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In St. Louis sprawl is the only choice.

Urban sprawl has become a national issue, though perhaps more prominently in St. Louis than in most places. In his report on the St. Louis region, Neal Peirce identified sprawl as the cause of a dizzying variety of urban problems. Summing up his views in an article in the National Journal a few years ago, Peirce called Americans "the champion land hogs of history" because the country's urban areas have been growing in land area at a rate four to eight times as fast as population growth. The cost of sprawl, he said, was "frightening" because it brought "despair in the inner cities, environmental degradation, undermining of old neighborhoods and suburbs."

The Peirce report was published as "A Call to Action" in the March 16, 1997, special edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Pointing out that from 1950 to 1995 the St. Louis region's population increased by 35 percent while its land area exploded by 355 percent, Peirce said that sprawl had led to soaring highway and infrastructure costs, a "prickly independence" pitting governments against one another, increased racial segregation, long commuting times, worsening air quality, loss of farmland and the "massive hemorrhaging from the center city" that leaves one "to wonder if the city's vital signs still register."

Since the Peirce report was more or less the Post's official foray into public journalism, it is hardly surprising that the paper has continued to devote a lot of column inches to the sprawl issue. In addition to assorted articles following in the wake of the Peirce report, beginning on Feb. 22, 1998, the Post spent a week wrestling with the question, "How should we grow?" The usual suspects again made their appearance. More recently, beginning on Feb. 7, 1999, the Post weighed in with a week-long "urban sprawl debate." The Post has twice published articles profiling Al Gore's stated plans to make sprawl a major issue in his campaign (Jan. 12, and again on Oct. 12). And on Oct. 5, the Post carried a front-page article featuring a report by the Sierra Club ranking Missouri as a laggard state in controlling sprawl.

The Post's coverage seems to be at least as much an exercise in public journalism (the part about "educating the public") as it is news. I looked carefully through the Oct. 12 edition of The New York Times for an article on Al Gore and sprawl, and came up empty-handed. The Sierra Club's report (which was a national story carried by the wire services), was placed on a back page of the Times, in a three-inch column.

With so much coverage and with so many sins to bear, it's little wonder that some suburbanites and politicians in the St. Louis region have become sensitive about the issue. Last year, when Mayor Harmon claimed that the region subsidized infrastructure in outlying areas, he was quickly challenged by officials from St. Charles County, and it was no help when he couldn't document his statements. Earlier this year, Ron Auer, D-St. Louis, said he got "beat up" when he presented a proposed bill to study growth issues in Missouri. Some residents of St. Charles County have gone on the offensive, saying that sprawl is just an expression of people's right to live where they choose. Accordingly, the Urban Choice Coalition, whose members come mainly from St. Charles County, would like to eliminate the word "sprawl" in favor of the term "choice."

It's tempting to poke fun at those who want to erase "sprawl" from the dictionary, since they are so willing to accept government subsidies to help them participate in their free-market move to the 'burbs. Aside from subsidies for commuters (gasoline taxes cover approximately 60 percent of the cost of building and maintaining roads), last year homeowners deducted $85 billion in mortgage payments from their federal taxes, plus around $10 billion for local property taxes paid on residential real estate. Forty percent of the homeowner deduction went to families making more than $100,000 per year, and the overwhelming proportion of write-offs were for suburban homes. The free market would probably favor suburban construction all by itself, but it gets a big boost from the public purse.

It is unconvincing when the would-be dictionary abridgers deny the problems that obviously accompany sprawl. As anyone can plainly see, it actually is true that wetlands and farmlands are being devoured by new housing developments, that the roads are more crowded, that new development spreads while older areas slip into decline (for a comprehensive review of the evidence, see a study by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, 1998). All the same, sprawl has tended to be used as a Christmas tree, upon which every problem that afflicts urban America can be hung. When this happens, the issue becomes a 900-pound gorilla that nobody knows how to wrestle.

The political reality is that few states will soon, if ever, force urban regions to adopt comprehensive land use controls, and those that have, such as Florida, usually don't enforce them. Nor will most states soon adopt anything like Portland, Oregon's growth boundary. It works just like magic: Stand on one side of the boundary, and you see housing developments; on the other side of the road are fields. Missouri is not going to get one. Forget it.

The problem with hanging everything on the sprawl tree is that the enemy becomes too diffuse, too costly to attack, and too politically divisive. The bigger the enemy, the more formidable the opposition. Defined so broadly, the enemy becomes us. Americans have chosen to drive SUVs, to move into larger and nicer homes, to shop at malls and superstores. At least since the 1920s America has been a consumer society, driven to consume less by need than by comfort and image. Guilt won't drive people into not consuming. Guilt didn't work when Jimmy Carter appeared in a sweater and asked everyone to turn down their thermostats. Instead we got the Reagan era, a renunciation of renunciation, the glorification of consumerism and growth. In the sense we still are in the Reagan era.

So the battle against sprawl is doomed. No. Though more can and should be done, actually a great deal is being done to ameliorate the effects of sprawl. The secret to effective action is to pick the baubles off the sprawl tree and treat them separately.

Open space? People care about it, and they are willing to act: In New Jersey, for example, the state has adopted legislation that will preserve substantial pockets of land from development. This won't curb sprawl whatsoever, but it will create islands in the stream, around which the sprawl will flow.

Save central cities? States should try Vermont's Downtown Program (praised in the Sierra Club report), provide tax credits for investors in historic areas (which Missouri now does), and invest directly in downtown projects. Regional tax-sharing also helps, as do multi-jurisdictional tax districts to support regional institutions located in the inner cities (St. Louis has such a district, which helps support the zoo and other facilities).

Losing wetlands? Adopt legislation like Maryland's, to curb development that encroaches on wetlands. Developers are converting farmlands to houses and shopping centers at an alarming rate? Several states, such as Ohio, have created Agricultural Protection Districts or easements that, among other measures, protect farmers from rising taxes due to escalating assessments.

Air pollution? Adopt stricter emissions controls (finally, SUV owners will have to comply, as of next year), designate bus lanes, and invest more in mass transit. High-density, unplanned development? Adopt sensible zoning restrictions, such as those that exist in many parts of St. Charles County.

It pains me to acknowledge it, but those who call sprawl "choice" are right when they say, in essence, that sprawl is as American as apple pie. In Missouri, at least, sprawl is here to stay.

The trick is to learn to live with sprawl by treating its consequences as intelligently as possible. Sprawl can either beget hopelessly boring subdivisions and strips of fast-food joints - or planned communities with parks and wooded areas, bicycle paths, town squares, and revitalized inner cities. In Missouri, at least, the consequential decisions will not be whether to sprawl, but how we do it.

Dennis Judd is professor of political science at University of Missouri-St. Louis.
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Author:Judd, Dennis
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 1999
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