Joel Hirschhorn's book advocates for healthy places as a choice in the
face of pervasive blandburbs (suburban sprawl areas) in the United
States. This book carefully
articulates the concepts, functions, design, and benefits
of healthy places and
shows how to advocate for
these healthy places.
But the strength of this book is that it
clearly identifies the foes of these healthy places.
So while the concepts of healthy places found in many other
Hirschhorn's work boldly identifies, up front and throughout the book, the
array of forces that are pro-sprawl.
This book makes its case--but its harsh tone might put off someone
who might not be amenable to its conclusions.
Nowhere does Hirschorn say that the people who live in sprawl
are bad or sprawl is inherently bad. He is simply outraged that
the cards are stacked so much in favor of sprawl that
alternative healthy places struggle to be established or flourish.
This book is well-organized and offers a strong
I am very sympathetic to Hirschhorn's points, but I see
this book as having its greatest value in helping existing smart-growth
advocates understand opposition to
and organize support for
the healthy places Hirschhorn describes.
Hirschhorn's identification of pro-sprawl forces is key.
Without understanding the forces that promote and support sprawl,
little progress will likely
ever be made in providing people a choice for walkable urbanism.
In many ways, the story of people working to make their communities better
is a continuous story of being manipulated and
thrwarted by the pro-sprawl advocates.
Hirschhorn's role as the Director of Environment, Energy and Natural
Resources at the National Governors Association gives him great
insight into identifying what political forces support sprawl.
Who are the pro-sprawl advocates?
- House builders (p. 22). They make money building McMansions and other sprawl-type developments. The National Association of Home Builders, the National
Association of Realtors, and the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties have advocacy groups to support house building and sales (p. 23).
Their rhetoric often presents the false dichotomy: you can live in inner-city slums
or you can live in the large-lot housing development (p. 22).
- People who make money from creating sprawl (p. 23), including speculators, developers, builders and ancillary groups such as "architects, real estate agents, investors, planners, traffic engineers, construction companies, engineering firms, land use attorneys, and consultants" (p. 23).
- Automobile and road-building industries with their suppliers (p. 23).
- Oil companies that sell gasoline and other petroleum products that
support automobile and highway and road travel (p. 24).
- Lawn care industries that maintain the vast amounts of "green space"
in sprawl lawns and highway areas (p. 23).
- Retail industries that work well within sprawl models of
development, such as fast food and big box chain stores (p. 23).
- The pharmaceutical industry selling drugs to counteract obesity and stress (p. 23).
This list of power and influence should sober anyone considering how to
provide alternatives to sprawl. As the cartoon on page 23 shows, many
advocates for healthy places may very well profit from sprawl themselves,
either directly or through investments in the highly-profitable companies building and supporting sprawl. It should be noted, too, that many of these
same organizations can profit by healthy places, too, as long as the
playing field is level for consumers to choose those healthy places to live.
"A HEALTHY PLACE has a dynamic, interactive mixture of its built and natural components. Basic live, work and play land uses are within walkable distances or shorter car rides, or are accessible through public transit. We know how to do this." p. 132.
After dissecting pro-sprawl forces, the rest of Hirschhorn's book
identifies and explains the concept of "healthy places."
In brief, these healthy places are areas where people can live where they can walk, bike, or take other
transportation than a car to get to their destinations.
In chapter 3, "Mixed Magic," the author shows how mixed uses help people
access what they need closer to where they live and work.
In subsequent chapters, the author shows how active living,
profitable businesses, quality public space, transportation choices,
and walkability help foster these healthy places
Hirschorn's accomplishment in this book is that he helps show
that very real, very strong, and very profitable political forces
oppose alternatives to sprawl. The author also shows, however, that
when indviduals prefer healthy places and are willing to support them
with corresponding housing, living, and transportation choices, the balance
can shift to providing alternatives to sprawl.