By Ryan McGreal
Published November 15, 2006
Raise the Hammer has made the point that we're political but not partisan. Our agenda, if you will, does not spring from this or that side of an ideological spectrum, but from our convictions about how the built environment shapes our lives.
If you must saddle RTH with an "ism", then call us urbanists: we believe cities should be dynamic, diverse, vibrant, eclectic, attractive, and convivial, and that they should not consume or encroach blithely on their rural surroundings.
We also believe cities should be sustainable, and that they are ultimately governed by the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Over the past century, humans have burned through a multi-million year endowment of stored energy (in the form of fossil fuels).
This has allowed us to enjoy a living/working/transport arrangement that runs on a massive, one-time flow-through of cheap, abundant energy. We've built our cities over the past half-century as if this one-time endowment will last forever.
In so doing, we have incidentally invented a new built form that is neither urban (fast, proximate, creative, and industrial) nor rural (slow, local, conservative, and manual), but an ersatz hybrid of the two: the sprawl suburb.
Sprawl is low-density but does not produce food. It is industrial but does not generate ideas or produce goods. It is 'conservative' but does not conserve. Destinations are separated but each destination is single-use (unlike multi-functional farms), and vehicles are essential to get anywhere (unlike dense city neighbourhoods).
The basic unit of sprawl is not the urban neighbourhood or the rural farmstead, but the single family house, which cannot produce any of the things it needs or process any of its own waste materials. It is, therefore, an economic and cultural black hole, and it survives only because cheap, abundant energy allows its residents to move around in cars and obtain or dispose of all the things the house cannot manage itself.
This is a building form with no future. The vast energy inputs needed to maintain sprawl suburbia are responsible for our ugly entanglements with oil producing countries and companies, our relentless empire-building in the Middle East, the growing crisis of climate change, and the steady increase in air pollution at home.
In the meantime, by replacing human energy with hydrocarbon energy, it robs us of opportunities to engage in the kind of productive work for which the human body has adapted over millions of years. Overstuffed with manufactured, petroleum-based foods and denied the chance to work, our sedentary bodies fall prey to the chronic diseases of affluence: cancer, heart disease, type II diabetes.
The crisis of our living arrangement resists attempts to solve it through partisanship or political ideology. It is not a product of capitalism or socialism, but the underlying hydrocarbon industrialism that made both ideologies possible in the 19th century.
Progressives should be concerned about sprawl. The shape of sprawl suburbia makes any kind of community engagement - the foundation of progressive politics - extremely difficult to sustain. Consider, for example, the number of neighbourhood and community associations in the lower city compared to those in the suburbs.
Sprawl forces children to grow up isolated, alienated, and utterly dependent on their parents to move around. It consumes resources unsustainably and externalizes the waste it produces to others. It is a fundamentally unfair living arrangement.
Conservatives should be concerned about sprawl. It has all but destroyed the traditional forms of human settlement - the rural community and the urban neighbourhood - and is destroying the material and cultural foundation on which our society and economy are built.
Sprawl is a discontinuity, a dramatic break from patterns of civilization that go back millenia and an abrogation of the collective wisdom that once created viable communities through emergent processes. As an attempt to liberate people from the problems of urban and rural life by wiping the slate clean, sprawl creates new problems without solving the old ones.
Libertarians should be concerned about sprawl. It is made possible through massive government intervention: in opening rural lands, building the public infrastructure, subsidizing the price of fuel, undercharging property taxes, and forcing a false separation of uses and an arbitrary constraint on property owners' rights through byzantine zoning regulations.
A robust urbanism can give people a tangible framework to transcent the false dichotomy of left/right, disorganize the unhealthy, self-perpetuating entanglements of partisanship, and get people thinking, talking, and working toward rebuilding communities that enrich our personal lives and sustain our public, shared environment.
I believe that's a goal everyone can share.