Don't get me wrong. I'm no more a fan of urban sprawl than the next guy. I bought a house on the outskirts of Las Vegas eight years ago, only to find that three years ago I was surrounded by town. We moved farther out to get away, but didn't see the handwriting on the wall or the bulldozers following us. Twenty thousand new housing starts a year gobble up a lot of space, and before we knew it, we were surrounded again!
Still I've grown really tired of the arguments people make against growth in the West. From Chelsea Cogdon and Jeff Gersh in their award-winning film, Subdivide and Conquer and James Howard Kunstler in The Geography of Nowhere to ranchers and federal and state land management officials who rail about the problem but contribute to it by their actions, there's something disingenuous about the anti-sprawl movement.
They say sprawl is bad because the world was once better, because people could see farther and had fewer neighbors, because they knew one another and shared in a community, governed by a set of rules that they all agreed upon. C'mon, folks! Could such an idyllic world exist if it were populated by human beings? The noise of the well-meaning that surrounds sprawl obscures the vista.
The people who have been in the West the longest and the people who are the most recent arrivals have formed a dangerous pact. The newcomers exemplify the treehouse effect: They're the last ones in, trying to pull the ladder up behind them. The "stickers," as Wallace Stegner used to call them, have been here a long time -- you know the kind of testimonial that begins: "I'm an eighth generation Westerner and ..." as if it conveys some kind of divine right -- and now see dollar signs when land developers trudge up to the old family house. They complain about growth but throw in the towel as soon as a developer pulls out a checkbook.
I can't help but see these pleas for the status quo as nostalgia and yuppie-class entitlement masquerading as mythology -- the longing for a West that never was. The solutions and strategies that captivate these people scare me. The ideas of regulation and green space -- the Portland, Ore., and Boulder, Colo., models -- sound grand, but they don't solve the problems and in fact may even make them worse.
In the 1960s, Boulder levied a sales tax to buy its own greenbelt around the city. It's beautiful, it's wonderful, and a cyclist like me can pedal forever along its paths. But the greenspace has become a moat that made Boulder an exclusive island amidst an ocean of Front Range growth.
Boulder's residents are the occupants of a baronial fiefdom. They live in the castle because they got there first. The rest of us have to cross the moat on the drawbridge of narrow highway to enter the sacred city and serve our self-proclaimed betters. Back to your suburban tract home, knave! Back along the crowded ribbon of concrete, made worse by Boulder's successful fight to prevent the widening of the road. This is their idea of a better community, democracy and justice, of fair play?
The growth ring around Portland, drawn in the 1970s, worked for a while, but it too had nasty side effects. The Rose City became a white city, defined as much by class as anything else -- and a cynic might say consciously recognizing the link between race and class. Portland became a city where white people would live downtown, where the rising cost of property preserved older neighborhoods by making them too expensive for anyone who wasn't well-off. The limits to outward expansion let the middle class stay close by, eliminating what they feared. "It's a miracle," the New Urbanists like Kunstler say, a city with a downtown that functions after dark and public transportation that functions to boot. Diversity in today's Portland is teenage grunge.
The solution to growth isn't green space, a growth ring or even zoning. All these remedies achieve visible goals, but none solve the larger problem: How can we live in an increasingly diverse society and get along?
I know one thing for sure: Allowing the rich to hide behind moats of green space is not the answer. That strategy reminds me of the castles the Crusaders built in the Middle East a thousand years ago. All of them offer incredible views, for they sit well above the surrounding plain. But the Crusaders weren't building up there for the view. They took the hilltops because they couldn't tame the valleys, couldn't come to grips with the world around them.
Within a generation, most of the castles were empty, the Crusaders dead or gone back to Europe. It is an instructive lesson about exclusiveness that the New Urbanists should take to heart.
-- Hal Rothman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.