Feed on

There’s long been a vigorous debate about whether the rise of suburbia has been a good thing on balance or not. I don’t have a particular horse in this race as I’ve lived in the country, suburbia and the city and have experienced the best and worst of each of them. This short piece on what has happened in the Occupy Wall Street encampments has reminded me of a benefit to suburban living that I’ve not seem much (at all?) discussed in the debates on urbanization and suburbanization. Wouldn’t it follow that the spreading out of people for their living, working and recreating make it less likely that infectious diseases and other pandemic-type events do not happen as often as if people lived for more densely? How much of a health improvement would it take before “we” accepted “urban decay” as on net a good thing?

I cannot obviously answer that question nor do I think the ideas are mutually exclusive.

2 Responses to “Sunday Observations: A Benefit of Suburbia”

  1. chuck martel says:

    Mark Whittington’s short piece isn’t about “what has happened in the Occupy Wall Street encampments”, it’s his idle and mindless speculations. He probably hasn’t been to one of the sites and his insights seem to be garnered from media reports. Be that as it may, life is composed of compromises. Residents of isolated villages in interior Alaska dread one of their number returning from a winter’s excursion to the incubator of disease that is big city Anchorage, knowing that in short order everyone will contract some alien illness for which they have no resistance. But people still like to go to town from time to time. It’s a risk they’re willing to take.
    Population density isn’t as crucial to health as sanitary practices or, even more importantly, parasite control. Contemporary Americans seem to have forgotten tape worms, hook worms, lice, fleas, and other parasites, although misguided efforts to control substances like DDT have led to the return of once-vanquished foes like bedbugs.

  2. Rod says:

    About ten years ago I wrote an editorial in my newspaper entitled, “Sprawl is good.” I wrote it after listening to a planner from our county planing commission browbeat Pennsburg’s council to go along with “regional planning,” and the regional planning commission that now governs the zoning maps for seven municipalities in the northern corner of Montgomery County, PA. That planner took it as a given that suburban sprawl is bad and that the only way to cure it was to surrender local control of zoning to an appointed body that would greatly restrict land development in the rural areas of the townships that surrounded the boroughs in the seven-municipality region.

    I also wrote the editorial to irritate a notorious Democrat who was the chairman of the board of supervisors in one of the area’s townships. After I wrote it, he declared in an open township meeting that I was probably the only person in the county who actually liked suburban sprawl. Silly me.

    That Democrat went on to become chairman of the new regional planning commission, and he also ran for state senate in the 24th District in the Philadelphia suburbs. Lucky for his Republican opponent, he said in a regional planning commission meeting in which big-box retailing was being discussed, “If people want to buy socks, they can go to the Wal-Mart in Harleysville or the malls in King of Prussia.” (Someone had made the observation that there was no place in the seven-municipality area where one could buy a pair of socks.) It was a Marie Antoinette moment, and I captured it in an editorial entitled, “Let Them Buy Socks.” Why, if you can’t buy socks in Pennsburg, you can go to Brooks Brothers in King of Prussia, where Jim Maza buys his socks. Who are you to ask that the local landscape be tarnished by a big-box, non-union retailer? Marie, er, Jim lost the election.

    But back to sprawl. If one lives in Philadelphia, it’s often the American dream of that person to move some day to the suburbs, where one can have a decent sized back yard and where one’s kids can go to better government schools than the Philadelphia schools and where one can barbecue hamburgers on a grill next to a back-yard pool (or next to a swing set or patio, or whatever one decides as a free individual to have in the back yard, notwithstanding the many ordinances churned out by the Montgomery County Planning Commission). That suburban home that’s held in contempt by the planning commission is pure paradise for someone who’s lived in the city out of necessity.

    One of the cardinal rules of land-use planning is that sprawl is prevented by establishing strict regulations for residential, commercial and industrial uses of land. Before zoning, commercial uses like neighborhood stores, gas stations and repair garages were within walking distance of residences. Bill Gates even had the audacity to start Microsoft in his garage. Our zoning ordinance “grandfathered” all of those “non-conforming” uses, but now they are scarce, and one has to get in the car and drive a distance for practically everything.

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