Monday, January 23, 2006

An Invading Army

In Loudoun County, Virginia - a suburb of Washington DC - houses are being built without infrastructure to support them. Apparently, new septic tanks are already overflowing, and a massive influx of population has increased the commute for some residents from 30 to 90 minutes.

At rush hour, rural Loudoun's scenic two-lane byways crawl with traffic that moves more slowly than the new six-lane access road to the east. Air quality has worsened as smog levels have shot up. As thousands of new houses go up each year ahead of water and sewer lines, residents face water shortages and newly polluted streams.
A few days ago, I criticized an article by Joel Kotkin, wherein he fretted over political obstacles to suburban sprawl:
It is time politicians recognized how their constituents actually want to live. If not, they will only hurt their communities, and force aspiring middle-class families to migrate ever further out to the periphery for the privacy, personal space and ownership that constitutes the basis of their common dreams.
In other words, a cabal of "university-trained" urban planners - which is an odd pejorative, coming from an academic like Kotkin - is conspiring with lefty politicians like LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to stop the American Dream dead in its tracks.

In reality, as I pointed out at the time, limits to growth tend to arise from popular demand. The case in Loudoun County is typical. A certain number of people moved there because they liked its rural character. But now that growth is out of control, existing homeowners see the region as losing its attractions (they probably also worry whether their property will lose value as growth continues).

Far from being a surprise, this is the central characteristic of suburban growth. In his fine book Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia 1870 - 1930, Robert M. Fogelson quotes Frederick Law Olmstead on "the problem of unwanted change":
Far more disturbing than the sorry state of what Olmstead called "catch-penny speculations" was the rapid deterioration of once fashionable suburbs. As he wrote in the early 1870s, "Numerous suburbs of New York, which a few years ago were distinguished for their rural beauty and refined society, have thus, through the gradual development of various uncongenial elements, entirely lost their former character....These suburbs were "laid waste almost as by an invading army."
Olmstead, mind you, was in favor of suburbs. But having seen how Staten Island was developed without regard to such niceties as drainage, he favored stern restrictions on growth.
Looking either with reference to enjoyment of it [the suburbs] as a place of residence, or as an investment for my children, I must be cautious not to be too much affected by superficial appearances. What improvements have you here that tend to insure permanent healthfulness and permanent rural beauty?
Olmstead's question resonated with developers, and the answer they gave was "We won't sell to niggers, Jews, or Irish!" As Fogelson shows, restrictive covenants also put onerous constraints on land use, architectural options, and so forth.

I'm sure Kotkin would agree with me that these developers were snobs and bigots, though to my knowledge he's never addressed the roots of suburbia in white exclusionism and xenophobia.

We've since given up some of the more blatantly unconstitutional methods of keeping suburbs in a state of "permanent healthfulness," but the problem Olmstead identified remains; when migration to the suburbs isn't carefully regulated, living conditions tend to deteriorate by one measure or another. Rather than suffer "unwanted change," existing homeowners often "migrate ever further out to the periphery for the privacy, personal space and ownership that constitutes the basis of their common dreams." Those who can't flee often try to limit growth, as is happening in Loudoun County:
The hypergrowth has political ramifications, too. Last fall, traditional Republican strongholds like Loudoun County and other Virginia exurbs voted for Tim Kaine, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who won on a platform of controlled growth and traffic management.

"It is unusual that Kaine won in all of the traditionally Republican exurbs," says Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "The obvious lesson for politicians is to pay attention to how much development people can tolerate. It's limited."
I've had disagreements with Sabato before, but in this case, he's absolutely right: development is limited first by what the land can support, and second by what an existing population will tolerate. Cornucopians like Kotkin argue that the ambitions of would-be suburbanities should take precedence over other considerations (wallowing in raw sewage is, after all, a small price to pay for realizing one's dreams). But issues like infrastructure and drainage affect taxpayers, and if taxpayers can veto public goods like healthcare and women's services, they can certainly thwart individual developments that come with steep price tags or public health problems.

Kotkin warns us that we'll see "forced migration to the periphery," unless we acknowledge that such migration is a right with which politicians shouldn't interfere. Loudoun County is an excellent example of what happens when this sort of addlebrained cornucopian rhetoric runs up against reality.

1 comment:

Sir Oolius said...

Tag, you're it!