Suburban Sprawl to Smart Growth – Shifting the American Dream

Yvette is interning with us this fall and will be writing regularly on planning issues. We ask our regular readers to reward her with their expertise and opinions in the comments.

A McMansion, three cars, and spacious back yard in the suburbs, is this the American Dream or the American suburban sprawl nightmare?

Suburban sprawl is the development of land into sparse one family housing developments, significantly reducing open space and the natural aesthetics of the land while creating a society dependent upon cars for transportation. It is an epidemic that has affected our country since the start of the industrial revolution. As a wave of new immigrants became city residents, wages rose and those who could moved into the suburbs in search of what they considered to be enhanced quality of life. This suburban migration has become a modern day rite of passage to success.

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In short suburban sprawl effects:
1. Environment -Runoff, air pollution, global warming, groundwater recharge

2. Farmland

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-Poor food systems, loss of aesthetics, reduced farming culture and a lack of diverse landscapes

3. Biodiversity

-Destruction of habitat and species extinction

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4. Quality of life

-Increased traffic, poor air quality, isolation from neighborhood

I think we all know examples of suburban sprawl. I grew up in a small suburban town in New Jersey where the average home sits on an acre of land. My parents have lived in the same home for over 25 years, and we still don’t know our neighbors. We are completely dependent upon car transportation. If I walk around my neighborhood, there are no sidewalks, and I only see other homes. I’m sure this picture of my town paints a similar image for others across the country. While this is no longer a lifestyle I subscribe to, I couldn’t imagine my parents living another way, and I’m sure the same goes for millions of other people. However, this way of life is unsustainable and change is necessary if we are going to avoid further environmental damage.

As a solution to suburban sprawl we can opt for smart growth. Smart growth allows for more densely populated communities, mixed land use, and communities with character. It encourages less driving, transit oriented development, minimizes impervious ground and it maximizes groundwater recharge. It also allows for beautiful green and open land that can be used for recreational purposes, farmland, or simply for aesthetics, like Central Park in NYC. It reduces pollution because it gives its residents the opportunity to walk to a friend’s house or to the store opposed to being dependent upon a vehicle for transportation.

A recent example of the adoption of smart growth is Tysons Corner in Virginia. In September 2008, after 3 years in development, a plan was approved for this small suburb of DC to evolve from a traditional, car dependent, land consuming suburb to a modern green city dependent upon the gift of non-motorized and public transportation as well as smart land use while enhancing culture and living conditions. I’m so excited to see that changes are happening and people are beginning to reach outside the realm of traditional planning and development.

While I adore the idea of smart growth, I don’t live in a bubble. I realize that millions of people have invested their lives in attaining this version of the American dream, and I know that dream isn’t going to change to smart growth over night. There are hints of change throughout the country and even locally. The Delaware Valley Planning Commission launched a smart growth program this year in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties but we still have a long way to go. How do we further the revolution when this sprawling version American Dream is so ingrained in our culture? What is the best way to encourage smart growth? How strong do you think the resistance to this idea will be? Will people be willing to shift their lifestyle simply by understanding the stakes or will we need government mandates and incentives to encourage change?

Tell me what you think in the comments.