kind of slow, but there's even been progress in that.