Boomburbs, Snout Houses, and Toads
July 16, 2004
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
It's hard not to harbor a covert affection for American sprawl, especially its goofier aspects. True, many of our roadsides -- a chaotic mix of gas stations, garages, restaurants, malls and motels -- are aesthetically awful and rightly derided by aristocratic European critics. But the mess can be enthralling, too -- more engaging to the eye and mind, at times, than the smug Champs-Elysées.
What could be of more interest, for instance, than the exuberantly ridiculous, like that hot dog stand in California named after its shape, "Tail o' the Pup." Years ago the eminent architect Robert Venturi bestowed academic distinction on such Americana by giving them a technical term -- "duck," after a duck-shaped store selling eggs and other avian products on Long Island.
And, yes, there the term is in Dolores Hayden's "A Field Guide to Sprawl" (Norton, 128 pages, $24.95). The entry reads: "a building that replicates and serves as an advertisement for the product sold within it." Exactly. This engagingly organized and splendidly photographed book is apparently an attack on sprawl. But it has the effect of confirming the rightness of one's secret love.
Introducing her illustrated glossary, Ms. Hayden writes that "naming is essential to defining problems." But we name what we like, too. How can one not embrace the energy of the Boomburb, "a rapidly growing, urban-sized place in the suburbs," also called a Zoomburb in the South? And there is the audacity of the Privatopia, a "community-of-interest development where residents are legally bound to obey the covenants, conditions, and restrictions of a homeowner association." And who wouldn't laugh at a Ball Pork, even if it is a "stadium built with public funds for the use of a privately owned ball team," a coinage by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert?
Ms. Hayden is rather churlish about sprawl, "an unregulated growth expressed as careless new use of land and other resources as well as abandonment of older built areas." Still, she had the good sense to commission a hilarious forward by Armando Carbonell, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Mr. Carbonell cautions that a "small number of sprawlers" -- i.e., students of sprawl -- "have actually turned into 'sprawl-busters' with the self-appointed mission of eradicating landscape 'blight,' spoiling things for the great majority."
Save us from the sprawl-busters! They'll take away all the fun and build morally elevated projects designed by firms with names like Architectonic. Ms. Hayden also had the foresight to commission 75 dazzling aerial photographs from Jim Wark, who surely must himself be a secret lover of the whole disorderly scene. How else could he have captured the images of Alligators, Snout Houses and Toads so invitingly? But Ms. Hayden warns us not to be seduced by their seeming charm, because the photographs all represent "bad building patterns."
But would we really be better off if master planners like Daniel Burnham and Corbusier had triumphed, imposing their centralized vision and will? After all, most master planners were every bit as anti-urban as Ms. Hayden's sprawlistas, and their projects could be unpleasantly grim. At least Ms. Hayden is right to deplore the near ruin of older cities by tax, subsidy and mortgage policies.
Building patterns: A residential subdivision near Frederick, Md.
Which brings us to "Twentieth-Century Sprawl" (Oxford, 297 pages, $35), Owen Gutfreund's sobering account of the 19th-century origins of what so many people complain about today. Fervent bicyclists may be mortified to learn that it was their forebears who started the Good Roads movement in the 1880s, creating the lobbying model later appropriated by the car industry. The nation's roads were pathetic, writes Mr. Gutfreund -- muddy, rutted, overgrown. Wanting to use their bikes to get around, cyclists formed the League of American Wheelmen. Almost immediately bankrolled by bike manufacturer Albert Pope, the league clamored for more government funding for roads, thus paving the way for highway advocacy.
Mr. Gutfreund's three case studies -- Denver, Smyrna, Tenn., and Middlebury, Vt. -- show how government policies, rather than individual preferences, drove development patterns in sprawling directions. A key problem: the underpricing of automobile use. As roads clogged, the government response, reflecting Good Roads rhetoric, was to build more roads without doing anything about the disparity between the true costs of automobility and the charges passed on to motorists.
This wouldn't have been so bad if the government hadn't subsidized suburbia by turning on cities -- overtaxing them, defunding urban transit and denying government-backed mortgages for urban neighborhoods. Subsidies skewed decisions, says Mr. Gutfreund, underwriting sprawl and undermining urban density.
Neither Ms. Hayden nor Mr. Gutfreund mentions the pre-eminent critic of sprawl, William H. Whyte (best known for "The Organization Man"). We have been prodigal with our land, Whyte argued in his 1968 classic, "The Last Landscape." But the less of our landscape there is to save, the better our chances of saving it. He predicted that Americans would eventually see the waste and learn to love density. The increased competition for land would become a discipline for enforcing more economic -- and amenable -- use.
And so it has come to pass. New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles are flourishing. Even Denver, ravaged by 40 years of destructive highway building and insane urban renewal, has come back strong. And suburbs increasingly insist on the kind of efficient, cluster development that Whyte advocated.
If Americans want to live in a Boomburb, that's their business. They just shouldn't destroy cities to pay for it.
Ms. Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2004 Wall Street Journal
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