Violence Linked to Sprawl

Before sprawl, children could depend on the whole community for support, guidance, and direction in the absence of a parental figure.

By Douglas E. Morris
Published November 28, 2005

American society is slowly waking up from the nightmare of suburban sprawl, and is starting to build places that have the potential for community to form.

However, similar to a drunk emerging from a binge, progress is sluggish, and a serious hangover remains.

Even so, some of the positive steps being taken include over 800 smart growth projects underway all over the country. Shopping malls are being converted into villages, public transit initiatives are being developed, and zoning codes all over the country are being changed to reflect the principles of New Urbanism.

All of these efforts along the path to livability deserve our recognition and applause. However, to have the impact needed to re-establish America's quality of life, they are not nearly enough.

Sprawl, aside from being a wasteland of neon signs, gridlock, and big box stores, has transformed America from the land of the free into the land of the frightened.

Today, along with dramatic increases loneliness, depression, and suicides, America's levels of violence have also skyrocketed.

Compared to other first-world nations, countries that are our peers legally, politically, and economically, but do not have sprawl, we are the only one suffering under an epidemic of violence. Our rates of murder, rape, and assault are astronomically higher than the rest of the world.

To better visualize this, let's compare the number of sexual assaults in the US with those in Europe's most violent nation, England. America had 102,560 sexual assaults in 1990, while England's number was only 3,391.

England has 60 million people and America has 280 million. If England had as many people as America and its sexual assault rate stayed the same, there would still be only 16,995 sexual assaults per year.

That's not even close to America's 102,560! With numbers like this it is no wonder women are afraid to walk around alone in our society.

Contrary to a Hollywood concocted image, America was not always such a dangerous place to live. Statistics clearly show that our rates of violence only started increasing after sprawl emerged.

Before sprawl, America was a safe, community-oriented place to live. Our cities were filled with safe neighborhoods and our suburbs were designed to be livable small towns.

Only after WW II, when we eliminated our communities by building the isolation and alienation of sprawl, has our country fallen apart.

To support this realization, let's looks at another statistic: assaults.

Sprawl emerged in 1945 and was firmly in place by the 1960s. Not so coincidentally, the aggravated-assault rate escalated from 60 per 100,000 in 1957 to 200 per 100,000 in 1965, then erupted to over 440 per 100,000 by the middle of 1990s.

As sprawl emerged, violence increased dramatically.

You may be wondering how the alienation and isolation of sprawl and the resulting lack of communities act as a breeding ground for violence.

FBI agent John Douglas has spent over twenty-five years tracking and studying violent human predators, and he asserts that more than any other factor, children who are predisposed towards violence need responsible adult role models so that they can develop into healthy, well-adjusted individuals.

Mr. Douglas and other criminologists and psychologists are certain that positive interactions with older members of society are the key to helping dissuade budding violent offenders from their predatory impulses.

However, if spending time with adult role models is what is needed to stop the development of violent offenders but a family breaks down or both parents are working, how is that going to happen in the alienating expanses of sprawl?

Before sprawl existed, children could depend on the whole community to be there for support, guidance, and direction in the absence of a parental figure.

There would usually be another adult role model to fill the void-a local shopkeeper, neighborhood policeman, or someone else from the small town or neighborhood community.

In sprawl and the urban blight it creates, such support is virtually non-existent. Regrettably, suburban sprawl has eliminated the places where children can spend time with responsible, caring, older members of society.

Without the adult supervision that was so common when we lived in genuine communities, many American children are left to their own devices, allowing those who are predisposed toward violent behavior to fall through the cracks in society and offering an opportunity for their "bad seed" to germinate and grow.

Grow it does as our rates of violence indicate.

We deserve better than sprawl and urban blight. We deserve to live in places where we can let our children explore the world around them without being afraid some sicko might snatch them.

We deserve to be able to walk our streets without worrying about being assaulted. We deserve well-designed communities that are more than just places on a map, but are also, more importantly, places in our hearts.

Douglas E. Morris is the author of five books, a magazine columnist, and an international entrepreneur who has lived for 14 years outside the US in a variety of safe, community-oriented urban areas in seven different countries. His newest book, Its a Sprawl World After All, has just ben published by New Society Publishers. Visit his website: http://www.ItsaSprawlWorld.com.


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