City Horizontal Sprawl
I’m in McHenry, Illinois, a small town embedded in McHenry township, which itself is in McHenry County. My mom’s lived out here for fifteen years. I’ve visited occasionally over the years, and I’ve watched as fields of corn and soybeans were overrun by new roads, big-box stores, and housing developments (including the one where my mother and step-father live).
Seeing a place like McHenry County puts the debate we’re having in Seattle over density into perspective. Back at home the density debate can feel somewhat abstract—do we build up or out? do we let developers run riot in the city or in rural areas?—so it’s instructive to see, first-hand, just what sprawl looks and feels like. I’m convinced that an afternoon in McHenry County would convert Seattle’s rabid anti-density dimwits into passionate backers of urban density, DADUs, increased building heights downtown, and true rapid transit. (Ahem: “true rapid transitâ€ť excludes BRT, Mr. Sims.)
The revulsion McHenry inspires isn’t merely aesthetic—if you think some of the condos going up in Seattle are ugly (and some—not all, some—of them are), you should see the rows and rows of boxy, identical houses out here—but all encompassing. The place is not just an aesthetic nightmare, but environmentally unsustainable, and, with rising gas prices and the potential “end of oil,â€ť completely irrational as a public and private investment. Only cheap gas makes this kind of horizontal sprawl possible. (Cheap gas and the towering sense of entitlement that characterizes 99 out 100 drivers. Roads? Endless subsidies! Mass transit? Endless bitching about the tax dollars that pay for it.)
A lot of people want this, of course. People choose to live in these god-awful, sidewalk-free exurbs for a reason, as David Brooks is constantly pointing out. They want the soullessness, they want the “safety,â€ť they want a huge fenced yard (most of which sit empty all day long), and they want to live in a house that shows only its backside—a two or three-car garage—to the street and the neighbors.
Cities can either contribute to the sprawl in places like McHenry County or slow it by growing more dense and building up. But density isn’t enough. While dense cities are more environmentally friendly, cities can’t compete with places like McHenry just by shouting, “Hey, we’re better for the environment!â€ť The folks flooding into places like McHenry don’t give a rat’s ass about the environment. Cities can only compete by appealing to peoples’ self-interest.
Leaving a place like McHenry for, say, a place like Chicago or Seattle means leaving behind the private fenced yard and the extra bedroom. People are only going to do that if they get something of value in return. Cities have to offer not just quality housing (affordable and market rate) but also the kinds of urban amenities that attract and keep families—things like numerous public parks (large and small), good schools, and the option of living without an automobile. Shared public spaces in dense, family-friendly cities take the place of private spaces, just as shared public transportation can take the place of private automobiles.
Anyway, I’m not sure where I’m going with this—I have a bad headache, and my mom slipped me a Vicodin, so maybe I’m just blathering. It’s just that having spent the last four days out here in the horizontal sprawl has me anxious to get back to Seattle and its comparatively benign and absolutely essential “vertical sprawl.â€ť
But simply building more housing units for the three or four hundred thousand new residents the mayor is expecting in the next decade or three isn’t enough. We have to build up the rest of the urban infrastructure too—and not just sewage treatment plants and more police officers. We have to think about the tradeoffs, the things that make city living, and density, not just bearable but attractive and worthwhile, the things that will offset the “loss” of a three car garage or a private yard.