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Uniformly Sprawling Atrocity?

Abstract: Sprawl has a long, multi century history in the USA. It’s at the core of inequality, inequity, and much worse.

It’s always astounding to see 16 year old children of the USA driving themselves 50 kilometers to a private school costing about the median family income of the USA. Seems like the road to hell. Not just for them, mindless cogs, but for the whole planet. Yet this folly is viewed as completely normal and reasonable for those unfortunate children’s parents in the professional class of the USA (the upper middle class of lawyers, doctors, etc.).

I have known (very well, over decades) American children who spent, everyday, three hours commuting inside cars. Three hours at the very least. More when traffic was bad. Their parents were offended when told that was wrong. (Could not Clinton/Bush/Obama just bomb more oil out of where it came from? I have to guess?)

To my eyes, this rabid commuting speaks of racism. As does the finally “balanced” California budget (balanced by cutting services viewed in the past as fundamental, such as schooling for preschool and kindergarten; turns out the children who can’t go to school anymore are of the wrong color. Mostly. Oops. Never mind. Change conversation, what about sport scores?).

I was happy to discover that a New York Times article has discovered sprawl and Paul Krugman now shares my long held opinion: “A quarter-century ago Mr. Wilson, a distinguished sociologist, famously argued that the postwar movement of employment out of city centers to the suburbs dealt African-American families, concentrated in those city centers, a heavy blow, removing economic opportunity just as the civil rights movement was finally ending explicit discrimination.

These days.traditional families have become much weaker among working-class whites, too. Why? Well, rising inequality and the general hollowing out of the job market are probably the main culprits. But the new research on social mobility suggests that sprawl – not just the movement of jobs out of the city, but their movement out of reach of many less-affluent residents of the suburbs, too – is also playing a role.

As I said, this observation clearly reinforces the case for policies that help families function without multiple cars. But you should also see it in the larger context of a nation that has lost its way, that preaches equality of opportunity while offering less and less opportunity to those who need it most.”

I sent the following to the NYT which published right away:

The recovery of the USA experienced now, the real one, not the fake one from financial engineering (zero interest rates, QE, Goldman Sacks and its ilk) rests mostly on fracking (and a low $/Euro ratio). Break the ground, get gas and oil. Plenty of it. In some places, the reserves have jumped by a factor of ten.

This plentiful of cheap carbon energy is doubly fraught; it allows the USA to keep on going the wrong way, wasting energy, and encourages urban sprawl, a segregation that does not need to say its name to be efficient.

Urban sprawl exposes the USA in case the fracking gets itself fracked. That could well happen from a combination of ecological reasons and bad Return On Investment: wells tend to leak as the concrete ages, and the cost of fracking itself is not clear. Or in case the CO2 crisis becomes so bad, that even the deluded government of the USA submits to the evidence, and cracks (fracks?) down on it.

In Europe, it’s different. Europeans have known for at least 700 years, that urban sprawl was worse than bad: it encroached on arable land, and precious forests, it increased the cost of transportation, it prevented the synergy of cities.

Not so in North America. It was just the opposite. Why? Because, modulo exterminating the natives, there was always a lot of land to misuse. Sprawling encouraged, and enabled, the extermination of the pesky natives, it was synonymous with it. When general Jackson attacked Cherokee land, in spite of contrary orders from Congress, he was imposing the superiority of sprawling over civilized behavior (the Cherokees had settled into european-like farms, to Jackson’s alarm).

How to do something about sprawl? First raise tax base of cities, and punish sprawling by putting a significant carbon tax/gas tax, while making public transportation irresistible in city centers (what Europeans have been doing). Otherwise? Strategic danger, long-term: one cannot de-sprawl overnight.

Ilene Bilenky of Littleton, MA, directly dared to contradict me. She said: “People lionize Europe for supposedly knowing better to live in towns/cities with trains, etc., while ignoring the fact that Europe developed centuries before cars existed, and the U.S. grew along with the coming of the car (and the space for them). I am not saying I like sprawl or favor the U.S. mess that we all live in- I am saying that Europe is different for historical reasons and circumstance, not superior assessment.”

And I answered in turn:

Ilene: With all due respect, you are wrong, it’s not about who is smart, and who is not. Laws against sprawl were passed in Europe 700 years ago, because sprawl caused very severe problems. So cracking down on sprawl was from superior assessment in full consideration of the facts.

(By the way, in case you ask, the government of Edward III, grandson of Philippe IV le Bel of France, passed laws against coal burning in London, around 1335 CE, because it made the air hard to breathe: another correct European assessment!)

By contrast, sprawl was intrinsic to the birth of the USA. No, I will not insist on a silly joke such as Uniformly Sprawling Atrocity (although it’s close to what happened!. So maybe I should.).

Seriously, (European!) settlers wanted to sprawl beyond the frontiers set by the French and British, into Indian lands, to dispossess, and generally murder and exterminate the Natives. It’s because of this precise point, more than about the cost of tea, that some colonists in the USA revolted.  

Those colonists made the (entirely correct, logically speaking) assessment that there was a continent to steal, “from sea to shining sea”, as long as the USA sprawled. The program was mostly implemented by Washington, Jefferson and Jackson who stole lands of the order of Western Europe itself.  

Please try to not underestimate the assessment of some enterprising citizens of the USA when it comes to fracking, fracturing and fricasseeing a continent. Sprawling is a mood that served them, and their descendants, well. Hence sprawling is perceived to be a victory, a success, just like the 5,000 square feet mansion that for the landscape of the suburban USA, at the cost of roughly everything else.

Sprawling is the fruit of a long, dark evolution. American sprawl struck the Nazis as eminently just, and they translated it into “Lebensraum”. The rest, as they say, is history.

Patrice Ayme

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