Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health, and Money by Joel S. Hirschhorn

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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 books, 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 viewpoint, and 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?

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. Automobile and road-building industries with their suppliers (p. 23).
  4. Oil companies that sell gasoline and other petroleum products that support automobile and highway and road travel (p. 24).
  5. Lawn care industries that maintain the vast amounts of "green space" in sprawl lawns and highway areas (p. 23).
  6. Retail industries that work well within sprawl models of development, such as fast food and big box chain stores (p. 23).
  7. 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 (p. 261-262).

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.

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2017-05-18 · John December · Contact · Terms of Use © December Communications, Inc.