L. Brooks Patterson and the Love of Sprawl by Andy H.

L. Brooks Patterson and the Love of Sprawl by Andy H.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a K-12 education kick, reading as much research and commentary on hot issues in school reform like teacher evaluation and tenure, charter schools, school choice, and testing.  This week my obsession has been sprawl:  what causes it, and ways to address it.  In the course of my research I found this gem from Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, hosted on the County’s own website.  (Coincidentally, the M-Bike blog highlighted the post this week as well [HT Streetsblog].)

It’s basically the most unapologetic and direct defense of sprawl I’ve ever read:

(L)et me state it unequivocally: I love sprawl.  I need it.  I promote it.  Oakland County can’t get enough of it… Sprawl is not evil. In fact, it is good. It is the inevitable result of a free people exercising their cherished, constitutionally protected rights as inpiduals to pursue their dreams when choosing where to live, where to work, where to educate, and where to recreate…

The anti-American Dreamers would have you believe that suburban growth is at the root of all problems that beset our cities, both in Michigan and across our country.  They seem to believe that citizens left thriving cities, and that it was their departure that caused high crime, high taxes, invisible public services, and failing public school systems…

Sprawl did not cause the decline of the cities. Cities declined because they squandered their assets. High crime rates, high taxes, failing schools, foul air and a lack of open green spaces forced people to move.

Sprawlers, like me, simply wanted a home with green grass on a safe, well maintained street, a quality neighborhood school that actually educated their children, a good job, nearby parks and recreational spaces, and a local government that actually delivers the services their taxes paid for. In other words, they wanted a place like today’s Oakland County.

I don’t know about you, but by the end of his post I was stunned by how convincing it was. Everything L. Brooks wrote made sense, even as it contradicted all of my own personal beliefs and assumptions about sprawl.  And it made me realize that I needed to dig down and analyze my own feelings and beliefs about it.

Why did it seem so difficult — almost impossible — to me to argue with L. Brooks’ logic?

Part of it is I’m just a real soft sell.  But I think there’s something else.  Whether you see things the way L. Brooks does —  which, let’s face it, is the norm in metro Detroit, outside of the city itself — or are disgusted by sprawl, as I am, depends on a few differences in key values and beliefs:

1.    Whether you identify with your region, or your community:  L. Brooks and his fellow travelers do not see metro areas as a single unit; they see them as a collection of separate places.  For L. Brooks, Oakland County can flourish even while the city of Detroit crumbles.  Urbanists, on the other hand, view the entire metropolitan area as a single unit; we are troubled when the largest city fails, even though its suburbs may be thriving.

2.   Aesthetic preferences: This includes walkability and love of historic — old buildings, old neighborhoods, etc.  I get off on neighborhoods filled with hundred-year-old houses crammed close together.  (It is part of why I find Cincinnati one of the most special cities in the Midwest — its built environment is just so damn old compared to everywhere else.)  L. Brooks gets off on big homes, big parking lots, and big, green lawns.  Our instinctive idea of what makes a place beautiful are different.

3.   Dependence on car travel: In order to live in sprawl, you need cheap gas, enough income to support a vehicle, enough income for a round trip by cab every time you want to go out drinking, the physical ability to drive.  For most of my twenties, I had one of these things (the physical ability to drive) but lacked the other three.  In the trade off between cost and convenience that comes with the decision to own a car, people who are poor or frugal (I was both) tend to weigh cost more heavily.

4.   Environmentalism: This partly stems from #3.  If you are the type of person who worries about their carbon footprint, you are more likely to worry about sprawl.  I am fairly sure that this is not a big concern for L. Brooks, as a septuagenarian Republican.

These four differences go a substantial way in shaping how we feel about sprawl.  They are largely driven by our age and lifestyles too:

  • Parents with kids need those bigger homes and big green lawns just to maintain a semblance of privacy and to keep from going insane, whereas as one-half of a DINK couple, my two-bedroom condo feels more than spacious enough for our needs.
  • Seniors generally hate walking long distances (unless they are doing it in a mall).  They are  less likely to go out drinking with friends, and are less likely to believe in climate change, let alone worry about their carbon footprint.  Excepting the most dyed-in-the-wool liberals, you can lecture someone over the age of sixty all day about climate change and the environment, and it will not change their minds one whit; it is simply not on their radar.
  • A huge amount of 20-somethings’ preference for city living comes from our relationship with cars.  They are just not worth as much to us as they are to old people.  We prefer to spend more money on going out and drinking with friends, and less on paying for gas, car insurance, car repairs, and parking.  Car insurance is cheaper for older people; they drive slower so they spend less on gas; they have a lifetime of knowledge of how to care for a car and trusting relationships with their local mechanics.  Simply put, they can better afford the tremendous costs of driving.
  • There’s also a gulf between how our generations feel about public transportation.  As a middle-class kid from a small town, the only buses I had to ride on were school buses; my peers and I have been getting around by car since age 16.  In order to ride a train in a city, you had to go to Chicago.  Subways, streetcars, and other forms of intracity rail have always been exotic to me; it’s how people get around in glamorous, exciting places like New York, Washington, DC, Boston, San Francisco.  Older people see the inverse.  They grew up at a time when car ownership was more expensive; they associate driving with status, and bus ridership with poverty.

It’s difficult to argue with sprawl lovers like L. Brooks on the basis of aesthetic preferences or environmental beliefs, because there simply isn’t much common ground on these topics — we inhabit different planets.

There is one area which I think tends to get the least attention from the anti-sprawl lobby, however, and that is the financial hit that taxpayers take because of sprawl.  Aaron Renn details it in an excellent recent screed at Urbanophile.com titled “This Is Why We’re Broke.”  I think this is the one area we can all agree on, because of its very concrete fiscal consequences:

  • Road maintenance:  It is a truth universally acknowledged that Michigan roads and bridges are in atrocious condition, and Oakland County is no exception.  The biggest reason?  Sprawl.  More miles of roads = money for upkeep spread more thinly.
  • Other infrastructure:  More miles of sewer, electric and gas lines, internet cable, and other utilities are spread over the same number of taxpayers, resulting in higher costs for upkeep per taxpayer, and neglect of necessary maintenance.  (An excellent example of the costs of deferred sewer maintenance in today’s Detroit News.)
  • Public safety:  How many police and fire departments in Oakland County are facing layoffs? Do local governments have enough money to salt and plow the roads in a timely manner when there is an unusually snowy winter?   Again, the more widely these services have been dispersed across the metro region, with its stagnant population, the harder it is to adequately finance them.

County-wide leaders might also take note that greenfield construction cannibalizes existing communities within their jurisdiction.  You would expect L. Brooks to acknowledge this truth, but as a Republican his electoral base does not come from the oldest inner ring suburbs in southeast Oakland County (with the exception of Birmingham).   Ferndale, Hazel Park, Southfield are growing blacker and more Democratic each year; Huntington Woods is affluent but staunchly Democratic; and Royal Oak is stemming its population decline with young Democratic-leaning professionals.  L. Brooks doesn’t care if Detroitification seeps into the inner suburbs, because they vote against him; what does it matter to him if they begin to fall apart?

I suspect there’s only one argument that stands the remotest chance with old-school, sprawl-loving suburban leaders like L. Brooks.  Not history; not “social justice”; not the environment; not aesthetics; not identity.  Just the cold hard numbers on municipal balance sheets.

- Andy H.

Andy H. blogs at ”Motown to Tree Town”, A blog about Detroit, Ann Arbor, and the forty miles between.