Skip to comments.Nowhere Land (Brit Blasts US Exurbs, "McMansions")
Posted on 02/23/2005 3:23:06 PM PST by srm913
As US towns sprawl into the countryside, creating anonymous zones dominated by soulless malls, one of Britain's leading historians asks if it could happen here Tristram Hunt Sunday February 20, 2005
Observer Take a ride along the I-10 out of Phoenix, Arizona, and witness the birth of a new civilisation. Under the arching desert sky, cotton fields are being transformed into condominiums; cactus wilderness into master-planned communities. This year some 60,000 new homes will spread out along the valley landscape. Similar developments are underway across America: in Florida, ancient citrus groves are coming down for housing lots; in North Carolina, poultry farms provide prime real estate; and in Ohio, fields that once grew soya beans now sprout fresh homes.
From coast to coast, the United States is undergoing a historic shift in its century-old balance between town and country. A growing population is eschewing the old urban centres and traditional suburbs for the brave new world of exurbia. This is the cultural landscape of modern America: not the downtown conviviality of Cheers, but the soulless anomie of Desperate Housewives; not the urban chic of Friends, but the sprawling southern California of The OC.
This startling decentralisation constitutes as significant a dispersal of people and power as the march west of the 19th century. And it is a transformation with profound consequences for city, suburb and countryside. As Britain's planners struggle to implement the government's latest housing quotas, exurban America provides a salutary lesson of just what we could be in store for.
The facts are dramatic. Between 1982 and 1997, the population of the United States grew by 17 per cent, while the extent of urbanised land grew by almost 50 per cent. City densities collapsed as residents exchanged downtown districts for suburbia.
Beyond the statistics, exurbia has to be seen to be believed. Living in Phoenix over the last six months has been to experience a new urban world as significant as Paris in the 1890s or London in the Sixties. This is a terrain in brutal transition: the boomburbs circling the edge of the metropolis only recently existed as country towns or rural settlements far away from the urban fringe. Today, they are experiencing some of the fastest growth in the nation, as the once distant city envelops them within a super-sized conurbation. Every two weeks, Phoenix's perimeter extends by another 60 metres.
What hits one first about exurbia is its ugliness. Laid out by competing developers, disparate 'cookie-cutter' housing developments (often christened with faux Wild West prefixes such as Vale, Ranch or Stable) wander into the distance, devoid of any master-plan. Self-contained behind electronic gates, each house seamlessly resembles the others in a conveyor belt of McMansions. Behind the walls, uniformity is enforced by a strict system of covenants, conditions and restrictions that outlaw individual alterations to homes and gardens.
Each house comes complete with garage-room for SUV and 'compact', while six-lane highways link the 'resorts' and 'communities' to the ubiquitous golf course and nearby freeway. Walking is confined to planned-out parks (to which one drives), while public transport is usually voted down by residents as either wastefully expensive or surreptitiously socialist. After a closely fought referendum, Phoenix, a city of 3.5 million (roughly half the population of London), has only just agreed to a light-rail system.
Lining the roads are the strip malls - or 'stretch malls' - and big-box discount stores. Vast Wal-Marts jostle with Home Depots, Best Buys and cavernous fashion outlet stores. Then come the megaplex cinemas and fast-food drive-thrus. Despite the cutesy, homely image these corporate leviathans project (Wal-Mart has 'associates' not employees), there is no capacity for independent retailers in the high-volume mall economy. Apart from undermining 'main street' stores and outlawing organised labour, what these malls also demand is car parking space some 10 times the shop floor. To walk from the edge of a mall car park to the storefront is a significant journey in itself, while forgetting your car's position can add hours to the day.
Yet, across the barren sprawl, these consumer pleasure grounds ('shoppertainment' is the marketing buzz-word) constitute the social hub of the community. The designer of the first American mall, an Austrian émigré named Victor Gruen, modelled his Fifties plaza on the 19th-century Ringstrasse where pre-war Vienna enjoyed civilised Sunday promenades. Gruen envisaged the mall as a celebration of that urban spirit and the civic space it endowed. Disappointingly, the founding impulse has not sustained itself: little sense of a Viennese public sphere can be detected during a desul tory amble past JC Penney, Sunglass Hut and Foot Locker. Meanwhile, at our local mall, loitering is specifically prohibited by public bye-laws.
However, such is the speed of development that these malls - having eaten into virgin countryside - rapidly fall into disuse. Aided by a welter of federal subsidies securing investors against depreciation, developers find it far more profitable to commission an entirely new mall than to renovate the present. In 2002 alone, half a billion square feet of retail space - the equivalent of some 4,000 dead malls - were left empty.
What sanctions this frenzied sprawl is the weakness of US local authorities. Dependent upon sales taxes for the funding of city hall, councillors are all too ready to accede to the blandishments of a Wal-Mart or strip mall in expectation of future tax revenue. This invidious choice quickly descends into a municipal beauty contest, with each authority vying to lure retailers with the promise of costly incentives. Particularly desirable are the enormous auto-malls that generate extensive sales taxes with minimal pull on the public purse. Inevitably, this fragmented, competitive system of local government makes for chaotic planning, with well-funded developers holding the upper hand.
And when councils are brave enough to halt the retail juggernaut, the corporations try to take over the council. In Inglewood, California, the Wal-Mart group spent more than $1m proposing a referendum putsch to overturn a planning decision and, in the process, exempt itself from local zoning, planning and environmental laws.
The furious rate of sprawl only adds to the dislocation permeating exurbia. 'There are no centres, no recognisable borders to shape a sense of geographic identity,' writes the exurban connoisseur David Brooks. It is a polycentric universe where the rhythms of the day are oriented around drives to the shopping mall, housing subdivision, gym, church or work. There is no downtown or inner-city; few civic landmarks or historic signifiers. Through the highways of Phoenix's boomburbs, Walgreens follows Burger King follows Kmart follows Starbucks. It is all too easy to lose oneself within this landscape of commercial banality: do we turn off at the Safeway or Petsmart? When the New Jersey Devils ice hockey team won the prestigious Stanley Cup in 2003, so absent was any sense of urban fabric they held their victory parade in a parking lot.
Underpinning the real estate and retail boom are the new jobs in out-of-town business parks. Over 90 per cent of office space built in America during the Nineties was thrown up along the edgeless cities that cling to interstate highways. Thanks to IT, many of these 'technoburbs' are capable of operating entirely independently of the central business district. Detached socially, physically and economically from the city, they resemble amoeba-like commercial agglomerations rather than any recognisable urban form. The corporate glue that once held together the city centre has vanished to the interstate exit.
In turn, they have spawned the modern psephologist's favourite demographic: 'office-park dad'. Successor to 'soccer mom', the OPD is 25 to 40, married to a working spouse, employed in a white-collar (often high-tech) job, and destined to spend a lot of time in his car.
And it was the office-park dads who delivered the White House to the Republicans. For if the industrial city was the breeding ground of progressive politics, exurbia represents the amorphous heartland of George W Bush's conservatism. A study by the Los Angeles Times revealed that 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the US supported President Bush, providing him with a decisive 1.72m vote advantage over John Kerry. 'These growing areas, filled largely with younger families fleeing urban centres in search of affordable homes, are providing the Republicans a foothold in blue Democratic-leaning states,' reported the authors.
For exurbia is a deeply conservative place. Given the wide range of recreational interests shown by its residents, it would be wrong to characterise it as bland. There is more to it than the real estate and roses of American Beauty. But it is a profoundly individualistic terrain purposefully lacking the ingrained social fabric of class, race or clan. Instead, its churning cycle of new residents can live out the autonomous American dream. In Arizona, many of the master-planned communities that encircle Phoenix have refused to pay local school rates. Wealthy, independent and introverted, these high-end communities weaken the tax base and gently undermine social capital. No wonder Brooks celebrates exurbia as 'a conservative utopia'.
Such mobile, often newly married, residents were precisely the constituency which Bush's election strategist, Karl Rove, so successfully wooed. Great efforts were expended in fostering a Republican infrastructure, through churches and other conservative circles, within expanding communities devoid of the usual forms of civil society. The social spending required by cities was exchanged for family-friendly, exurban tax cuts. And it paid off. Those queuing late into the evening at spruce, suburban polling stations on election night were the eager new face of American conservatism.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, this conservative majority only looks set to grow still further. For one of the more remarkable facts about exurbia is its fertility rate. In a movement known as 'natalism', those decamping to the zoomburbs are choosing to buck the US birthrate by conscientiously raising large families. With close encouragement from the church, many residents are reviving the traditional evangelical emphasis on the sanctity of domestic life.
According to analysis by Steve Sailer in The American Conservative, the 19 states with the highest white fertility rates went Republican. John Kerry, on the other hand, carried the 16 states with the lowest rates of conception.
Should this exurban America come as a surprise? Not entirely. Since the Seventies, the US has been a suburban nation with a majority of its population living between city and country. It was this confident, consumer civilisation which provided the dominant image of post-war Americana, from The Graduate to the novels of John Updike. Similarly, the politics of Washington have for a long time been determined in the coffee shops, parking lots, and school yards of Middle America.
But what these 20th-century metropolitan suburbs maintained was a strong relationship with the city, through commuting, leisure or sport. As predominantly domestic neighbourhoods lacking businesses and entertainment, they strengthened the commercial and cultural attractions of the civic core. Exurbia plays no such role: it is marketed and embraced as a self-sustaining, anti-urban way of life. Those who flee to exurbia seem determined to leave behind the cultural detritus of city life: the minorities, alternative lifestyles, the sense of civic responsibility.
All of which is profoundly damaging for the downtowns. Even as crime falls and culture revives, US cities are continuing to shed residents. Those left behind are often the migrant and low-income communities. Phoenix is currently regenerating its urban core on the back of a vibrant arts scene. But there are few prosperous neighbourhoods or young families to sustain it. They're building their futures miles out of town in the ready-made communities of Power Ranch, Surprise and Anthem.
The countryside fares no better. Currently, some 105 acres an hour of US farmland are being withdrawn from agricultural use. And over half of that acreage is going straight into new housing developments. At the same time, increasing amounts are eating into America's ancient wilderness. In Florida, the Everglades ecosystem is struggling for survival in the face of massive domestic construction. Meanwhile, the Bush administration blithely opens up federally protected parklands. And only once you have driven through the myriad miles of sprawl simply to buy a loaf of bread do you realise the fundamental political necessity of keeping petrol prices low. Whatever the geo-political cost.
This sprawling of America makes recent British debates on planning all the more peculiar. For it appears we are on the verge of jettisoning our historic safeguards and pursuing an equally disastrous route. Beginning with a 1998 report from the consultancy firm McKinsey advocating the relaxation of planning controls, there has emerged an influential chorus of lobbyists demanding the destruction of our regulatory system. The Housebuilders' Federation, the automobile and construction conglomerates, along with the supermarkets - led by Wal-Mart (now in control of Asda) - have been at the forefront. Their cause has been joined by Treasury economist Kate Barker, who has argued for an extra 120,000 new houses each year, on top of the annual 140,000 fresh builds.
Interestingly, her asphalt agenda has enjoyed endorsements from the political right and left. Ferdinand Mount, former policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher, has suggested the dissolution of green belt in order to entice the urban working class out of inner-city council estates and into some kind of home-owning, allotment utopia. Similarly, Polly Toynbee has condemned our 'strict planning laws' and 'senseless protection' of agricultural land. 'It's time to let the land go, send the price of housing tumbling and make everyone a property owner,' she explains. And it is a suggestion which appeals to many worried about housing low-paid, public-sector workers, as well as retaining neighbourhood communities in the face of spiralling house prices.
Britain could, of course, have opened up its fields a long time ago and gone the way of Phoenix or Atlanta. It certainly looked that way during the inter-war years, as house building churned up the country at alarmingly low densities. But in 1947 the Attlee administration initiated what has rightly been termed 'one of the most powerful systems of land-use planning ever introduced in any country'. The Town and Country Planning Act saved our cities and countryside from the prospect of never-ending sprawl. City limits were defined by green belts and extra growth was channelled into New Towns. It was this pioneering legislation that carved out the perimeters of our modern rural-urban divide. And now fashionable voices want to do away with it.
Unfortunately, they are not being answered forcefully enough by government. John Prescott's predict-and-provide allocation of house-building figures threatens a dramatic extension of suburbia. Meanwhile, plans for accelerated development in Ashford, Stansted, Milton Keynes and now Southampton-Portsmouth (which used to be two distinct cities) will pump prime the subsidy-rich South-East, diverting funds from existing suburbs and post-industrial downtowns. Equally worrying, the government's vision of a 'growth corridor' along the M11 motorway seems to most observers a classic recipe for sprawl.
Traditionally, British policymakers are all too easily drawn to American innovations. But, my time in Phoenix has shown the United States pursuing a model we desperately need to avoid: depopulating downtowns, ravaged countryside, unsustainable energy consumption, social and racial segmentation and a sprawling exurbia that is retreating unrelentingly into the future.
· Tristram Hunt is a visiting professor at Arizona State University and author of Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
The biggest criticism is about water. Where is the water to support this level of urbanization in the Southwest?
Excuse me, but basing your opinion of Britain on what the Guardian publishes is about the same as we basing our opinion on you based on the Washington Post or New York Times.
More dwellings, less cities sounds fine to me.
Where's the barf alert on this post?
Jealous, whiny little leftist. I wonder where he would live if he had a choice?
Problem: People are building on developed land
Response: People have to live somewhere
Counterresponse: Radical population control; state-ordered abortion
No excuse needed, Sir. Point well taken.
Heaven forbid others should take their opinion of us based on the National Enquirer.
I used to live in the southwest (Arizona, So. Cal, and New Mexico), and the irrigation factor is huge. To have a yard, you must have an in-ground automatic sprinkler system that you're willing to pay to use daily or else go out and move around the old hose and sprinkler all the time. The other option is to have a dirt/rock/cactus landscaping design. But of course, during droughts (which So. Cal. certainly isn't having right now but has had quite a bit in the past) even washing your car may be forbidden. With these areas growing, that problem could worsen.
the jealousy oozes....or is it "ooses"? the bluebloods dont like their "z's"...
I live/sometimes live in Silicon Valley. I love the houses from the 70's. They have so much character and are really great and inventive structures. The modern Mcmansions are grotesque though. They are either grey or pastel pink or blue. They also seem to have no garden and are all carbon copies of each other. My old house was knocked down to make room for one of these things. Unfortuantley I did not have the million or so dollars to buy it.
"ancient" citrus groves?
WTF is this drone talking about? That's just laughable.
The problem with the sprawl is real, but not for the reasons he paints.
For those of you who haven't read a map lately, Phoenix is in the middle of a DESERT.
Translated: otherwise useless land, except for brush fires.
The problem is that everyone buys an SUV and has to commute an hour or more on crowded roads while talking on their CELL PHONES.
It is both too far to bike or bus to work (all the time)
and too HOT (how does 110 in the SHADE sound?) for half the year.
Full Disclosure: Yeah, I miss Minnesota. You wanna make something of it? :-)
Most of those housing developments are nowhere land. Ugly identical houses right on top of each other laid out with wierd streets at dumb angles to make you turn a lot of corners to get anywhere so it feels like you're "getting away from it all".
I enjoy reading your posts, MadIvan.
Old Money never accepts New Money. Old story.
We don't need the cotton...we do need the housing.
First comment is that nothing lasts forever, I would think that Europe with it's overgrown and buried old villas would understand this. How many foundations of old houses lie buried beneath the dust of ages there? The second is that building and moving around is in our national character.
References like this and his horror over burgeoning Republican enclaves in exurbia suggest the author is a socialist who disdains social dynamism.
I felt kind of proud while reading this article.
A fun piece. Amid the usual bilious cant about the horrors of suburban sprawl, he does have a point or two. A lot of newer, ticky-tacky suburbs really are bloody eyesores. I hate places where you can't walk because there's noplace to walk to--everything orbits around the mall, and there are no interesting destinations within a mile of home. I hate that, and a lot of these suburbs are exactly like this. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, crime-ridden and grotty. But we could walk to the supermarket, the library, the drug store, our school...it was, in that respect, a wonderful place to be a kid.
Another writer here makes a good point. Where the heck will Phoenix get all the water it needs to sustain this sort of thing? They're going to pump the land dry.
All that said, you can see that a goodly part of the horror felt by the author derives from his correct perception that the conservative whites who tip elections in this country actually like to live this way. Must scare the poor fellow to death.
Pretty much anything in the Guardian is neo-socialist.
That said I think all countries should evolve their own architectural, artistic and cultural ways by themselves as much as possible.
I hate the idea of everything looking the same.
The Guardian sucks, but I must say I was depressed to find that (while on a road trip to New Orleans from NYC) everywhere looks exactly the same. A photo of the main drag of Tupelo, Miss. could be mistaken for one in Connecticut, say. Same street signs, 7-Elevens, KFCs, mini-malls, etc.
Character IS disappearing from our landscape.
I live in the city, metro to work, and hate sprawl, but I will be the first to admit that the first part of the solution is for cities to clean up their own acts.
Not to mention profoundly obnoxious politics.
(San Francisco, Chicago, D.C......)
At least we have a lot of land in the US and can enjoy living on it, unlike the "Old country".
Without Googling, (Cheating) can anyone guess the population of the state of wyoming or that of Montana?
Each roughly the size of Germany with 89 million inhabitants. Gives you a perspective.
Obviously a Eurocentric perspective, however,he makes a valid point about the covenants and restrictions in most of these new subs that are really annoying. Personally, I don't like all those cookie cutter subdivisions. First they clear cut all the mature trees, put up at least 5 3000 sq. ft. houses per acre, only put brick on the front, and every house looks the same. This serves mainly to maximize the builders profit rather than provide anything resembling unique style or lot characteristics. Now don't flame me, I make part of my living in real estate and have nothing against profit. I just find a lot of these new subdivisions boring.
What a whiner. What's this guy's problem anyway?
Such mobile, often newly married, residents were precisely the constituency which Bush's election strategist, Karl Rove, so successfully wooed.
The lefty's don't like the peons leaving their Liberal Utopia of the Big Cities.
Maybe a lot of the "sprawl" occurs because people are fleeing high taxes and overbearing Liberal Governments of the Big Cities.
I remember how you used to turn on the radio in different parts of the country so you could hear the unique "voice" or "sound" of that region. Forget that; nowadays everywhere you go, radio sounds exactly the same. It's all Clear Channel or Entercom or one of the other mega-corps. I have no political objection, really. In the age of the Internet, anybody has access to mass media. But it bothers me that the only independent, unique radio stations are run by colleges. Commercial stations have found they can make more money serving up the same old crapola from coast to coast.
At least that let Rush Limbaugh save the world...
He was the jaws of life in every sense of the word.
I understand your nostalgia, though. :)
It's voted down to discourage poor people from moving in.
The so-called "spawl" arises out of one of the highest rates of home ownership and lowest rates of unemployment in the world. Only a liberal could hate that.
Wyoming - population just south of 500,000 (my homestate, and proud of it!)
I once remember thinking the 70s tract houses in the Valley were ugly and nondescript because they were, in fact, ugly and nondescript. I know cuz I grew up in one. It takes about 40 years for a neighborhood to start to morph into something more interesting. Over time every house gets remodeled, trees get large and more various, as does the landscaping, new rooms get added, etc., etc., etc. What this author is complaining about is mostly the newness of these housing developments, as well as the newness of the retail centers nearby which are ALWAYS pioneered by corporate businesses before unique ventures move in. They're dull to be sure, but that will change eventually.
I'm with you on the small yard thing, though. That's a tragedy, but a result of explosive price increases in housing, which are in turn a result of shortages brought on by regulatory/environmental hurdles. (Have trouble getting a building permit? You make up for it by building as many houses on the land you manage to get cleared for building.)
As far as the McMansion thing goes, well, why don't you ask residents of most nations on Earth if they'd prefer to live in a McMansion or their mud hut and I think you'll gain a little perspective on the 'tragedy' of Americans having to live in 3000 sq. ft. domiciles. That's EXACTLY the kind of problem we want to have, no?
Next, my husband and I have a small family. We only had two kids, one is 19 and in the Army and the other is 15 and in High School. Where are they supposed to live? They will want their own homes and they will work hard and achieve the American dream someday, whether the author likes it or not.
.......and declining. :)
I love your state, used to live in Utah. Went to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone all the time.
I get out to Silicon Valley from time to time, and...I'm sorry, but I think the whole region is ugly as dirt. Those houses are so drab, and San Jose at night is like the last place God made. I gotta admit, though...those Fry's electronics stores are the Bomb!
I much prefer adobe and ranch style housing in the US. My dad is building a cabin out near Lake Mono in California/Nevada (not sure where the border is).
In England we have Wimpy Homes. They are even worse than mcmansions. They are made of orange bricks and fall apart after a few decades.
I think Exurbs are a-s ugly places myself, where every restaurants a chain and idiot developers make it impossible to drive between shopping centers. Nevertheless, the fact that these are often the best places young families can afford, combined with the fact that people actually like living there, reflect that fact that we as Americans actually have choices as to where to live, rather than being forced by the government to live in projects.
There are some nice parts of Palo-Alto still but Cupertino and San Jose are just horrid. Sunnyvale is just wierd. There is nothing but rows of houses.
Great point, kingsurfer.
Has anyone seen Harry Potter, with those jampacked row houses?
Just for the record, some of us like living in the cities where the housing is built well, with high ceilings for cooler air circulation in the summer. Some of us like being close enough to church to hear the bells ring. Some of us like public transportation to go to the ballgame. Love of the suburbs is not universal.
There are drawbacks, but it beats sitting in traffic on highways.
Yeh. They are reffered to as Wimpy houses. They used to be hosues for poor people but with the property explosion here it is not uncommon for houses like that to go for $500k in London.
Wyoming's population may not be declining, but it sure isn't growing much. I'm of the opinion that Wyo could use a little "urban sprawl." Maybe then I could make a good living there.
but the sprawling southern California of The OC.
As for the rest of the article, I can only say So what?