Monday, January 09, 2006

Don't Mention It

Once again, I am left asking why is it that the word is so unmentionable? It must have the power, like Tolkien's ring, to drive people absolutely out of their power-crazed minds. Because that is literally what it's all about. Power.

Not political power, not the power of the pen, not the sword, but just plain combustive power.

Gasoline.

That, and peak insanity.

In the Long Island Newsday newspaper, Raymond L. Keating writes about the great things that suburban sprawl has done for the people there, and he asks:

"But why is "sprawl" a dirty word? It shouldn't be. Sprawl is about people fulfilling the dream of owning land and a home. They work, save and borrow to reap the rewards of the suburbs, which combine many conveniences of the city with elements of rural life, including trees, gardens, grass and more space."

I spent my formative highschool years trapped in a suburban wasteland, and believe me, if it was a dream it was a bad one. Sure my family "owned land." I mowed its grass, raked its leaves, and shoveled snow from its paved driveway. I groomed the non-native plants that lined its narrow concrete walkways. Our pets eliminated their bowels there.

My father was a modern-day provincial Lord of the Manor. I was combination Groundskeeper, Carpenter, Stonemason, and Keeper of the Hounds.

But as kids we rarely played there. It wasn't big enough. We played in the open lot on the corner, until it was fenced in, and we played in the woods that separated us from the civilized world of the town nearby.

Later I put in a small garden and a canopy of grapes. People ran away from me when the zucchinis produced. Over-produced, for our household and circle of aquaintances. Some people put in pools, or had little areas for outdoor dining that were used maybe a couple-few times a year. Yards were really just unused outward displays of conspicuous waste. But everytime I mentioned that to my father, the brief conversation ended not with his enlightenment but with me mowing the lawn again.

I did not like it. I learned nothing from it except that its costs outweighed its benefits in our neighborhood microcosm. Despite the widely-held misconception that local families actually desired to retreat daily into their own little monad-like properties, we regularly carved out civic spaces in which we could be. That corner lot, the street, the distant town library, the distant park with its fabulous Depression-era architecture, tennis courts, and Victorian lawns and pools. Back in the day it was a trolley ride from town.

Keating spends a good deal of his article writing about "Sprawl, a Compact History," by Robert Bruegmann. You can look at an excerpt here. I've not read the book, as I just learned of it upon reading the Keating article. But like the Keating article, the excerpt makes no mention at all of gasoline.

That is what I find to be so strange.

Admittedly, Bruegmann mostly busies himself with the history of city expansion as it occured before automobiles infested the planet. As if that has anything to do with the post-World-War-II suburbanization of America. So the excerpt, by its design, does not much concern itself with petroleum-derived fuels as a factor in suburban growth. How convenient.

But the only reason I grew up in a suburb is because my father rather fancied the idea of living there as opposed to someplace closer to his work, which was then 30 miles away. And he didn't take a bus or train to get there and back. Suburbs are all about driving cars.

Keating goes on to write:

"After debunking most justifications for opposing sprawl, Bruegmann hits on three key driving forces behind the anti-sprawl movement: change, home values and aesthetics. Anti-sprawlers, as we see locally, have reactionary aversions to change, understand that limits on developing land boost existing home prices, and want their kind of planners to dictate living arrangements for others with "less taste and good sense." Indeed, much of the anti-sprawl effort focuses on using government to impose one group's preferences on others."

Incorrect. "Anti-sprawlers" are not averse to change. We are loudly crying for it, in fact. And we know, due to peak oil, that change will come regardless of our collective readiness for it. That's why we're screaming at the tops of our lungs.

Hear that sound? No? Oh well. I grow hoarse.

What Keating says about Bruegmann's second "key driving force behind the anti-sprawl movement" makes no sense at all to me. Land development itself, rather than limits imposed upon such, would seem to me to be boosting home and property prices very nicely. At least around here, where inner-city condominium prices typically break the seven-figure mark. Similar home square footage is much cheaper in the suburbs, which is a point that Bruegmann makes for their origin and justification to begin with. So I just don't get that one.

Maybe we anti-sprawlers do believe that we know better than corporate home-builders when it comes to civic planning. I don't know. Maybe we do, maybe we don't, but at least it should be up for discussion. Before gas prices go into double-digits.

You think?

1 comment:

Jeneiene Schaffer said...

Is infill the magic bullet for the sprawl problem?

Check out the enviro fave musicsian Dana Lyon's "Ride the Lawn". I think you'll like it.