Sprawl in my book consists of suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas where people reside but don’t farm for a living. They live in all kinds of houses, in or out of developments, in small dwellings or McMansions on five acre lots, in second homes, weekend places and recreational farms. I call the latter group “toy farmers.” They dabble at growing things, raising chickens or a few sheep. They keep a horse. They shop at Agway and Tractor Supply. They hire Hispanics to mow and trim and weed. Most sprawl dwellers are on the landscape but not of it.
Q: What do you mean by “on the landscape but not of it”?
A: From baby boomers forward, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the natural landscape, even the adulterated one where we live. Unlike our grandparents, most of us no longer have the stewardship skills needed to manage the ecosystems around us. Many of us don’t want them managed at all. These people want nature to take its course — even though they are managing the landscape around them like crazy by living in it. And we don’t have the time to deal with it. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors — in houses, offices or cars. We get our nature from movies and TV, now piped into digital screens. We see films that have been edited to make wild creatures behave like pets or people.
Q: What’s the connection between sprawl and wildlife?
A: The 19th century conservationists didn’t conceive of sprawl. How could they? No one had lived like this before. Some people say that in sprawling out, we encroached on wildlife habitat and, therefore, the problems are the fault of us not wild creatures. It’s true, we encroached, mainly into old farm land. But that’s only half the story. In fact, wildlife encroached right back. Lots of species adapted with surprising ease to life in the sprawl, to living around people.
Sounds about right: nature via televisions, iPads, and looking out the window.
There is a complicated history behind the suburbs and nature. In the 1800s, the suburbs were seen as a place where residents could return to nature. Cities were seen as anti-nature with their dense collections of people, factories, and infrastructure. In contrast, the suburbs offered lawns around single-family homes set back from the streets, nearby parks, and winding streets that minimized the visual impact of development. A classic example of this is Llewellyn Park, New Jersey. Yet, the nature in the suburbs was carefully controlled. Lawns were manicured and landscaped as were many parks.
In the mass suburb era after World War II, nature took a backseat to development. You can find many pictures of subdivisions being prepared for construction where the ground has been flattened and trees flattened. Starting around the early 1970s, new planning techniques tried to reclaim more land in subdivisions by clustering development. New planning paradigms like New Urbanism have incorporated talk about sustainability and responsible development. However, having more suburban open space also means this space still tended to be highly controlled. For a good read on connections between suburbanization and the environment, check out Adam Rome’s The Bulldozer in the Countryside.