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Urban Land Magazine

May 2001

By David Salvesen

For thousands of years, the vast majority of people have lived in cities, towns and villages. Since the 1950s, however, Americans have largely abandoned their cities and towns for the suburbs. Suburban expansion has carved up and paved over farms and forests on the metropolitan fringe while urban areas deteriorated. How did this - the poor treatment of both rural and urban areas - happen?

According to Save Our Land, Save Our Towns, the mutual destruction of city and country results not just from market forces, but also from misguided policies and programs dating back to the 1930s. Federal Housing Authority loans favored the construction of new housing in white middle class suburbs over inner city neighborhoods. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of highways, many of which eviscerated cities by draining them of residents and jobs. To add insult to injury, federal low income housing was concentrated in inner cities. The result has been a huge federal subsidy for suburban living at the expense of cities.

On the local level, zoning resulted in the complete separation of uses (e.g., houses from jobs) and the segregation of neighborhoods by race, income, and age.

Video producer Thomas Hylton visits greenbelt cities in England and small towns in Pennsylvania to remind us that we know how to build livable places, but that we simply got off track. He also visits Charlotte, North Carolina, where zoning codes were revised to allow the creation of traditional neighborhoods - more compact, walkable areas that include a mix of housing types and sizes and that blend, rather than segregate, uses. Along the way, he talks with suburban homeowners, developers, elected officials, and farmers about life in the suburbs. Homeowners bemoan the lack of places within walking distance, farmers decry the loss of farmland, and developers cite the outmoded land use regulations that all but guarantee sprawl.

Hylton, a former reporter for the Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Mercury, produced and hosted the video, which is based on his book by the same name. The video is engaging and entertaining without being preachy, and it presents a compelling argument that strengthening urban centers and preserving the countryside must occur hand in hand. The suburbs, spurred by government subsidies, have been enormously popular. But the social and environmental costs have been huge as well: concentrated poverty and disinvestment in cities, and loss of open space in the country. We are consuming more land per capita than ever before. For example, in the last 25 years, southeastern Pennsylvania lost one-quarter of its farmland, even while its population decreased by 150,000 residents. As Hylton points out, America will never save its cities, towns and countryside as long as the "dream home" includes a half-acre lot in the suburbs that is far from jobs, shopping, schools, and entertainment.

David Salvesen, Urban Land's In Print editor, is the director of the program on smart growth and the new economy at the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



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