Why can’t suburbanites see the destruction and ugliness of sprawl?

Benjamin Ross, transit and environmental activist, makes his position on the suburbs clear in the Introduction to his 2014 book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.

Yet lively, stable, and economically diverse neighborhoods remain hard to find. Decay and gentrification keep nibbling away at what escaped the wrecking balls fo the mid-twentieth century. Builders hasten to transform old factory districts into city neighborhoods. But with their wide streets, condos, and chain stores, the new urban quarters still seem less appealing than places built a century and more ago.

Meanwhile, ugly suburbs still spread outward, consuming rural land and carrying the failings of their predecessors to new extremes. Cheap townhouses, tony high-rise apartments, and pretentious McMansions scatter across the landscape, entangled in an ever-expanding web of highways and parking lots…

I puzzled over questions with import far beyond my own suburbs. Why is our nation still addicted to sprawl, so long after experts raised the alert? What is the compulsion that keeps us building what so many revile? Why are urban streets, so much in demand, so rarely supplied? Why do attempts at cure so often worsen the disease? How can we break free of our addiction, and create the cities we desire? (p. 3-5)

A clear position and I suspect a perspective that Joel Kotkin would dislike. Even with the truth that is present in Ross’ opening statements – Americans have politically and socially supported using more land, building bigger houses, privileging the car over other forms of transportation – this does seem to carry a familiar refrain from suburban critics: why can’t the suburbanites just see all those ugliness and destruction? Why don’t the experts carry more weight? That story is a complicated one and presenting someone with the facts of suburbia likely isn’t enough to change their mind. That single-family home with a lawn and the dream of a better life is hard for many Americans to imagine elsewhere.

I’ll post about a few more interesting points from Dead End in the next week or so.

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