Week 12 (10 Points)

Continue reading chapters 10 through 14, the end of your textbook. This week we want to learn a little bit about the planning process. This is a very important aspect of local governance and has taken on great political urgency in recent years. The growth of the suburbs, home ownership, and automobile use in the United States has had a profound impact on the way we live. Suburbanization, beginning in the 1920s and accelerating after World War II, was a consequence of several factors. Number one was the huge demand for housing after the war for millions of returning servicemen and women. Second was the increased mobility of automobile travel, which provided access to vast tracts of undeveloped land further away from central cities. Cheaper land, combined with mass-production home-building techniques and government-sponsored home mortgages, made single-family home ownership possible for millions of average Americans. Add to this the expansion of federal, state, and local highway systems and the ground was set for the revolution in American life known as "suburbanization." Just as America had moved from a rural society to an urban society in the late 19th century and early 20th century, today America has completed its evolution from an urban society to a suburban society. Roughly three quarters of all Americans now live in what has traditionally been called suburbs but have more recently been labeled "exurbs." The term exurbs denotes the fact that many suburbs no longer have a strong dependence on adjacent urban centers.

In essence, the suburbs are less densely populated and less densely developed areas than big cities. That is, there are fewer people living and working in the suburbs per square mile than there are in large cities. Instead of building high-rise apartment buildings and skyscrapers, which allow large numbers of people to inhabit a relatively small geographic area, the spread of single-family home ownership has encouraged the development of low-density communities, usually containing buildings of no more than two or three stories in height. In order to protect property values and the quality of suburban life, local governments in suburbia have adopted strict land use laws, often called "zoning codes" or "zoning ordinances." These zoning codes often prohibit the construction of tall buildings and require that there be sufficient open space separating all structures. Very often zoning codes prohibit the "mixed-use" of land, which means keeping residential development segregated and at a safe distance from commercial or industrial development. The word "zoning," in fact, refers to the division of a community into land use categories, or "zones," where construction is usually restricted to what municipal officials deem compatible uses.

Despite what you might read in media accounts of life in the suburbs, or what you might observe in Hollywood movies like "American Beauty," "Pleasantville," or "The Truman Show," most people in the suburbs have supported these kinds of policies and have found their results quite agreeable. Very simply, most people eventually want to live in and own a single-family home, and enjoy the style of life that goes with it: the privacy and comfort of living in an unattached residence; the privacy, freedom, and flexibility afforded by automobile use; the wealth-building potential of home equity; the smaller and more effective public schools; the smaller and more responsive local governments; the quieter and cleaner residential streets; and, or course, the income tax break derived from mortgage interest and property tax deductability.

There have always been complaints about the suburbs, of course. Property taxes, most of which go to support those smaller and more effective public schools, are extremely burdensome and unfair (as we learned last week). Strict land use and building codes have historically made property uniformity the norm and have stifled originality. Private, detached homes and sprawling backyards, along with the segregation of residential neighborhoods from commercial centers, has deprived suburbia of the vibrant street life found in most big cities. Many critics find suburban residential streets tedious and boring, especially for children, who have nothing stimulating to look at and who ride bicycles on sidewalks that lead nowhere . As one famous critic has said, "there is nowhere more lonely than a residential suburban street at high noon on a hot summer day."

The spatial arrangement of suburbia has also forced reliance on automobiles to obtain goods and services from distant shopping centers. Those who choose not to marry or have children have sometimes reported feeling isolated, and poor people and racial minorities have historically been unable to find suitable housing in the suburbs. Some of these problems are clearly being addressed (home ownership among racial minorities is at an all time high) but new problems have arisen.

Suburbanization has led to a phenomenon called "sprawl." Because suburban governments do not permit high density development, the growth of the suburbs must continually creep outwards into undeveloped territory. Sprawl is really just another word for the low-density, unconsolidated, disaggregated and, sometimes, poorly planned development we have been talking about. Sprawl is characterized by the ceaseless devouring of undeveloped land for the purposes of creating segregated residential communities, strip malls, traffic -filled roads, and of course, those miles and miles of endless painted blacktop that constitute our nation's parking lots. Since density levels are uniform, sprawl tends to be "centerless" or without "place." Where sprawl takes place and mixed land use is prohibited, there are few downtown areas, a sense of community is absent, and pedestrian traffic is limited.

Today there is deep concern that sprawl is eating up the last tracts of undeveloped land, creating horrible traffic congestion, threatening sensitive natural resources and wildlife, and generally diminishing the quality of life that suburbanites have long come to cherish. The concerns about sprawl have brought to life a movement called "smart growth," which seeks to reduce sprawl by restricting development to already developed areas, allowing mixed land uses in certain areas, improving mass transportation, and implementing other techniques to "mitigate" automobile traffic. In the world of academia this movement is sometimes called the "New Urbanism."

On the other side of this issue are people who see the "smart growth" advocates and the "New Urbanists" as either one of two types: city-oriented intellectuals who have always hated suburbia and the middle-class; or suburban elites who are so concerned with sustaining their property values and "quality of life" that they seek to deprive newcomers and younger people of the chance of home ownership.

After all, restricting development to already developed areas reduces the amount of available land, which increases the price of housing. Established home owners might possibly stand to gain from "smart growth" policies, but people who are looking to buy their first homes, or who seek the amenities of suburban life stand to be locked out of the suburbs indefinitely. Smart growth activists are often accused of wanting to lock the door to the suburbs now that they are safely inside. They are also accused of ignoring evidence that mass transportation doesn't work at the density levels that they are willing to permit. Evidence shows that below extremely dense population levels like that found in New York City, people will not leave their cars to ride on trains or buses. In this sense, "smart growth" activists want it both ways: they want greater density and public transportation, but not too much density or public transportation, and almost never near where they live. Moreover, some believe that smart growth activists have greatly exaggerated the threat to the environment of sprawl, and instead argue that the greater densities advocated by smart growth will cause even more damage to the environment.

The readings I am suggesting below will help you gain a better understanding of the planning process at the local levels of government and the politics of sprawl and smart growth. After you have completed the readings,

Suggested Readings

1. Smart Communities Through Smart Growth: Applying Smart Growth Principles to Suffolk County Towns and Villages, March, 2000. Select the Planning Department Link.

3. Municipal Planning Primer.

4. Local Government Handbook, chapter 16.

5. Steven Hayward, "Legends of the Sprawl," Policy Review (September- October 1998).

6. Ronald Utt, "Al Gore's Livable Communities: A Program in Search of a Problem," The Insider (February 1999).

7. Gregg Easterbrook, "Suburban Myth: The Case for Sprawl," The New Republic (March 15, 1999).

8. Randal O'Toole, "Dense Thinkers," Reason (January 1999).

Click on the titles to view readings. On reading number 1, click on the title and select the "Planning" department link. Remember, some of the article links for this course are scanned images and are not easy to read. In some cases it may be easier to print out those articles that are difficult to read in hard copy form.


I would like you to explain the planning process and the issues surrounding smart growth and sprawl in no more than two pages. Please include information on the following:

1. What is a comprehensive plan?

2. What is zoning and who is responsible for it? Please include all the relevant bodies (e.g town boards, zoning boards of appeal, official map etc.)

3. What is the County's role in zoning, if any?

4. Describe a few ways of preserving open space and "managing growth?"

5. Explain sprawl, smart growth, and the New Urbanism? Do smart growth policies work?

6. What are the criticisms of smart growth and New Urbanism and offer a defense of suburbia and sprawl.

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