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Shaping the City

Sprawl Is Here to Stay as Long as Suburbs Represent the American Dream

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 21, 2004; Page F05

During WAMU (88.5 FM) radio's Diane Rehm Show a couple of weeks ago, two callers from Ohio engaged in a heated debate about home building. One caller, a home builder, extolled the virtues of the marketplace and, after condemning the pejorative term "McMansions," defended the right of Americans to buy ever-larger homes in ever-more-remote subdivisions or to tear down houses in established neighborhoods to build bigger ones.

The other caller challenged what he thought to be the home builder's myopic view.



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The dialogue echoed the kind of acrimonious exchanges often heard at public hearings.

Rehm's radio guest was Dolores Hayden, Yale University professor of architecture and American studies, and author of several books about the growth, form and culture of American cities and suburbs. Talking about symptoms and consequences of sprawl, Hayden contends that highway building, federal tax policies, mortgage lending practices, ineffective land use and transportation planning, and poor design are producing a dysfunctional urban and suburban future.

The Ohio home builder's debating points are those you would expect from almost any builder anywhere in America:

• America's population growth is inevitable and desirable, and people need and want new homes, which sustains the economically vital housing market.

• Given population growth and market demand, home builders simply provide what home buyers are entitled to and willing to pay for -- an amply sized home on an amply sized lot in a subdivision with similar homes and lots.

• Builders create jobs and homeownership opportunities, a mainstay of the American dream.

• Builders create not only houses, but also communities.

• Given development costs, financial risks and the need to make a profit, it's only natural that builders choose to build for segments of the market able to make down payments and pay the monthly costs associated with a home.

Commenting about the architecture of sprawl, the Ohio home builder also asserted that government has no business legislating or regulating aesthetics, which are wholly a matter of judgment and taste, in his opinion. In opposing architectural design standards, he noted that for any given design, there always will be some who like it and some who don't.

The other Ohio caller offered a rebuttal and critique intended to demonstrate how narrowly focused the builder's perspective was.

He pointed out that in localities experiencing high rates of growth and homebuilding, infrastructure and public services are often burdened or even failing. He cited a growing Ohio community where sewage treatment capacity is insufficient and untreated sewage is being discharged into waterways.

In response, the builder noted that government, not private developers or home buyers, should be responsible for providing adequate, growth-driven public services and infrastructure.


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