How to overcome the cultural bias that favors sprawl
Rob Steuteville writes about the psychology of the car culture and how it might change in a recent post on Better! Cities and Towns. Rob hits the nail on the head as to why there's such institutional resistance to change in so many places. A money quote:
But widely dispersed, entrenched systems and laws are not the only problem. Thepsychology of sprawl runs very deep. For generations, the idea of moving up in society was expressed in purchasing a larger house on a larger lot farther away from the city. Likewise, cruising down the highway in a high-class automobile was viewed as the stylish way to get around.
I’m reminded of the movie Gran Torino, when the teenage boy Thao, who is being mentored by the cranky old Clint Eastwood character named Kowalski, finally gets the nerve to date a pretty and smart girl. Thao is planning to take the bus — the location is Detroit, and the kid doesn’t have a car. “No, you can't take a bus,” says Kowalski. “You gonna get you something more stylish that that.” He offers the kid the use of his mint condition, 1972 Gran Torino. Thao is dumbstruck at Kowalski’s generosity — it seems as if the shiny car will change the course of his life forever.
The automobile-oriented suburban way of life — anti-density, anti-mixed-use, anti-walking, "keeping up with the Joneses" — has long has been portrayed as something to aspire to. This attitude is changing, and a new American Dream is rising that clashes in many ways with the old. The new dream is about diversity, culture, authenticity, sustainability, choice and ease of getting around, and the vitality of urban places. The old dream is fading and no longer monolithic, but it has yet to make peace with the new dream.
It actually surprises and disappoints me that we don't hear many urban advocates talk so frankly about this very basic but all-important issue. Advocates for walkability are rightly proud of how the terms the debate and discussion are shifting, but the actual results on the ground are still lacking in the vast majority of the country. Even the three successful example he cites (Portland, Alexandria and Montgomery County, MD) have a tremendous urban head start compared to most of the country. Montgomery County may be largely suburban, but it's adjacent to Washington, DC, for example.
The truth is until the culture demands it we'll see limited change. Technical fixes, such as better codes for example, can help with implementation but need leadership and political support. That's one reason I feel strongly about the need to train a whole new cadre of builders and developers. One of my great personal lessons from the last twenty years is that the effort to change people who've made a living building sprawl is largely pointless. In a best case scenario, they'll produce mediocre projects and places. Instead, advocates like myself would be far better off focusing our energies on working with people who get it and want to do it, but may lack some know-how and capital.
It's also why I wrote this book.