Anatomy of a Smear: “Urban Sprawl”

by Warren Ross

“Urban sprawl” is a smear for geographical expansiveness of a city. It includes an evaluation as well as a description. The word “sprawl” is the giveaway – it connotes ugly spreading out. This begs the question: Ugly to whom and by what standard? Most Objectivists will see this as a smear and have no difficulty identifying that it is a fishy term used for political purposes. But how many can identify the deeper premises underlying it? Take a moment to list three or four ideas implied by that phrase. Here’s my list:

1. The collectivists’ view of the “look” of a city is more important than the individual values of its inhabitants. The collectivists always depict the suburbs in an aerial photo that emphasizes the repetitive design of suburban houses and their closeness to each other. However, this ignores the way individual inhabitants experience the suburbs and their relationship to the city. Individuals focus on their homes and the fulfillment of their own goals. They don’t care about what their neighborhood looks like from the air. They individualize their homes according to their own tastes and values. Aerial photos such as those used to decry “sprawl” are designed to obliterate those individual choices and focus only on the collectivists’ view that the houses are cookie-cutter in design. Similarly, the anti-“sprawl” advocates take aerial photos of clogged roads and even empty roads if they think they can gain converts who don’t like a lot of concrete. The individual suburban dweller simply drives from his home to work. He doesn’t focus on the mass of cars or of concrete, although he certainly would prefer fewer cars and more open concrete (more about the reason for clogged roads below).

2. A traditional organization of a city, or even a primitive one, is better than a modern one, according to the collectivists. Why is it better to have a Main Street the way cities were organized 50 and 100 years ago? No answer is ever given – it is just assumed that the traditional is the standard. Some even go further and state or imply that a primitive state of industrialization is the standard. National Geographic blames “sprawl” for “claiming” thousands of acres of farmland a year. This holds as the standard an era when industrial productivity was so low that enormous expanses of land had to be devoted to farming (These same collectivists only like small farms, though – lots of them. They don’t like it when the farms are big and in the hands of profit- making industrialists, only tiny farms that are in the hands of struggling dirt farmers).

3. Men don’t think about the consequences of their actions (i.e. a long commute is a consequence of living far from the center). The collectivists imply that suburban dwellers haven’t thought about, evaluated and accepted that their commutes will be longer, as though they are as non-cause- and-effect oriented as the collectivists themselves are (the collectivists no doubt jump to this conclusion about “all men” from introspection). The truth is that suburban dwellers are well aware of the elementary fact (obvious to a sixth grader) that if you live far from work it will take you longer to get there. They are also well aware of the fact that they will then spend more time in their cars and more money on gasoline. Ask any individual suburban dweller about the thought process that went into his decision to live where he does. He’ll tell you about the issues he weighed, the trading off of a long commute for a better school district or a larger lot with a smaller mortgage. All of these issues are ignored by the collectivists, who view man as acting impulsively and then being surprised by the consequences.

4. Blame switching – individuals are to be blamed for collectivist actions. The collectivists evade their own responsibility for some annoyances of living in the suburbs. In fact it is the very same premise that gave rise to the phrase “urban sprawl” that is the cause of some of suburban miseries. The collectivists, worshipping along with the environmentalists a primitive organization of cities, have been trying to stop individuals from moving out into the suburbs for decades. One major reason for opposition to road-building (along with the environmentalist hatred of cars and concrete) is the view that this will just enhance “flight from the city”. Those who invented the term and now decry “urban sprawl” are blaming suburban dwellers for something they are responsible for themselves: long commutes spent on clogged roads. The collectivists also evade their own responsibility for driving individuals to the suburbs – decades of soft-on- crime policies and educational decline, a consequence of the theories of the collectivists, make living outside the city better than living in it.

Having created a strong demand for suburban life, which demand even makes people willing to endure some of the negative consequences, a few collectivists are nakedly baring their totalitarian teeth. An admiring news story reported the goal of planners in Jacksonville, Florida to completely surround the city with a no-development zone. The thickness of the “donut” would be such that developers would find it uneconomic to build outside the “hole” because they’d have to go too far to build. Not satisfied to partially imprison suburbanites by making their commutes miserable, the collectivists are proposing to fully imprison them in a legally created “donut” to keep would-be suburbanites trapped by force in the city.

It should be obvious from the above (and your own list of implications) that an entire philosophy is embodied in a phrase like “urban sprawl” (and many others) used daily in the media. This is why such phrases, once promulgated, seem to spread extremely rapidly and become adopted as normal speech. It’s our responsibility as intellectuals with a different philosophy to explain to innocent observers the implications of such catchphrases, even to their ultimate coercive implementations. Articulate discussion of such implications will not only make people wary about the catchphrases, but will also make them confident in their own values and way of life, untainted by the guilt and confusion that is daily being spread by spokesmen with the opposing, anti-life view.

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