Tyranny of the Urban Majority

by Richard Carson

I recently attended a public meeting where an elected official asked a group of planners the rhetorical question, "What is sprawl?" One planner's response was that sprawl occurred when the rural area was divided into large-acreage lots in order to build "McMansions." The official's response was, "Would you be happier if people located low-income trailers there instead?"

This dialogue troubled me. For the advocates of recent planning trends—such as smart growth and New Urbanism—to attract financial supporters and sympathetic voters, they use pejorative labels like sprawl, big-box, and McMansion. In order to demonize sprawl you need a demon. Rural farmers and foresters can't be vilified because planners are supposedly conserving resource lands for their use. And it's politically incorrect to malign lower-income families living in trailers. So who do special-interest groups scapegoat? Rich people and McDonald's are easy targets—thus: Rich people + McDonald's = McMansion.

This Orwellian doublespeak has been used by proponents to subliminally sell a political agenda that attacks a longstanding American institution: the land-settlement patterns of a culture dominated by automobiles and low-cost postwar subdivision housing. Their social agenda exploits fear and classism to advance their cause—at the expense of someone else's socioeconomic beliefs and well-being.

Schizophrenic prejudice

In America, terms like sprawl and McMansion resonate with us at least in part because of our schizophrenic personal prejudices: We want to be rich but can't be because we can't stop buying stuff; we smoke and drink and eat junk food, but we know it's bad for us. We feel guilty about our shameless, obsessive consumerism. We feel helpless and used by the fat cats on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. And we feel like we've sold our souls (and our freedom) to the highest bidder.

Conversely, we suspect that there are people who have not sold their souls, and that bothers us, too. Among them are independent farmers and foresters who are living off the land. And city-dwellers subconsciously resent their apparent freedom.

In fact, this lack of empathy has led to a new "tyranny of the majority" by nonrural interests. And our constitutional checks and balances have failed to protect the rural landowner. Initiatives related to smart growth have drawn urban-growth boundaries and then downzoned rural properties. These measures are meant to contain sprawl, we've been told, but they also help create urban "reservations" that keep dense populations from destroying the natural environment.

Gluttony and reparations

When urbanites—no, urbanists—clash with rural landowners, the outcome is always the same: The country folks lose. Back at home, the urbanists want their espresso bars, boutiques, and drive-throughs, but they want rural areas to remain a pastoral land museum, preserved for their visits by SUV.

The fact is that urbanists are implicated in the killing of many more species than their rural counterparts through their gluttony. Since 80 percent of Americans live in metropolitan areas, aren't they at least 80 percent guilty? Shouldn't urbanists make this economic injustice right, and pay for it in dollars? Yes, because others—specifically, rural landowners, developers, and big businesses—must pay for their unconscionable urban appetites.

If we truly are seeking to improve livability for both humanity and animals, then let us do so by being intellectually honest about the social costs to all citizens—not by using some biased, urbanist propaganda against a minority of our citizens. It's time for the urban majority to pay its fair share—or at least talk about how to make economic reparations to rural America.

Richard Carson, a land-use planner and journalist, lives near Portland, Oregon, on 21 acres in a "forest" zoning district.

Copyright 2005 - "Architecture"

(1)U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Rurality/WhatisRural)
(2) Kenneth Johnson and Calvin Beale, The Continuing Population Rebound in Nonmetro America, Rural Perspectives, vol. 13, no. 3.
(3) U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/Population/)
(4) Ray Quay, Telecommuting: Possible Futures for Urban and Rural Communities, McQuay Technologies, 1995.
(5) Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place, University of Oklahoma Press, 1945.
(6) Op.cit.