Did you move to the outskirts of town to be closer to nature? So did my parents, who relocated from Dallas to a quiet lakeside community in the Texas hill country in 1997. Back then, the 15-mile drive to their house from central Austin took 30 minutes and led you through farmland, ranchland, and protected wildlife habitat. A peaceful after-dinner drive to "count the deer" was a favorite pastime. "It wasn't considered a good night if we didn't count at least a hundred," my mother recalls. Now, she says, they're lucky if they see three or four. Between 1990 and 2010, the human population of their community grew by more than 240 percent—turning it from a quiet refuge to a busy exurb. Once, my parents could look outside their window and see green hillsides; now "it's just the rooftops" of the more than 2,000 single-family homes permitted for construction since the year they moved in.
Did you escape to the suburbs because you hated big-city traffic? Even if all the deer hadn't been run out of my parents' exurb, there's no such thing as a "peaceful after-dinner drive" near their home anymore. The residents of their community average 2.6 vehicles per household, and those vehicles now jam the single artery leading into and out of town. More than three-quarters of these drivers are solo commuters; fewer than 10 percent carpool. What used to be a half-hour drive to and from central Austin can now take twice as long.
Did you move to the suburbs for safety and stability? Perpetrators of property crimes love sprawl; it's great for business. The combination of low-density, single-family housing with an absence of pedestrian culture means more back doors for the jimmying and more windows for the breaking, all conveniently hidden from the eyes and ears of potential witnesses. From 2001 to 2011, my parents' idyllic community saw its own crime index rise substantially.
Sprawl destroys the defining character of suburbs by conferring upon them many problems associated with urban areas: crime, congestion, paved-over wilderness. And yet Stanley Kurtz assails urban growth boundaries—which draw a literal line in the sand, then limit development beyond it—as a liberal scheme "to force suburban residents into densely packed cities." But if that's true, why did the citizens of conservative Virginia Beach, Va., establish one back in 1979? The answer is that their "green line," which has restricted sprawl to the city's northern half, has preserved the unique agricultural character of the southern half; as a result, today there are nearly 170 working farms within the city limits. Similarly, these boundaries didn't seem so sinister to the Tennessee General Assembly, which passed a law in 1998 requiring every independent county in the state to adopt them, explicitly citing a statewide need to "minimize urban sprawl."
Mass transit, too, offers far-flung suburbanites relief from sprawl's ill effects, in this case by reducing their commute times and increasing the amount of time they get to spend at home. So why would Joel Kotkin blithely dismiss it as "offer[ing] little to anyone who lives outside a handful of large metropolitan cores"? Has he ever talked to an exasperated exurban commuter? The first decade of this century saw 60 percent population growth in America's exurbs. As they added 10 million people to their numbers, the number of road miles driven by Americans increased by nearly 200 billion. Even putting aside the amount of atmospheric CO2 that all those extra miles represent, you'd think Kotkin would see how giving people mass-transit options promises to improve everyone's commute—drivers included.
In the century since they first appeared on our physical and cultural horizon, the suburbs have earned the right to consider themselves every bit as American as our gleaming cities and rolling farmlands. There's no stealth plan to "abolish" them. There is, instead, a perfectly transparent plan to include them in the list of communities that must be brought into the sustainability fold if we're ever to address climate change effectively, protect wildlife habitat, and ensure that we don't pollute or deplete our resources to the point of no return. Smart growth is great for cities—but it's great for suburbs, too. People who love them should understand that any concerted effort to make them cleaner, prettier, safer, and less congested is a conspiracy worth joining.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2013 issue of OnEarth magazine.
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