“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.