The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism
By Adam Rome. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001; 299 pp., photographs, notes; cloth $55.00, paper $20.00.
During the post-World War II era, the concept of the "suburb" came to define the American character. The mass media embraced this form of development as quintessentially American. Magazines, television, and movies popularized a fictionalized, sanitized (mostly inaccurate) conceptualization of the "burbs." Following World War II, the Federal Government promoted home ownership through low-interest loans, implemented economic policies that created favorable conditions for the residential construction industry, and established transportation policy that encouraged highways over rail. Public policy and popular culture were the driving forces. People moved in droves to newly urbanizing communities beyond cities, leaving behind central cities and rural areas.
Over the second half of the 20th century, manifestations of large-scale development intruded upon historic land use patterns and significantly altered the country's cultural and natural landscape. The result was the rapid, homogeneous urbanization of great swaths of the United States, forever altering their unique built and natural attributes. This is "suburban sprawl," which started in earnest with the post-war building boom and continues today at great cost to the cultural landscape and the environment.
Many authors have studied the phenomenon of urbanization from architectural or urban history, planning, and public policy perspectives. Adam Rome takes a different tack, an academic, environmental history approach focusing on the environmental impact of subdivisions. This new awareness, Rome asserts, in turn gave rise to a new conservation movement that fights for more environmentally-sensitive development.
Bulldozer is not written for the broad audience that popularized The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler's critique of urbanization, and City Life, Witold Rybczynski's commentary on the American city, or others from the body of popular work offering criticisms of urbanization. Nor is Bulldozer a practitioner's or activist's manual like Save our Land, Save our Towns by Thomas Hylton, or Saving America's Countryside by Samuel N. Stokes et al., or other books that offer guidance on fighting sprawl and preserving communities and landscapes.(1)
Bulldozer is not a historic preservation or architectural history book. But Bulldozer is instructive about how the most prevalent development patterns shaped our environmental and land-use ethic. Witold Rybczynski laments that "'suburb' is one of those words that is difficult to use in a precise discussion because it describes something that has become a stereotype. And like most stereotypes, it is composed of clichés."(2) As an environmental historian, Rome could be forgiven for depending on the shorthand term "suburb." But, in fact, Rome's reliance on the suburb stereotype mars this otherwise thoroughly researched and precise book.
Rome is less interested in the ranch houses, split levels, and Cape Cods that populated post-war subdivisions than he is in the groundwater, habitats, and soil that these subdivisions disrupted. Similarly, Bulldozer focuses less on William Levitt and his colleagues than on U.S. Senator Henry Jackson of Washington State and the cadre of environmental advocates who rose up in defiance of the "bulldozer in the countryside" development ethic.
After Rome's first chapter—which retraces well-known ground for those familiar with the themes of post-war urbanization—Rome offers readers a fresh perspective on the results of suburbanization. Bulldozer's central chapters offer Rome's greatest contributions to a new understanding of the suburbs' impact on the environment. Construction of new housing exploded from an average annual rate of 300,000 units during the 1930s to 1 million in 1946 and 2 million in 1950. The majority of these housing starts were in new subdivisions beyond city borders. To the detriment of the environment, Rome suggests, the majority of the builders of these subdivisions were primarily concerned with the bottom line. Developers wanted to provide large quantities of housing at affordable prices while generating high profits. In controlling construction costs, developers rarely considered corollary costs to the environment.
Developers were reluctant to construct energy efficient housing because of increased costs regardless of the environmental benefits and despite advances in heating and cooling systems and insulating techniques. Further, developers acquiesced to opposition from energy producers, low energy prices, and homebuyers hesitant to embrace the nontraditional designs of new solar and energy efficient houses. Only when energy prices rose did the public demand more from developers. Similarly, developers embraced the septic tank over more expensive public sewer systems until regulation and market forces required them to change. With as many as 45 percent of the subdivisions built during the period relying on septic tanks, the widespread failure of tanks led to more than just unpleasant complications for homeowners. Groundwater contamination and associated public health risks triggered government involvement, stricter regulations, and greater public scrutiny.
The environmental consequences of subdivisions, according to Rome, eventually came to the fore. Perhaps nothing may have been more important in launching the environmental movement in the United States than the loss attributable to subdivisions of open space, rural landscapes, and wildlife habitat. The rapid loss of countryside sounded alarms for birders, hunters, and fishermen, and raised the issue for civic groups, academia, government, and the media. New environmental concerns emerged as developers placed subdivisions on hillsides and in flood plains and wetlands. The resulting erosion, flooding, surface and groundwater contamination, and habitat loss led to an awakening of organized environmental activists calling for stricter regulation of developers and Federal laws protecting the environment.
The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was enacted at the same time that environmental advocates were agitating, with limited success, for greater environmental protections. Both movements wrestled with property rights advocates over appropriate land-use controls. Yet, neither preservationists nor environmentalists have learned enough from each other to advance their common interests. With this in mind, Bulldozer provides an opportunity for cross-disciplinary understanding. Bulldozer offers an instructive, fresh perspective on the massive post-war spread of urbanization, the origins of environmentalism and government response to it, and ongoing fights over land-use and property rights.
Maryland Historical Trust
1. James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993); Witold Rybczynski, City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World (New York: Scribner, 1995); Thomas Hylton, Save our Land, Save our Towns: A Plan for Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA: RB Books, 1995); Samuel N. Stokes, et al., Saving America's Countryside: A Guide to Rural Conservation (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).
2. Rybczynski, 176.