Pssst! Have you heard about Agenda 21? The secret plot to collectivize private property—hatched by United Nations internationalists and midwifed by operatives ensconced within our own government—all in the name of "ending sprawl" and "encouraging sustainability"? The seizure of suburban homes by jackbooted, gun-toting U.N. thugs? The involuntary relocation of displaced suburbanites to cramped dwellings in densely packed cities?
No? Seriously? You haven't heard about any of this?
Don't blame Glenn Beck. His magazine, the Blaze, put Agenda 21 on the cover of its January/February 2012 issue; the article contained therein, its editors promised, would expose "the global scheme that has the potential to wipe out freedoms of all U.S. citizens." Beck then stretched this warning into a dystopian science fiction novel that came out last November titled (what else?) Agenda 21. In it, suburban and rural homeowners are stripped of their property and carted off to overcrowded cities, where they're forced to live in bunkerlike apartments, wear government-issued uniforms, and generate power for the grid by walking on piezoelectric "energy boards."
In truth, Agenda 21 is the sort of nonbinding, suggestion-filled "action plan" the United Nations generates whenever it holds any kind of major international summit. It emerged from the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and dedicated to addressing the most vexing environmental problems of the time. Beck, who has made a fine living catering to the tinfoil-hat crowd, is trying to pass off U.N. bullet points as a precursor to real bullets. But you don't have to believe the folks in the black helicopters are eyeing your redwood deck as a future landing pad in order to push the theory that a cabal of environmentalists and elected officials has it in for the 'burbs, and won't rest until every last Olive Garden in America is razed and turned into, well, an actual olive garden.
Last August, Stanley Kurtz, who has lectured at Harvard and the University of Chicago, wrote an article for the stalwart conservative journal National Review that appeared under the provocative headline "Burn Down the Suburbs?" It opened with a zinger: "President Obama is not a fan of America's suburbs. Indeed, he intends to abolish them." Kurtz's article was in many ways a rehash of observations made previously by Joel Kotkin, a writer who specializes in analyzing demographic shifts in cities and suburbs. In 2010 Kotkin, a former New York Times columnist, wrote on his blog that "for the first time in memory, the suburbs are under a conscious and sustained attack from Washington." He later told one interviewer that the Obama administration was "the first anti-suburban administration in American history."
For Beck, Kurtz, and Kotkin, all the evidence one needs to back up such breathless assertions can be found in the language of sustainability and "smart growth" used by environmentalists and their allies in government. Alas, what's being heard and what's actually being said are two different things. The champion of sustainability says: "We need to reduce sprawl by encouraging greater density." But the anxious suburbanite hears: "We're tearing down the houses on your cul-de-sac and replacing them with a 20-story Brutalist apartment building, complete with its own wastewater treatment plant." The champion of sustainability says: "It's time to shift from last century's car culture to the new century's culture of mass transit." The anxious suburbanite hears: "We'll be sending someone around for your Escalade shortly. Fortunately for you, the D train will soon be stopping at your new building—right next to your on-site methadone clinic!"
As someone who was raised in the suburbs and still has deep family roots there, I think I know what's fueling this anxiety. And instead of scoffing at it, I believe the champions of sustainability should be emphasizing how ideas that fall under the rubric of smart growth benefit all of us, wherever we reside. Their new message needs to be: If you really love your suburban quality of life, then know that the greatest threat to it isn't coming from bureaucrats, environmentalists, or liberal politicians. It's coming from that brand-new, almost completed housing development going up right next to yours.
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.