Urban planning community

+ Reply to thread
Results 1 to 14 of 14

Thread: Did journalism cause sprawl?

  1. #1
    Member
    Registered
    Apr 2007
    Location
    Berlin, New Jersey
    Posts
    10
    Blog entries
    6

    Did journalism cause sprawl?

    When I went to college in the 1970s to study journalism, covering meetings was among the first things we learned. When we got out of college, we cut our teeth on zoning board and planning board meetings -- indeed, covering a town meant covering every meeting in town. Meanwhile, the seasoned reporters often got the glamorous jobs of covering politics, the county board and other high-profile beats.
    So, sprawl was left to the rookies and others still pretty unseasoned. While we did a good job of covering the meetings and reporting on what happened -- the board OK'd a developement, the master plan was amended -- I'm not so sure we really did the best we could do, or perhaps we wouldn't be in this sprawled mess today. We were enamored with the big blueprints (this was before PowerPoint, after all), and overwhelmed with just the idea of getting the details right, that I don't think many of us really understood the impact of what was happening. This was before such terms as "loss of habitat," or mixed use, or even "sprawl" became commonplace.
    Oftentimes, this occurred with only a few hardy souls even in the room, besides the board members and developers.
    And this was still when we as a society thought that all of this growth and development was a good idea. When the new bunch of homes or the new, big retail center meant money for the town coffers.
    So, did journalism create sprawl? Or, perhaps more correctly, did our ignoranance of the issues help foster a climate in which sprawl went unchecked?
    Feel free to comment here, or at my Cyburbia blog, where I posted a similar item.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
    Registered
    Nov 2006
    Location
    Jamestown, New York
    Posts
    1,645
    Quote Originally posted by DebWNJ View post
    When I went to college in the 1970s to study journalism, covering meetings was among the first things we learned. When we got out of college, we cut our teeth on zoning board and planning board meetings -- indeed, covering a town meant covering every meeting in town. Meanwhile, the seasoned reporters often got the glamorous jobs of covering politics, the county board and other high-profile beats.
    So, sprawl was left to the rookies and others still pretty unseasoned. While we did a good job of covering the meetings and reporting on what happened -- the board OK'd a developement, the master plan was amended -- I'm not so sure we really did the best we could do, or perhaps we wouldn't be in this sprawled mess today. We were enamored with the big blueprints (this was before PowerPoint, after all), and overwhelmed with just the idea of getting the details right, that I don't think many of us really understood the impact of what was happening. This was before such terms as "loss of habitat," or mixed use, or even "sprawl" became commonplace.
    Oftentimes, this occurred with only a few hardy souls even in the room, besides the board members and developers.
    And this was still when we as a society thought that all of this growth and development was a good idea. When the new bunch of homes or the new, big retail center meant money for the town coffers.
    So, did journalism create sprawl? Or, perhaps more correctly, did our ignoranance of the issues help foster a climate in which sprawl went unchecked?
    Feel free to comment here, or at my Cyburbia blog, where I posted a similar item.
    Soooo ... you think that instead of reporting news objectively, reporters should slant it to fit their own personal views? Never having studied journalism, I don't know if you learned that in college, but that doesn't seem quite right to me. News should be factual; editorials and op-ed pieces are for opinions.

    Moreover, you answered your own question when you wrote, "we as a society thought that all of this growth and development was a good idea", something that is still true today. If a developer comes into just about any town anywhere in the US with big plans to turn fields into houses or big box retail, 90% of the time that developer will get his/her way and the only opposition will come from nearby home-owners and some local environmental groups. We as a society still think that growth and development is a good idea.

    BTW, sprawl isn't a recent phenomenon, but something that has been going on since colonial times. Think about it. Why did the American colonists get mad because George III's government said that they couldn't settle beyond the Appalachians? It wasn't because all the land, even the good land, east of the Appalachians was filled up. Even though most of New York State west of the Mohawk Valley was virtually empty in 1820, settlers were already buying land in Ohio and Indiana and Michigan. Settlers trekked across the prairies and mountains to get to Oregon and California long before most of Iowa or Minnesota or Kansas were settled. It's the way Americans are. Our nature is to spread out over as much of what we perceive to be the "best" land.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian permaplanjuneau's avatar
    Registered
    Jul 2004
    Location
    Juneau, AK
    Posts
    151
    There is a big difference between Manifest Destiny, the Frontier Mentality, and Sprawl, so I'm going to state that I disagree with Linda_D's assessment of the the situation. Not that she doesn't have a valid point--I just don't think that westward expansionism can be called sprawl--they are different things entirely.

    DebWNJ makes an entirely different error in her hypothesis--although it is indeed true that observing a phenomenon changes that phenomenon, journalists reporting on what is occurring around them don't cause those things to happen.

    In my own humble opinion, the cause of sprawl was the American manufacturing engine that needed something to build besides tanks, planes, bombs, and guns after WWII. Private automobiles, private dishwashers, private clotheswashers, private vacuum cleaners, and other "labor saving devices" of the late 1940s to the present day did not have a significant market in multifamily housing or otherwise confined urban spaces where residents could much more efficiently walk or use transit to access destinations, and the use of "labor saving devices" was pointless if you could pass the laundry to the washer-woman (I apologize for the sexist term--it's a product of its time, not a gender stereotype on my part, I promise), go to the bakery for bread, and eat at a neighborhood cafe for a reasonable price.

    Thus, the "American Dream" of the single-family detached residence in the suburbs was born by marketing firms working for land developers and industrialists. A couple of good references for you to check out on this topic: Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing, and Family Life, by Dolores Hayden. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, by James Howard Kunstler. There are plenty of other books and articles out there on the origin of urban sprawl, but these are two of my favorites.

    My final answer (not the right one, just mine): No, journalism didn't create sprawl. Capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, and the Assembly Line created sprawl. And advertising had more to do with creating sprawl than journalism did.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
    Registered
    May 2005
    Location
    Metro Detroit
    Posts
    6,410
    No. Journalism did not cause sprawl. Just as journalism does not cause more violence or school shootings.

    Sprawl has happened because all levels of government have shielded the American people from the negative externalities that sprawl creates. The American people like sprawl, because they've never been forced to face the issues that it brings forth.

    Until maybe now.
    "I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany"

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
    Registered
    Jul 2003
    Location
    San Diego, CA
    Posts
    7,061
    My 2 cents:

    Americans lived through The Great Depression and then promptly went off to fight in WWII. Savings rates were up around 50% during one year of the war. They stopped making cars so they could make jeeps or tanks or some such. Coffee and sugar and the like were all rationed. People were encouraged to raise Victory Gardens so that the produce the farmers made could feed "our boys over there". With hubby off at war and wifey working in a factory to keep him supplied, birth rates were very low. You had a bunch of DINK's who had no place to spend their money. So it went into savings.

    Since "women's lib" was not the impetus for the sudden rise in DINKs, when the men came home, we went right back to the same expectations we had before the war. Veterans were rewarded for their service to country by being helped to go to college and helped to buy a home. Women were actively encouraged to leave their jobs so the men could have them. Lots of women were happy to do so because they wanted to have children and be moms. So there was a sudden demand for single family housing from people who had the money to buy them. The market and government both responded to this situation by coming up with the means to produce family homes rapidly and the means to effectively finance them. Thus were born Levittowns.

    Most new family homes at that time were around 1200 sq ft and certainly not over 1600 sq ft. We didn't yet have dishwasher or microwaves. A simple family home was not what it has become. It also was likely to have less insulation, fewer bathrooms, and inferior materials compared to later homes. By 2000, the average new construction house was no longer around 1200 to 16000 sq ft. It was over 2000.

    I believe that the financing mechanisms created to serve a very real need post WWII is a dinosaur that has outlived it's usefulness and we are now all prisoners of it and the market forces that were born of that era and live on to this day in spite of the fact that the social fabric has changed and we are no longer served well by the strong emphasis on housing intended to serve the classic "nuclear family".

    Does mindset (as fostered by media/popular culture) have some influence in this development? Sure. Could journalism have put a stop to these forces? Not likely. Plenty of people who are aware that they want something else or need something else still buy a single family home with 3 bedrooms in a good school district because it has better resale value than a home that would more closely match their lifestyle and needs. Since a very high percentage of American savings is in the form of equity in one's home and since it can very challenging to finance any other form of housing, there is enormous pressure to just follow the crowd even if you suffer for doing so. Unless and until the financing mechanisms exist to support other types of housing choices, sprawl will remain dominant.

    The "good news": The current economic downturn combined with Peak Oil may be strong enough forces to cause this situation to change.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
    Registered
    Mar 2004
    Location
    Where the weak are killed and eaten.
    Posts
    6,119
    Of course the liberal media created sprawl!

    I think Juneau gave too much power to the manufacturers in this. You expect someone from Detroit to have a different opinion?

    In reality, it is competition for development and tax dollars that has flamed sprawl. In the neighborhood I grew up, most families had one or two cars, but lived in a compact envirionment where one or two dwellings could easily fit on a 35 or 40 foot wide lot. Today's society has roots in the throwaway strip malls of the 1970's. Where the stripmall in Township A was put out of business by the stripmall in Township B that is slightly larger, newer, and located only a couple of miles away.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  7. #7
    Member
    Registered
    Mar 2009
    Location
    California
    Posts
    16

    Historical context

    I'd recommend Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl: A Compact History for a long-term understanding of how some people in cities have sought to decentralize for millenia. Good, bad, whichever: it ain't even remotely new.

    Another important point in the book is about the slippery term itself: "Sprawl" is used by many people to mean different things for different purposes --just as "blight" was used by planners starting in the 1930s. Is "sprawl" about density? If so, how little? Is it about land use? If so, which ones? If as professionals our job is to mitigate environmental problems, what, specifically, are the terms? "Sprawl" has morphed into an all-purpose villain, rarely defined.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
    Registered
    Feb 1998
    Location
    Greensburg, Kansas
    Posts
    2,940
    CitizenK, I have enjoyed your posts...keep it up!

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
    Registered
    Nov 2006
    Location
    Jamestown, New York
    Posts
    1,645
    Quote Originally posted by Citizen K View post
    I'd recommend Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl: A Compact History for a long-term understanding of how some people in cities have sought to decentralize for millenia. Good, bad, whichever: it ain't even remotely new.

    Another important point in the book is about the slippery term itself: "Sprawl" is used by many people to mean different things for different purposes --just as "blight" was used by planners starting in the 1930s. Is "sprawl" about density? If so, how little? Is it about land use? If so, which ones? If as professionals our job is to mitigate environmental problems, what, specifically, are the terms? "Sprawl" has morphed into an all-purpose villain, rarely defined.
    Very good points. I haven't read Bruegmann, but I think I would probably agree with his thesis. When you look at the growth of cities in the US historically, what you see is a very different picture than the one painted by those who seem to think the land use/population trends of the last fifty or sixty years are something that never happened before.

    If you prowl around the the 1894 City of Buffalo Atlas (1894 Buffalo City Atlas), you will see land use patterns that resemble what you would see, on a larger scale, in a rapidly growing city today. The biggest difference is that the "sprawl" of 1894 happened within the city limits because Buffalo had expanded its borders in 1854 (I think that was the year) to include much of the neighboring rural areas. Forty years later, a lot of that expanded city remained farmland, and would remain so for about another 15-20 years.

  10. #10
    Member
    Registered
    Apr 2007
    Location
    Berlin, New Jersey
    Posts
    10
    Blog entries
    6
    Quote Originally posted by btrage View post
    No. Journalism did not cause sprawl. Just as journalism does not cause more violence or school shootings.

    Sprawl has happened because all levels of government have shielded the American people from the negative externalities that sprawl creates. The American people like sprawl, because they've never been forced to face the issues that it brings forth.

    Until maybe now.
    ---
    I'm thinking more along the lines of the fact that we didn't question what was offered. Sure, the American people were shielded from the negative externalities, but isn't it journalism's job to raise those questions?
    Someone else commented about "objectivity," and I agree that it is an ideal to pursue -- I prefer "impartiality," or recognizing our biases and not letting them shape our reporting -- but we can still be "objective" or "impartial" and get at the truth.
    And, as I mentioned in my intro, I think we know more now than we did then, and have a vocabulary to pursue the matters more vigorously.
    I thought of this topic as I heard all of the finger-pointing at the finance media's failure to predict the economic tsunami, but I think sprawl was more of an eroding shoreline than a devastating tidal wave. The process was longer and more drawn out, not something so immediate as the economic crisis.
    Thanks for the conversation, and please keep it up. I'm enjoying the responses.
    --Deb

  11. #11
    Member
    Registered
    Mar 2009
    Location
    California
    Posts
    16

    Historical context, redux

    I re-read your initial post, Deb, and it got me thinking more on the subject even as I recommended Bruegmann (and, of course, Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier).

    On the factors affecting physical patterns of urbanization, I'd argue that journalism has had plenty of influence-- as part of the public discourse shaping popular opinion and culture. Technology (home-building, communications, transportation, et al) has certainly had a major influence, too. Economics? Also a major force as peripheral land was made more accessible and affordable, and as not only housing but jobs and commerce came along as well. Public Policy, too, as the fed became more and more involved in development and lending processes.

    (BTW, I noticed your profile, too: have you read David Sloane's The Last Great Necessity on the history of cemeteries in the US? I'd think it would fit in with your interests.)

    P.S. Thanks for the props, Mike. I just joined, and I can already see the potential for much time loss here....

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
    Registered
    Mar 2005
    Location
    Dubai, United Arab Emirates
    Posts
    392
    "In my own humble opinion, the cause of sprawl was the American manufacturing engine that needed something to build besides tanks, planes, bombs, and guns after WWII. Private automobiles, private dishwashers, private clotheswashers, private vacuum cleaners, and other "labor saving devices" of the late 1940s to the present day did not have a significant market in multifamily housing or otherwise confined urban spaces where residents could much more efficiently walk or use transit to access destinations, and the use of "labor saving devices" was pointless if you could pass the laundry to the washer-woman (I apologize for the sexist term--it's a product of its time, not a gender stereotype on my part, I promise), go to the bakery for bread, and eat at a neighborhood cafe for a reasonable price."

    Lord, I'd like to see you try this argument on a 1950s houswife.

    Most American families, by far, did not employ outside help in the 1950s. All the 'private' goods you mentioned were eagerly welcomed by American families whether they lived in apartments or single-family houses, city or suburbs. They make life easier, and that's the simple truth.

    Getting in my car and driving 1/2 mile to the market is easier than walking and carrying the goods back home. We are in the ultimate quest to make our lives as comfortable as possible, and the sprawling suburbs are perhaps the best manifestation of that quest. Larger houses, own cars, better schools, more responsive government services, less crime, the list of the benefits offered by suburbia compared to the older original urban neighborhoods goes on forever.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian fringe's avatar
    Registered
    Aug 2008
    Location
    Comer, GA
    Posts
    570
    Sprawl was mainly spurred by the fact that land is a little cheaper just a little further past the fringes. Ergo, skid row, squatters' settlements, beyond the pale (palisade), etc etc.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
    Registered
    Jan 2009
    Location
    Remote command post at local bar
    Posts
    3,694
    I don't blame journalists for sprawl, misunderstanding and misquoting, but not sprawl. Although they could be a tool to help fight it.
    I blame sprawl on sex and the American dream. If you people would stop breeding and increasing the population (you know who you are) we wouldn't need as much housing. More importantly if we would be happy as a society to live in multi-family housing and not demand a house of our own with plenty of land, sprawl would be reduced. To make it worse, we look at our friends and neighbors and have to buy a larger better house to show our status. I think there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way American society lives and desires to live for there to be a reduction in sprawl. As long as people are comfortable, why should we change.

+ Reply to thread

More at Cyburbia

  1. The future of news/journalism
    Friday Afternoon Club
    Replies: 15
    Last post: 02 Jul 2012, 8:03 PM
  2. Replies: 7
    Last post: 03 Nov 2011, 8:46 PM
  3. Sprawl
    Introduce Yourself
    Replies: 7
    Last post: 23 Oct 2009, 2:35 PM
  4. Replies: 17
    Last post: 30 Jan 2008, 11:52 AM
  5. Replies: 1
    Last post: 30 May 2003, 10:56 AM