In the 1950s, General Motors and their allies bought up and killed off streetcars in cities across the country. Whether or not you attribute that to conspiracy, it certainly reflects the shift the nation went through at the time. Cars and roads took over as suburbs grew and America sprawled out from the cities.
For almost as long as that sprawl has been happening, it has had opponents. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, published in 1961, criticized the obsession with expressways and separating residential areas from commercial neighborhoods. That separation promoted commuting and the need to drive to handle small errands. “There is a wistful myth,” she wrote, “that if only we had enough money to spend – the figure is usually put at a hundred billion dollars – we could wipe out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, gray belts that were yesterday’s and day-before-yesterday’s suburbs, anchor the wandering middle class and its wandering tax money, and perhaps even solve the traffic problems.” At the time, there was general agreement that the wandering middle class, traffic and urban decay were, at least, problems that needed solving. Robert Moses thought his plans were the solution, Jane Jacobs argued that they were causing the problem.
The American Prospect has discovered an odd beast that actually denies that those factors are problems. Ben Adler reports that the conservative Heritage Foundation has decided to defend sprawl, and that defense is revealing. The advocates of sprawl claim that it “enables home-buying by constructing cheap new houses in cornfields, and cuts down on congestion by dispersing traffic into ever-expanding networks of new highways.” Sprawl’s opponents would say much the same thing, though Jane Jacobs already pointed out that traffic doesn’t actually decline. That network of roads is necessary because no one is building sidewalks, let alone very much worth walking to, anywhere near those houses. That network of roads, as Jacobs pointed out, are necessary because people have to drive everywhere for everything, and because there is too little population density to support public transportation.
If everyone weren’t commuting at the same time, that might mean less traffic. But they are, so it doesn’t. Smart growth means growing in ways that are sustainable and that don’t literally eat our seed corn. Family farms have been a vital part of our nation’s history and its support structure. Carving them up into subdivisions serves no one’s interests. Small farms near urban areas provide vital services, offering locally grown produce and some precious open space. Transporting food long distances means that the food costs more and is lower quality. It wastes energy on transportation, and further clogs congested roadways with trucks.
Locally grown organic food could be the salvation of family farmers, especially in areas like the Boston to Atlanta megalopolis. Even in Kansas, the Farm Bureau ads on public radio decry the fact that more Kansans live in urban areas than in rural communities, and that sprawl is creating real problems.
The Heritage Foundation has a tendency to take positions simply because it’s the opposite of what their opponents think, so I shouldn’t be surprised that they would embrace “the shallow logic of the pro-sprawl propagandists,” as Adler eloquently puts it. Even though it doesn’t surprise me, it does disappoint. A city is a living thing, so is a nation. An organism thrives when it grows the right way, but growth without direction is cancer.