Sprawl, Shills and Life in the Blandburbs
I was reading a review of a book by a Joel Hirschhorn called "Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health And Money". A critic describes the book as "A brash, hard-hitting account of the forces that encourage sprawl and their impact on human health and well-being." Now, I haven't actually read the book, but the review gave me a good idea of what it's all about.
As you might imagine, it's all about the evils of suburbia and the "sprawl shills" who apparently force Americans to move to the suburbs against their free will. Not only that, these sprawl shills are actually killing Americans because living in the suburbs cause something called "Sedentary Death Syndrome". I guess guns don't kill people anymore, tract housing kills people.
The review and the book are full of hatred for the usual suspects:
"These shills are conservative, right-wing extremists who oppose giving Americans alternatives to sprawl living and automobile addiction," he argues. "They lie all the time about smart growth, even calling it a communist conspiracy. They lie about us having enough land. They lie about public transportation. They use government regulation to maintain an unfair marketplace favoring sprawl."
Isn't it possible that people move to the suburbs for reasons other than affordability? While Hirschhorn thinks the "blandburbs", as he so charmingly calls them, are places where:
"people are fundamentally separated from other people and from their jobs and virtually all other destinations and needs is fundamentally unhealthy," he writes. "Like swimming upstream, people can try many different strategies to be healthier but find themselves still stuck with an emptiness that may defy complete understanding."
Hence, he argues, the growing dependence on religion, plastic surgery, the Internet, medication and the drive to acquire more "stuff."
People want castles. They want yards. They want neighbors just a fence away. They want to build something. These are almost primal urges. The suburbs originally grew in the 40s and 50s when returning WWII GIs got married and had kids in record numbers. After spending some of the best years of their lives amidst despair and destruction, so many of them wanted to build something instead. Build a family. Build a neighborhood. There was no place in the city for a man to stake a claim anymore. I don't think the suburbs are an evil right wing plot. I think they're a reflection of the changing desires of Americans.
Some of us are just country mice at heart. Hirschhorn, on the other hand, is apparently a city mouse who found suburbia isolating. Instead of just accepting that experience as his experience, he uses it to damn the entire concept. I didn't like it so it's bad and the government should get rid of blandburbs. Chimpy McFlightsuit. Halliburton. Hitler.
This is another good reminder that extremists on both ends of the political spectrum show a complete disdain for people who live a lifestyle they don't agree with. Some on the far right hate urban gays. Likewise, many on the far left hate suburban soccer Moms. Those of us in the middle would be wise to ignore them both.
Posted by at August 2, 2005 09:46 PM
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|# August 3rd, 2005 7:17 PM kris|
|I was thinking more about this on the way home tonight.
It seems like a lot of suburb-haters assume that the old models still apply. People live in suburbs and work downtown. That's just not true anymore. Companies are spread out all over the place. Just take a look at Chicago. So many big companies moved at least part of their operations out to the suburbs. Now, it's nearly just as likely for people to commute OUT as commute IN.
|# August 4th, 2005 8:56 AM Joel|
|I wrote Sprawl Kills and find it amazing that anyone could have such strong feelings about a book that he or she has not actually read. To set the record straight: I have and express absolutely no distain for people who like living in typical suburban sprawl. Nor do I have a liberal or Democratic worldview. To the contrary my book uses a market approach to explain why millions of Americans (as much as 50% of consumers)who do not want to live in automobile-dependent sprawl have very few housing alternatives. The housing market is skewed, biased in favor of building more land-gluttonous sprawl (half of all new single family homes are on 5 acres or more), which is profoundly unsustainable. This market distorion results from sprawl politics: the legal and illegal use of money from business interests making tons of money from sprawl (there would be no ubiquitous Wal-Mart without sprawl). Right-wing sprawl shills help the sprawl industry. Anyone who actually reads my book will learn an amazing array of very disturbing facts. I present enormous amounts of first-hand accounts to show that my personal views and experiences represent those of millions of other Americans. The more you learn, the more you want an alternative to sprawl EVEN IF IT IS IN A SUBURBAN LOCATION; I do not believe that everyone wants to live in cities, nor should they! |
|# August 4th, 2005 9:42 AM BVBigBro|
|Curious how building a home on 5 acres is unsustainable, and quite frankly, I haven't seen many metro area homes going in on 5 acre plots. Rather, I see developments of a square mile or so with homes on 1/2 acre or so lots.
Wal-Mart would be succeeding quite nicely without sprawl, although I don't shop there myself.
|# August 4th, 2005 10:08 AM BVBigBro|
|Actually, a quick google search shows median lot sizes of just under 1/4 acre in 2002. |
|# August 5th, 2005 10:36 AM marcus|
|One week from today my wife and I close on a lot. It is 1.25 acres buildable and 1.4 total.
I grew up in the country and want to live in the country. To say I am being coerced into that is rubbish.
|# August 9th, 2005 12:01 PM PackerFan63|
|I think Joel has some points. One should read the book before one criticizes the conclusion. Reviews can be wrong or miss key points. All of that is true.
Joel loses credibility, however, when he assigns individual choices to "right wing sprawl shills", using personal anecdotes to support the point. Yikes. That sounds like Science by Cocktail Party Opinions. It reminds me of the "Bush is going to win because no one I know is voting for Kerry" syndrome. Maybe Bush won, but a whole lot of people you didn't know voted for Kerry.
The number of half of all single family homes on lots of 5 acres or more is laughable. This link to the NAHB disputes that: (link). 15,788 Sq ft average lot size, 8,666 sq ft median lot size. (Note: Condominiums and orphan lots not included in these figures).
The statement "millions of Americans (as much as 50% of consumers)who do not want to live in automobile-dependent sprawl have very few housing alternatives" does not meet with the boom in high-rise and low-rise condominium projects and secondary market housing price increases experienced nearly nationwide.
|# August 9th, 2005 1:14 PM BVBigBro|
|I think the problem with the boom in condos is that a lot of these areas are turning formerly low rent areas into high rent districts, and thus people with limited incomes do have to move elsewhere. On the other hand, a lot of downtown renovations are not economically viable without the high rents. |
|# August 9th, 2005 6:04 PM james|
|hmm, i wonder if joel is going to come back and explain his wildly ridiculous assertions... 5 acres. right wing shills. unsustainable. GLUTTONOUS! joel, your bias shines through. why would anyone want to read your book after reading what a loon you are on internet message boards?
I present enormous amounts of first-hand accounts to show that my personal views and experiences represent those of millions of other Americans.
ah, anecdotal evidence! how scientific. you sure you really have a phd? like, in a "science?"
|# August 11th, 2005 6:37 PM Joel|
|Apparently, many readers of this site are not adept at interpreting and using data. Yes, my data on 5-acre lots for NEW single family homes is correct! And my data on as much as 50% of consumers want an alternative to sprawl is solid and correct. I am not biased. Everything I say is based on solid research; all of you would benefit from reading my book, if you can overcome the psychological barrier of status quo bias beliefs and the cognitive dissonance you try to prevent by ignoring works like Sprawl Kills. |
|# August 11th, 2005 6:46 PM james|
|"psychological barrier of status quo bias beliefs and the cognitive dissonance you try to prevent "
what in the world does that even mean?
Hey Joel, speak english. you sound like a 15 year old kid raging against the machine.
1) your data isnt correct. new single family homes are not built on 5 acre plots. that number is so absurd i dont know how you can assert that it's fact with a straight face. my god, if youre in a suburb and you have anything over half an acre, you're way ahead of the curve. where in the world are you getting this data?
2) on your "many readers of this site are not adept at interpreting and using data" claim - i think you should be aware that many readers of this site, and most of its authors, have advanced degrees. again, i'll ask, where did you get your phd?
|# August 13th, 2005 4:08 PM BVBigBro|
|No, your data on new home lot size is incorrect. The correct figure is around 9000 sq. ft, or a little over 1/5 of an acre. It has been trending downward for about 30 years. I know construction, and I know it nationwide. When I read the 5 acre figure, it immediately set off the bullshit detector as it was obviously off by an order of magnitude. |