Smart growth, not sprawl, has made today's suburbia; Elistist sneering can't obscure this: Modern American housing trends are democratic and sound.


'Smart growth" is what many planners and politicians advocate as a cure for metropolitan problems. The phrase is but the latest sneer directed at suburbia. It implies that those who facilitated and participated in suburbanization were dumb. Unfair, even if true. And it's not true. The median IQ in the suburbs is 26 points higher than the median IQ in cities and rural areas.

As you may have suspected, I made up that statistic. I doubt there ever been any such study. But does anyone doubt that suburbanites are smarter than urbanites as a group?

An even worse sneer is "sprawl" as a description of the outward expansion of metropolitan growth. One critic has defined sprawl as "the awkward spreading out of the limbs of either a man or a community. The first is a product of bad manners, the second of bad planning." In some planners' vocabulary, sprawl has become a synonym for suburbia and a four-letter word.

That haughtiness is now under counter attack. For instance, in their defense of suburban development, scheduled for publication by Basic Books next year, "Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened," Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen devote a chapter to the "snobbery" of most of those who write disapprovingly about it. In it they quote from a 1949 magazine article by poet Phyllis McGinley:

"To condemn suburbia has long been a literary cliche. I have yet to read a book in which the suburban life was pictured as the good life or the commuter as a sympathetic figure. He is as much a stock character as the old stage Irishman: the man who spends all his life riding to and from his wife, the eternal Babbitt who knows all about Buicks and nothing about Picasso."

Ah, Babbitt. That inspired my return visit to Sinclair Lewis's 1922 satirical novel, "Babbitt," in which Lewis puts this in the mouth of "realtor" George Babbitt:

"We've got a lot to do in the way of extending the motor boulevards, for, believe me, it's the fellow with four to ten thousand a year, say, and a nice little family in a bungalow on the edge of town, that makes the wheels of progress go round!"

Babbitt, one reviewer wrote, "typifies complacent mediocrity," which was Lewis's intent.

Ownership of a bungalow or something grander has become the heart of the American dream, as Brookings fellow Anthony Downs, a veteran and respected scholar of American growth and planning, says in his 1994 book "New Visions for Metropolitan America," (Brookings Institution Press, 272 pages, $16.95). He notes that 73 percent of all Americans dream that dream. Such development, he noted, has to be low-density, thus farther and farther from central cities as metropolitan population grows.

Downs is no fan of such sprawl. In that book and elsewhere, he advocates planned rather than haphazard (democratic) growth. But he is sympathetic to the motivations of those who move out of or stay out of cities. Not just for a home of one's own, but also to be safer, closer to jobs, comfortable with one's neighborhood, less taxed, he notes.

David Rusk, an expert on metro areas in general and Baltimore in particular, is sympathetic, too. Rusk crunches demographic and economic numbers and understands and describes the problems of metropolitan development (inefficiency, unfairness to those left behind, racial segregation) as well as or better than anyone. But he can also resort to a criticism that is scathing and unfair.

Here are three examples from his new book, "Inside Game Outside Game" (Brookings Institution Press, 384 pages, $28.95).

1. Rusk spins a "fable" in which the devil himself and other evildoers devise a plan to make the suburbs "the new purgatory" and cities "Hell on earth." The plan is exactly what governments have been doing (and citizens favoring) in the past few decades, such as subsidizing highways and homes more than mass transit and apartments.

2. He berates Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski for not supporting a program that "would systematically shift poor black families out of inner city projects into voucher-subsidized private rental housing in the suburbs." He says of the senators: "Though card-carrying liberals, they were alarmed during an election year. They were not interested in trying to quell racial fears with facts."

3. He compares economic segregation achieved by private decision-making to racial segregation achieved by laws and brutish law enforcers: "While America was officially dismantling Jim Crow by race, it was substituting Jim Crow by income. Throughout the nation (North and South) suburban zoning boards, usually filled with earnest, likable citizen volunteers, assumed the functional role of the stereotypical Southern sheriff."

I covered the civil rights movement as a reporter in the South and elsewhere in the 1950s and 1960s. The worst zoning commissioner Towson ever saw wasn't in the class with stereotypical Southern sheriffs.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the elitist charges of suburban uniformity and racism were valid. Suburbia was all white or almost so, by written law in some places, by cruel and brutal connivance in others. Its mores were white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Not for nothing were the suburbs known as "Father Knows Best" country, Rob and Laura Petrie country, John Cheever country.

Not so anymore. Author Baxandall teaches at the State University of New York in Old Westbury on suburban Long Island. She says, "The stereotype has always been that the suburbs are for rich people who ran away from the city, and there's alienation and conformity. But my students are mostly nonwhite."

Ironically, if smart growth and other anti-sprawl growth management plans were to take effect today, the burden of unfairness would fall largely on those African-Americans and Latinos who only now can afford to live in suburbia. To fight sprawl you have to limit suburban growth, which raises the cost of housing in the affected areas.

Some people who are dismayed by the nature of metropolitan growth in the past half century let nostalgia blind them to the realities. "1950 was the last full cry of urban America," Ray Suarez writes in "The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration: 1966-1999," (The Free Press. $25. 264 pages). "Everybody was working . . . Houses cost a couple of thousand bucks . . . We never had to lock our doors . . . Teenage pregnancy ended in marriage, Etc., etc., etc."

Or should I say blah blah blah?

Even if that honestly depicted urban life then, there were only 151 million Americans in 1950. Today there are 273 million. Thanks to sprawl, we are not a nation of skyscraper apartment houses but a nation of homeowners.

Well, yes, the critics admit, but we are still using up land and resources and having to do without infrastructure or pay through the nose for it, and for pollution controls and wasted time on the highways that todays sprawling metropolises suffer from, right? Wrong.

Gregg Easterbrook wrote recently in The New Republic that just 3.4 percent of the United States is built up, and the current pace of metropolitan development adds only 0.02 percent a year. Woodland and farmland are not disappearing.

And a 1998 survey of mostly academic and official literature on all this by the Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council ("The Costs of Sprawl -- Revisited") found that experts identified more negative than positive impacts of sprawl on life by only about 2-to-1.

The survey also found that public services in outlying suburbs are more than adequate and relatively inexpensive, and that in most cases the adoption of the most popular possible reforms would not improve the quality of metropolitan life or reduce public costs by very much.

Does anybody doubt that, in general, suburbanites are more accomplished? The most prominent Baltimorean lives in Baltimore County. The most prominent city dwellers in the nation are getting ready to move to Westchester County, N.Y.

Next year's census will show that for the first time more than half of all Americans live in the non-city part of metropolitan areas. We have officially become a great sprawling suburban nation. By choice, and by decades of pretty smart growth.

Theo Lippman Jr., a former Sun editorial writer and columnist, is the author of "Spiro Agnew's America: The Vice President and the Politics of Suburbia."

Pub Date: 10/17/99

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