Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Urban Sprawl

I recently purchased a book. Actually, that's a rather rare event for me. What with the infinite resource of the internet and a total disinterest in fiction, I spend almost no time in book stores anymore. Barnes & Noble has cheesecake to die for, though.

I picked up a book that I can safely say is worth the $20 it cost me. It's called A Field Guide to Sprawl. It is not directly anti-development, but it places images in front of you that can only lead to one conclusion; we're screwing up our planet in spectacular fashion.

The general point of the book is to define urban and rural developmental phenomena. They define well-known terms, like "Big Box Retailer" and a few less-known words, like "Boomburg" and "Starter Castle." You can guess what they mean, for the definitions make little difference to my point.

What the photos drive home is how devastating the current, unchecked, low-density expansion is to the planet and to the overall "nice" factor of our home. We go into an area, overpopulate it, destroy it, then the rich people leave, the poor people are left behind, we have a ghetto, and then we get the eventual sprawl of rich people ever outward, looking to get away from the horrid mess they left behind.

None of this is new. Conservationists and their ilk have been talking about this for the past 50 years. Pretty much since the dawn of Levittown, this has been seen. What I think is changing is that now, as opposed to even as little as twenty years ago, the effects of this sprawl are now very visible. The damage is real, as opposed to way off in the future.

I ranted and raved about yuppies and an earlier post. I hate them. Their unchecked expansion and total stupidity is, as I see it, the most destructive force in America. Materialism, the American Dream, and a population that's becoming ever more delineated economically all fuel the expansion of America outwardly. None of these things are inherently bad, it must be noted. Materialism is a totally valid way of life, drives the economy, and is the only reason 90% of the companies in existence, um, exist. The American dream is a great dream and should be striven for. And an economically delineated population is fine just so long as there is constant economic activity between the groups. But combined, along with the human penchant for thinking about "now" as opposed to "tomorrow," means that people will happily bulldoze trees, and Chem-Lawn the fuck out of their grass if it means being happy now.

We aren't there yet. The world is not coming to and end, but in 2007, the 300 millionth American was born, the 400 millionth will be born sometime mid century, and by 2100 we'll be well past half a billion. All this while household sizes are at record lows. The growth is logarithmic, the worse it gets, the worse the getting worse gets. Within just one lifetime, we'll more than double our population. The US can NOT survive with current demographic distribution and a population of 600 million, or perhaps 1 billion. Eventually, we'll have giant megalopoli covering the entire landmass of the US like some sickened pestilence. Then there will be nowhere left to which the yuppies can escape. No new, virgin land they can bulldoze. It will all be done, and then what?

As I said, the world is not ending. Things are, in reality, pretty good. But we must begin taking action now, or the damage in the future may be too great to repair. Especially now, taking action can be pretty cheap. The government can heavily restrict development on virgin land. In my opinion, there are many areas of the country where development on virgin land should be halted entirely. Then, give developers subsidies and tax breaks for building up instead of out.

Population growth is not bad. In fact, I think it's great. If we are to achieve the wondrous, interplanetary civilization that sci-fi has foretold we actually need more people. It's the unchecked outward, low-density growth that's bad. We spread like a bacteria when we should be building towards the heavens.

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