Time for Change

Historically, the United States has struggled with the fair distribution of societal costs and private benefits. According to Adam Rome (2001), societal costs and private benefits are unfairly distributed among members of society because of the nature of capitalism. In a free market economy with little regulation, individuals have no incentive or responsibility to accrue the societal costs of their actions. Thus, they cut their individual costs as much as possible and shift the unpaid costs of production to the community as a whole.

After World War II, politicians, businesses, and citizen groups took advantage of the country’s capitalist system and used political relationships, government policies, and human agency to reconfigure urban geography and maximize private benefits (Sugrue 1996). These entities built sprawling developments on large tracts of land outside of urban areas, exploited environmental and social resources, and implemented various policies that only benefited specific segments of the population (Gillham 2002). As a result, homeowners, property holders, and private developers profited because they were not held accountable for the social, economic, and environmental costs of their actions – these costs were reallocated to city-dwellers, minorities, lower class citizens, and society as a whole (Rome 2001).

Consequently, contemporary metropolitan form is characterized by concentrated poverty, racial segregation, environmental degradation, economic inequality, social isolation, and expansive development. Furthermore, this pattern of development is unsustainable because it consumes large quantities of open space, money, fuel, and natural resources (Cieslewicz 2002; Helling 2002; Jargowsky 2002; Powell 2002). Nonetheless, suburban sprawl still exists today because it has provided individual wealth and freedom to a large number of Americans. The real estate, construction, automotive, and oil industries and individual property owners have deep investments in suburbanization, and they are hesitant to disrupt current development patterns because they have consistently proven to be profitable (Gillham 2002).

Americans are growing unhappy with contemporary metropolitan form, and they are searching for viable alternatives to suburbanization. Accordingly, the smart growth, new urbanism, and new regionalism movements have emerged to confront the social, economic, and environmental impacts of urban sprawl. However, Americans have been slow to adopt these policies because of their long-established traditions of self-determination, individual rights, and private-property ownership and the lack of evidence showing that these movements promote more sustainable and more profitable forms of development (Gillham 2002). Although these movements have not been widely implemented, they are a step in the right direction because they seek change.

In order to restructure contemporary metropolitan form, the United States needs to implement social, economic, environmental and political reforms that make individuals accountable for the costs of their actions and make unsustainable development less profitable. Planning professionals can assist in this process because they serve as intermediaries between the public and private sectors. Planners can help reshape metropolitan regions by building inclusive regimes, educating the public, mediating conflicts, and implementing coherent policies (Orfield 2002; Boarnet 2005). Planners can accomplish these goals by acting as social scientists, social workers, and surgeons (Baum 1997). A multi-faceted approach involving empirical analysis, public education, and policy is needed because suburbanization is a convoluted problem that involves many different stakeholders.

Works Cited

Baum, Howell. 1997. “Social Science, Social Work, and Surgery: Teaching What Students Need to Practice Planning” Journal of the American Planning Association 63:179-188.

Boarnet, Marlon et al. 2005. “Emerging Planning Challenges in Retail: The Case of WalMart” Journal of the American Planning Association 71:4 (433-449).

Cieslewicz, David J. 2002. “The Environmental Impacts of Sprawl.” pp. 23 – 38 in Gregory Squires (ed) Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Responses. Washington D.C. The Urban Institute Press.

Gillham, Oliver. 2002. The Limitless City: A Primer on the Urban Sprawl Debate. Washington, D.C. Island Press.

Helling, Amy. 2002. “Transportation, Land Use, and the Impacts of Sprawl on Poor Children and Families.” pp. 119- 139 in Gregory Squires (ed) Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Responses. Washington D.C. The Urban Institute Press.

Jargowsky, Paul A. 2002. “Sprawl, Concentration of Poverty, and Urban Inequality.” pp. 39-71 in Gregory Squires (ed) Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Responses. Washington D.C. The Urban Institute Press.

Orfield, Myron. 2002. American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality. Pp.1-4; 173-187.Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Powell, John. 2002. “Sprawl, Fragmentation, and the Persistence of Racial Inequality: Limiting Civil Rights by Fragmenting Space.” pp. 72- 118 in Gregory Squires (ed) Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Responses. Washington D.C. The Urban Institute Press.

Rome, Adam. 2001. The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sugrue, Thomas. 1996. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in PostWar Detroit. Pp. 3-14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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