Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health, and Money by Joel S. Hirschhorn
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?
- 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.
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.
- "Waking Up from the American Dream: A Review of Sprawl Kills Joel Hirschhorn spreads the word about the dangers of sprawl and encourages people to demand healthy places to live," by Ryan McGreal, September 15, 2005, Raise the Hammer.