- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2001

The heart of the modern American town may have a courthouse, a post office, a law firm, a library and a restaurant.
A few miles farther out are a Starbucks, a movie theater, a Wal-Mart and several car dealerships.
Beyond that, the well-manicured lawns, driveways with sport utility vehicles and big homes on big lots are far from the walking distance of grocery stores, city parks or ice cream stands.
This is suburban sprawl, generally defined as poorly planned development that destroys green space and increases taxes, traffic and air pollution. Most importantly, says writer and D.C. resident Douglas Morris, it is killing off Americans sense of community and civility.
"It has changed the culture of this country," says Mr. Morris, a travel writer who is working on a book about sprawl. Unlike city planners or environmentalists, Mr. Morris is concerned primarily with the way "sprawl culture" affects American society. It breeds incivility, he says, as well as violent crime and sociopathic behavior.
"Sprawl isolates people in their own homes in the suburbs. Sprawl has turned America into a society of strangers.
"This society of strangers — because no one knows anybody else — has helped to create a culture of incivility," he says. "People realize that if theyre never going to see anybody again, they can be rude and uncivil."
The common pattern of living far from ones workplace, commuting to work, then returning home late in the evening means that many people dont bother to get to know their neighbors or involve themselves in their communities. Additionally, most suburban shops and restaurants are not within walking distance of residential neighborhoods, making a car more of a necessity.
Sprawls roots go back to the era of the Great Depression, with President Roosevelts New Deal programs that favored suburban development. With the creation of "Levittowns" — the mass-produced Cape Cod homes and cul-de-sacs of Levittown, N.Y. — soldiers returning from World War II found cheap, suburban housing readily available. The prefabricated homes were copied in new American suburbs ringing the country.
Government money for highway construction led many urban areas to abandon public transit systems. Housing lots grew, more roads were needed and sprawl followed close behind. Only recently have city councils started seeing the need for "greenbelts" of land around urban areas, an idea Europeans have practiced for years.
Mr. Morris spent much of his childhood growing up overseas. When he moved to the District to go to college, he noticed that life here was different and began to pinpoint sprawl as the cause. Washington, D.C., was a prime example, as were Atlanta, Cincinnati and Baltimore.
"There is one difference between America and the other First World nations, and thats sprawl," Mr. Morris says. "They have the violent video games, the television, the movies, the cell phones. They have all the material opulence that we do, but their physical landscape is still connected."
Living in close proximity, such as in a small town or in a distinct city enclave, naturally creates community bonds because people see each other all the time. European cities are structured around this idea, having central squares and preserved green spaces. This connection to others, he says, creates more interaction and civility and discourages violent crime.
The link between sprawl and violent crime has become a topic of debate since the school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado — located in a suburb of Denver — and more recently in Santee, Calif. — a suburb of San Diego.
"Sprawl is not the direct cause of violence," Mr. Morris says. "It is the root cause." Because people are disconnected from the greater social fabric, he explains, they are more likely to act on violent impulses.
The cause of violent crime has been pinned on video games, R-rated movies and pornography, but law enforcement officials say these are just triggers. Curbing violent impulses, Mr. Morris believes, takes social interaction and a sense of community.
But others reject any connection.
Ronald Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, notes that suburban sprawl is blamed for myriad problems ranging from obesity to violence. "You name it, its been attributed to sprawl.
"Suburbs are the safest place there is," Mr. Utt said. "If you want a dangerous environment, move to a dense urban area. If you want safety, move to a far-out suburb."
Because of the way their cities and suburbs are structured, Mr. Morris says, Americans must be more deliberate in getting out of their homes regularly to interact with others. Mr. Morris encourages people to become involved in activities, be it ones church, a book club or a bowling league — anything to be part of a larger social group.
Though Mr. Morris focus is mainly on the cultural ramifications of sprawl, others are more concerned with the environmental effects of numerous far-flung suburbs. The Sierra Clubs 65 local chapters have created the "Challenge to Sprawl Campaign," working for open-space protection, new plans for mass transit systems and better choices for housing.
Deron Lovaas, a Sierra Club associate, says the baby boom generation could influence a move away from sprawl, as many of them are now empty-nesters seeking lifestyles with more conveniences.
"We may be seeing a redefining of the American dream," Mr. Lovaas says. "It doesnt have to involve a single-family, large-lot house out in a subdivision thats separated from commercial development."
Mr. Morris recognizes that getting this message to policy-makers will be an uphill battle.
"It is going to be a bitter pill, because we have been told since 1945 that the American dream is to move to the suburbs, and to get everywhere by the automobile," he says.
He notes that many older Americans are more sympathetic to his call for revitalizing communities — creating a small-town feel to places of all sizes — because they have seen the cultural changes in their own lifetimes.
"If they had the option of living in a small town where they could walk to the movie theater after they go to dinner, go get an ice cream, hang out at the cafe, and on the way there and the way back they run into their neighbors where they have a sense of belonging, a connection to others," he says, "if Americans had that choice, I think a large number of them would choose to live in a small town, or near a small town."
This small-town feel can be created inside urban neighborhoods, the author says, citing Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan and parts of the Capitol Hill as community-based enclaves in the District.
"If were going to have a turnaround, were going to have to commit to changing the urban landscape," he says.

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