World’s Worst Elected Official Makes the Case for Sprawl

Oakland County Executive calls “Sprawl” the American Dream

by Christopher Mims, reposted from Grist.

“Well, let me state it unequivocally: I love sprawl,” says L. Brooks Patterson, county executive of Oakland County, Mich. “I need it. I promote it. Oakland County can’t get enough of it,” he continues, in an essay posted to the Oakland County website. Why should any of us care? Well, Patterson appears to be in a position of power, especially if you live in southeast Michigan. And unlike other people in positions of power who make absurd sprawl-feeding, bike-busting laws — ahem Congress — he’s laying all his reasoning out on the table.

To Patterson, sprawl is an issue of freedom.

Let’s stop the hysteria and honestly ask ourselves what is sprawl? “Sprawl” is the unfortunate pejorative title government planners give to economic development that takes place in areas they can’t control. In reality, “sprawl” is new houses, new school buildings, new plants, and new office and retail facilities. “Sprawl” is new jobs, new hope and the fulfillment of lifelong dreams. It’s the American Dream unfolding before your eyes.

In fact, opposing sprawl is un-American.

Today, if a company pulls up stakes, abandons a suburban location and moves into the central city (often doubling or tripling the commute time for its employees), the anti-American Dream doom-and- gloomers call it “economic revitalization,” and they praise it.

But if a company, a residential builder, or a family moves out into the suburbs, it’s condemned by the anti-American Dreamers. “It’s sprawl,” they hiss, “it’s bad.”

Patterson’s view of history is pretty straightforward. Maybe he knows something countless scholars of the city don’t? (After all, everyone knows the most simplified view of history is usually the right one.)

Sprawl did not cause the decline of the cities. Cities declined because they squandered their assets. High crime rates, high taxes, failing schools, foul air and a lack of open green spaces forced people to move.

Federal subsidies of highways and car culture? Redlining and white flight? Tax structures favoring sprawl while penalizing urban cores? Poof! Sprawl now happened because cities are gross:

Sprawlers, like me, simply wanted a home with green grass on a safe, well maintained street, a quality neighborhood school that actually educated their children, a good job, nearby parks and recreational spaces, and a local government that actually delivers the services their taxes paid for. In other words, they wanted a place like today’s Oakland County.

It’s a minor miracle that up to this point in his piece, he has yet to use the word “undesirables.”

And now, prepare yourself mentally for the coup de grace.

And the next time somebody rubs your face in the word sprawl, take a long, hard look at that person.  Too often you will see some limousine liberal who long ago fled our cities. Now, they want others to go back and take their place. They want to use the power of government to force you back into a city, or a neighborhood, or a housing type they chose not to live in themselves.

What about the mass-transit riding elites who live in dense, walkable neighborhoods that nurture their sense of community and connectedness while reducing their impact on the planet?

I guess they don’t exist. Or maybe L. Brooks Patterson can’t find them in the vast parking lots that pass for public spaces in his brave new Oakland County.

— Christopher Mims is a journalist who writes about ideas. Mostly. This piece was originally published at Grist.

17 Responses to World’s Worst Elected Official Makes the Case for Sprawl

  1. climatehawk1 says:

    Dang. We almost squashed this jackass at the get-go, when he ran for Oakland County Prosecutor. Alas, the year was 1972, and McGovern was taking the Democratic ticket down the drain. Tom Plunkett, the incumbent Prosecutor, ran far ahead of him, but not quite far enough.

  2. Dano says:

    He actually doesn’t make the case for sprawl. He types a lot of talking points and dog-whistle phrases and triumphantly asserts his typing is correct. That is not “making the case”.

    Nonetheless, he is not the only one. Lots of old white people ‘think’ this same way.



  3. climatehawk1 says:

    I’m sure, but lots and lots of us don’t, too. Not sure stereotypes add to a discussion, though I am as guilty of thinking them as anyone.

  4. Alan Gregory says:

    Sprawl: Cut down all the trees and them name the cul-de-sac streets after them. Maple Lane, Ash Drive, White Pine Avenue, etc. What a crock

  5. SteveW says:

    An excellent rebuttal (actually a “pre-buttal,” since it appeared first) comes from an Oakland County employer and deserves wider recognition. The letter first appeared in 2010; I found it on RustWire about a year back. The author, Andrew Basile, critiques Oakland County-type sprawl as both a depressing aesthetic problem AND an economic handicap. Sample sentiment:
    “There’s a simple reason why many people don’t want to live here: it’s an unpleasant place because most of it is visually unattractive and because it is lacking in quality living options other than tract suburbia. Some might call this poor ‘quality of life.’ A better term might be poor ‘quality of place.’ In Metro Detroit, we have built a very bad physical place.”
    Long, but definitely worth a read.

  6. Chris Winter says:

    Notice how he glosses over both the loss of green space as a factor in driving people out of cities (though he does mention it) and the resulting growth of suburbs, replacing natural green spaces with, in his words, “new houses, new school buildings, new plants, and new office and retail facilities.”

    Don’t forget the parking lots. Joni Mitchell didn’t.

    And that company he describes moving from a suburb into the city core: It’s quite likely going to pay higher rents, unless it downsizes in a major way. And if its employees have worse commutes, it might have no choice as they exit in droves for better jobs. In short, his example sounds like a straw man.

    Not that it diminishes the quality of his argument much. It never had much quality.

  7. As a reformed ‘sprawler’ now living in a high rise in downtown Austin, I have to say I have a hybrid view. I raised two kids in an incredible, wooded, child-dense, elementary-school-in walking-distance neighborhood (and in a 4,000 sqf home). But after five years of city living, I can’t imagine living any other way. If I had to do both over, given the cost structure, I probably wouldn’t change a thing.

    Besides abundant cheap land, the marginal true costs of the ‘choice’ to ‘sprawl’ are shifted to the public through subsidized cheap fuel, subsidized cheap roads, and deferred costs of climate change.

    If those costs were priced into sprawl, the cost advantage would shift back to the cities. The qualitative advantages of entertainment, art, social interactions, and ‘time’ would conspire to make sprawl an irrational choice.

    The day of reckoning may be coming though. Here is Austin, thiefs who were drawing water from our resevoir without paying when it was full are now being threatened to pay up or face misdemeanor fines now that some communities have completely run dry, gas prices are headig toward $5/gal, service providers have to pay higher wages to blue collar workers who have to commute to them, and the entertainment and arts comparison isn’t even close.

  8. So: ‘…“sprawl” is new houses, new school buildings, new plants, and new office and retail facilities.’?
    Why don’t you say that sprawl is loss of habitat, longer commutes that use fossil fuels and a few other environmental disasters!
    Let us stop killing the planet, please!

  9. Steven F says:

    Seeing “Oakland” I thought of California first.
    However, Gertrude Stein’s comment about Oakland, CA seems even more appropriate to Oakland Michigan: “There is no there there.”

    By the way, the actual cost of renting office space in rehabbed inner city buildings is often cheaper than suburban office parks. The external costs of keeping multiple family cars going, traffic delays, spreading the vast infrastructure costs across a low density population, and all the other externalities, make sprawl the more expensive way to live.

    Personally, one acre zoning is the worst of all possible worlds.
    I’ll take 40 units per acre, or the other extreme – 40 acres per unit, over the common 1/4 to 4 acre lot sprawl suburbs.

  10. Paul Magnus says:

    Climate Portals shared a link.

    Global warming threats ratcheting up, Goddard Institute leader warns | Vancouver Sun

    Hansen noted that in recent years, temperature ‘anomalies’ or extremes, including heat waves and snowstorms, have been occurring about 50 times as often as the trend for the Holocene – based on ice core samples and other long-term weather data.

  11. Paul Magnus says:

    “We’re only about one degree cooler than the early to mid-Pliocene [epoch] when sea level was 15-25 metres higher [than today],” Hansen said.

  12. Leif says:

    Sprawl we got and there is no sense in abandoning it at this date. One thing the city dweller cannot get is sustainable energy on his property. Put solar PV on sprawl roofs where cost effective, and give those same folks access to low cost EV transportation, fueled off their own energy and perhaps even a victory garden and all of a sudden the economics are totally changed. Give them health care and they can even take an extra day or two off work and still live quite well. Win-win. Wall Mart wins when gas is cheap. Mom & Pop stores when gas is expensive. Expensive fossil fuel can be good for all only if it is leveraged correctly. Keep the Rich on the dole and all is lost.

  13. Tim says:

    25 years ago, on an interview trip to GM, as I drove around Warren and points immediately west in Oakland county, Michigan what seemed to be most dramatically characteristic of the sprawl were the strip malls! It’s remarkable. Just how many nail salons, tanning shops, liquor stores, fast food joints, etc. can one stand before the numbing sameness of them all wears you down? You can’t tell Michigan from Arkansas from Nevada from Texas (in Louisiana there are drive through daiquiri stands to break the pattern.)

  14. longtail says:

    I hate sprawl. My town is one of the most well preserved villages in New England and we are beginning to experience it. It is now against the law to build a town the way this charming place was.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    “old’ as in ‘Won’t be around to live with the consequences, pretty soon’.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    A lot of ‘people’ on the Right, fear, and therefore hate, the natural world, because it is bigger, grander, more magnificent, than them. Even worse, a reality that they have been trying to deny for millennia, they are part of it, and will soon return to it, to be swallowed up, without trace. That is an affront to their egomania. They attempt, pathetically and pointlessly, to have their revenge by pulling down any tree they see, to replace it with nice, clean, man-made, concrete.

  17. Sorry. That guy isn’t the 2nd derivative of Badness of the governor of Florida.

    $600 million fine for fraud.

    And as cosmetic as his “election” credentials may be, V. Putin is still, nominally, an elected official.