Ask most people and they'll tell you they want to live in a place where neighbors watch out for one another and children can walk or bike safely to school. Probe a little more, and you'll learn that they want a place where a neighborhood business thrives on one corner while families gather in a park on the other.
It's no secret that Americans are yearning for a genuine sense of community that seems to have been lost over the past 50 years. Just consider the millions of Americans who flock to Disneyland and Disney World to see two of the very few Main Streets built since World War II. We're losing something we love, and people don't even know why it's being lost.
It's no accident that this loss of community coincides with the rampant sprawl of our cities into sterile pods of tract housing and strip malls. Suburbs have long been marketed to us as places where families can be nicely separated from where we work, where we shop and where we go to school.
The price we've paid for this separation is a high one. The house on an isolated cul-de-sac that people have been working toward has driven them from the very communities they want.
This desert-island approach makes us completely dependent on our cars, even for tasks as simple as getting a newspaper or a loaf of bread. Picking up the week's groceries or getting to work requires a monumental battle with traffic on streets that seem continually clogged. Americans lose a sobering 1.6 million hours every day stuck in traffic, reading license plates and bumper stickers. And the creeping isolation shows no signs of slowing.
Amazingly, some people come to the vigorous defense of sprawl, replete with flag-waving and the thumping of zoning code books. They contend that sprawl is a spontaneous free-market consequence of entirely normal growth, primarily fueled by the American dream of owning a house with a lawn. They argue that limiting sprawl is nothing but a thinly veiled government plot to deny people what they want.
Trouble is, the force behind sprawl isn't the free market -- it's the heavy hand of government itself. Our policies encourage isolated, cookie-cutter tract housing. And it gets even worse. Regional and local zoning laws and building codes actually forbid any other type of housing or commercial centers. Apartments are segregated to other parts of town. And the only stores are at shopping centers and malls, none within walking distance. Consequently, the downtown "civic center" of too many communities is a strip mall along a six-lane highway. What sort of choice is that?
Proponents of sprawl also ignore that we are changing as a population. Three-quarters of all households are not the Ozzie-and-Harriet family of the '50s, but single parents, old and young couples without children, and singles. Laws that allow only single-family dwellings do a great disservice to the majority of Americans.
The way to bring back the sense of community to our towns and cities is to offer Americans more choices of how they live, not less. We need to modify our local and regional zoning laws to allow single-family homes to coexist with apartments and small businesses. We must redirect our highway funds to stop cutting our neighborhoods in half with freeways and encourage communities that are designed around human beings rather than cars. Our cities plead for policies that allow for easier cleanup and development of abandoned lots, rejuvenating neighborhoods with retail shops, public parks and diverse housing. Our banks need lending policies that allow financing of urban in-fill as easily as new development.
Zoning laws and policies that regulate growth always have been with us. We must modify them so that they're not mandating sprawl. Only then will we offer people more choices of housing that reflect the needs of Americans today. Only then will we build livable communities that grow and develop not just outwardly but inwardly as well.
John Norquist, a Democrat, is mayor of Milwaukee and a member of the board of directors of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Bret Schundler, a Republican, is mayor of Jersey City.