Sprawling America

The process by which well-defined towns and cities get transformed into corridors of strip malls and fast-food outlets, linked by smog-choked highways, now has a name: urban sprawl. Since World War II, American cities have been developing as low-density, land-intensive settlements. Many-tentacled Gothams like Los Angeles and Washington stretch endlessly, crosshatched with a myriad of concrete overpasses, transit beltways and suburban shopping metroplexes.

Illustration by Jerry Russell   

If urban sprawl, the subject of this issue’s cover story, has a single root cause, it’s auto-centric planning. Americans continue to spend over eight billion hours on the road every year, with traffic doubling in the last 20 years. Between 1970 and 1990, more than 19 million acres of rural land were lost, and the pace is accelerating. According to The American Farmland Trust, 70 percent of the undisturbed land that remains is now in the path of development.

The result, writes James Howard Kunstler in The Atlantic Monthly, is that we’re losing our sense of place and our identity as part of a community. “We drive up and down the gruesome, tragic suburban boulevards of commerce,” he writes, “and we’re overwhelmed at the fantastic, awesome, stupefying ugliness of absolutely everything in sight—the fry pits, the big-box stores, the office units, the lube joints, the carpet warehouses, the parking lagoons, the jive plastic townhouse clusters, the uproar of signs, the highway itself clogged with cars—as though the whole thing had been designed by some diabolical force bent on making human beings miserable.”

It’s not just ugly. Sprawl is inherently costly to communities, and to families. In 1995, according to federal statistics, the average family spent a sixth of its budget on transportation costs—more than on food, health care, clothing or taxes. According to the Sierra Club’s Challenge to Sprawl Campaign, Atlanta—which leads the nation in average commuter miles driven daily—has lost federal highway funding because of severe air pollution. In the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, meeting the new demand for water and sewage services will cost taxpayers a projected $3.1 billion by 2020. The once-rural city of Fresno, California takes in an additional $56 million in yearly revenues as a result of doubling in size since 1980, but the cost of annual services has risen $123 million in the same time period.

The public’s views on preserving open space and defending against sprawl are well documented. In the 1998 election cycle, 148 ballot referenda were held on the state and local level. The public approved 124 of the measures, many of which funded open space acquisition with dedicated taxes.

Announcing a major administration initiative on sprawl in September 1998, Vice President Al Gore decried the “outward stretch” of development that “leaves a vacuum in the cities and suburbs, [sucking] away jobs, businesses, homes and hope.” In keeping with the administration’s new emphasis, President Clinton called for a $570 million increase in federal land acquisition funding for fiscal year 2000, thereby fully financing the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Among other things, the funding would add 450,000 acres to the Mojave National Preserve and to Joshua Tree National Park. “President Clinton’s pledge for a green heritage could prove one of the most important legacies of his eight years in office,” commented Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

According to Jane Danowitz, executive director of Americans for our Heritage and Recreation, the administration’s efforts are complemented by a popular bill moving through Congress, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, H.R. 701, that would provide $2.8 billion from offshore oil and gas revenues for various conservation concerns.

Funding like this, even though it’s laudable, isn’t likely to stop the overall pace of development across the country. To turn that around, we’d have to realize as a nation that the American Dream would be foreclosed if we bulldoze the last of our wilderness heritage.


Turning oil revenues into open space is more than appropriate, considering the enduring legacy of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and other petroleum-related environmental disasters. Thomas Okey’s feature on Prince William Sound in this issue was written from the point of view of a marine biologist visiting (and later revisiting) a lost Eden.

Jim Motavalli