It is heartening to learn that some people have heeded
President Bush’s call for citizen action rather than relying on government to
do the job. A couple of weeks ago, members of the Long Island chapter of E.L.F.
(Earth Liberation Front) gave us a splendid example of local initiative and
neighborhood activism when they doused a pickup truck and a 14-ton payloader
with gasoline and put a torch to them. Shortly after the deed was done, an Elf
in Spokane, Ore., made a public declaration warning the world that “all businesses,
large or small, which participate in earth-raping industries will continue to
be targeted as a part of the E.L.F.’s ongoing campaign to evoke economic damage
to those responsible for urban sprawl.”
Even though this is but the latest of four or five attacks
on Long Island and elsewhere, at the moment the Elves may end up evoking more
damage to the English language than to the construction industry. Nevertheless,
many of us who are not incendiary pixies are depressed and angry at urban
sprawl, though we don’t know quite what ought to be done about it.
First off, defining sprawl is like trying to catch a baby
trout with your bare hands. It is as the judge once said of pornography: “I
can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” And we see it all around us.
Some of us reach for flambeaux, and others try to contain the gobbling up of
the country by putting growth-limit propositions on the ballot and changing the
zoning laws. In community after community, Chamber of Commerce Babbittry about
growth is no longer welcome. The developer is the enemy, or at least the enemy
of some. Besides the real estate and construction industries, organizations
dedicated to securing housing for the poor and the almost poor are decidedly
unenthusiastic about proposals that inhibit home building, since scarcity
raises prices. Hence, this fall the Colorado affiliates of Habitat for Humanity
opposed a whole parcel of ballot propositions designed to stop the spread of
man’s works across this increasingly tattered and worn-out continent.
You don’t have to be Jimmy Carter to conclude that ignoring
the housing needs of the poor is short-sighted and can lead to no small amount
of inconvenience for those whose cash flows abundantly. The ski resort of Vail,
Colo., is the most famous example of getting rid of the low-cost housing and
then realizing one’s servants had no place to lay their heads.
Local ordinances will only go so far in slowing the wanton
land use, since the rich have all kinds of ways of defeating anti-growth
zoning. In northern California, baby vineyards are used to get around zoning
that discourages building McMansions. In addition to zoning, changing the tax
laws may work to slow the barbarous destruction of the landscape.
Among the ideas that suggest themselves: What about
eliminating the interest deduction on mortgages larger than $300,000? This
would by no means end the destructive processes which go under the name of
“sprawl,” but it would cut back the number of customers for land-wasteful
housing. Taxing houses on an upward sliding scale according to their size
affords us a powerful prod to use on people with profligate building ideas. In
addition to the ordinary real estate tax, local jurisdictions, states or even
the federal government might levy a stiff tax on every inch of space in a
residence over, say, 3,500 square feet. To encourage the maximum use of lots in
metropolitan areas, unused land over a certain allowable minimum might be taxed
at a high rate. Thus, if it were known in advance that new, large houses on imposingly
grand lots would come with a $75,000-a-year tax surcharge, we might see less
sprawl and more frugal and cleverly designed use of land.
While not immediately as effective as tossing a Molotov
cocktail at a bulldozer, in the long run slapping heavy annual fees on power
lawn mowers could have a vastly more salubrious effect. If you had to pay
$1,500 a year to keep and operate a lawn mower and $3,000 a year for a riding
mower, you might conclude that a domicile with a small lot size had something to
say for itself. We would never have seen the kind of suburban real-estate
development we have had for the past half century if lawns had to be kept
looking like putting greens or cemeteries with hand mowers. There would be so
many beneficent side effects to making power mowers expensive luxuries:
Obviously, noise levels would be lowered, air pollution would be lessened,
significant amounts of gasoline would be saved and, with the shrinking of the
thousands of acres of lawn, there would be a concomitant diminution in the use
of herbicides, pesticides and promiscuous use of deleterious fertilizers.
America’s horticultural Vietnam-the never-ending, always-losing war against the
dandelion- would be at an end. The end of chemical warfare on the lawn would
inevitably bring in its train weeds, wild flowers and a variety of bugs,
including wonderfully ugly moths and lovely butterflies. The recrudescence of
the arthropods should bring with it a jump, for birds, in the food supply-and
the chirp and twitter will once more be heard, we can hope, in this American
land of ours.
Under this approach, the rich will still be safe in their
palatial digs surrounded by royal vistas of greensward, since these measures
are not offered to level the society, but only to try and save the countryside
from irremediable depravation. This approach has scant chance of success as it
is, but if the rich were to be aced out of their estates, they would line up
against it, and the general idea would be dead before it was debated.
It’s probably stillborn
anyhow. It cuts against the American grain, which is best exemplified these
days in the S.U.V., designed as it is to give positive reinforcement to
suburban dementia: that is, the belief that the S.U.V. owner and family inhabit
a wild and wonderful countryside where big tires and four-wheel drive are
needed to take car and occupants out of the mud to the top of the untamed
mountain where they live. In actuality, they live on an asphalt plain that
extends farther than a full tank of gasoline can take them. So the chances of
persuading people to control and improve an environment they don’t even know
they’re living in are not what they might be.
Beyond residential sprawl, there is the little problem of
retail-shopping sprawl. It has taken no more than 40 years to bestrew the
landscape with slummy, half-abandoned shopping centers which, to say something
on their behalf, go well with the countless thousands of ugly, slummy,
half-abandoned commercial strips. What an improvement it would make if we could
convert these to other uses or take down the litter of empty,
non-revenue-producing commercial property found everywhere. Even that seems to
be beyond us.
Americans have a history of making dreck and ruins of their
habitations and moving on. If you do this long enough, you may not run out of
territory on a continent of this size, but you will run out of desirable
territory, out of space that anyone wants to occupy. You may leave huge
stretches unsullied but remove and wreck large portions of fruitful, arable
You would be hard pressed, however, to find an area of
government with a more feeble and less successful record than the regulation of
land use. If narcotics has a rival in the amount of corrupt money changing
hands, it may be zoning, a government activity famous for bribery and
favoritism. And yet, the scope and type of regulation needed to control sprawl
goes way beyond zoning.
If sprawl is ever to be brought under control, master
planning of a sort involving energy use, transportation and who knows what else
will have to be undertaken. Well, you don’t have to be a Bush Republican to
shudder at names like “master plan.” Even liberals and lefties who once put
great stock in planning have, thanks to books like Robert Caro’s classic
biography of Robert Moses, less faith in what planning can do. The cause of
planning has also not been helped by the example of the late Soviet Union.
Most recently, Hillary Clinton found out that top-down
planning won’t even make it out of the
closed White House conference room where her health plan was hatched. Bottom-up,
democratic planning has rarely been tried, and it has certainly never been
contemplated on the scale needed to deal with urban sprawl. Do Americans, who
get a tickle out of seeing themselves as over-energized, willful
individualists, have the patience for the slow process of democratic
planning-assuming, of course, we can even agree on what democratic planning
should consist of?
And yet, we have no choice but to try to make a go of it;
the alternative is creeping around suburban construction sites with a Coke
bottle full of gasoline playing Elf.