Up Close, The Pleasures and Pains of Sprawl

Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort (Houghton 2008), postulates that Americans have begun sorting themselves out into neighborhoods, regions and cities by politics and lifestyle.

Perhaps this explains why I, a child of the suburbs but an urban dweller now for almost all my adult life, know almost no one who lives in the classic cul-de-sac suburb, even though obviously huge numbers of Americans do so.

Which is why it's good to have in-laws. You don't choose them, and so they introduce you to alternate lifestyles. Such as living in the suburbs.

As I write this, I'm visiting my spouse's sister and her family. About the same age as my wife and me and with young children like us, they live in a 15-year-old Maryland subdivision built about halfway between Washington DC and Baltimore. Although only about 10 miles from the state capital of Annapolis, their subdivision sits in a grove of woods and has large homes on large lots placed amid maple trees. One could be in the country. Sort of.

So distant am I from such places that being here is like visiting a foreign country. I am getting an upfront look at the pleasures and pains of suburbia, both from a personal and a public policy perspective. The issue here is Sprawl of course. Although the Tri-state region has some of the densest cities in the country, it also wrestles with unplanned and low-density growth, so perhaps the example of my in-laws can be instructive.

First with the pleasures.

My in-laws' two-story home with full basement has 3000 square feet. Our entire Brooklyn apartment would fit inside their kitchen and accompanying den. Entering this abode, my body let out a huge sigh of relief in the presence of so much space. Goodbye for a while to cramped apartment life.

Then there is the backyard. Yesterday our five-year-old son and his five-year-old cousin occupied themselves for hours there, exploring the woods and making little rivers with a backyard hose.

But then there are the downsides, both from a personal and public perspective. The homes here lack city water and sewage. Although I'm told sometimes wells and septic tanks last forever, I'm also aware of many cases where cities have had to step in and supply services to stop the pollution of groundwater. Then there's teeth worries. My sister-in-law gives her kids fluoride treatments because well water has no fluoride in it. She wonders whether their teeth will really end up strong and cavity resistant.

Isolation of all types is a real concern. Our first night here I offered to go for a drive and buy a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine for dinner, which they were a bit low on. They both shook their heads and said essentially there was nowhere remotely close enough to get to quickly, even by car. Sparked by this interchange, I put their address into "Walk Score," a nifty Internet application that measures the walkability of places. Their neighborhood measured a big fat 2 out of 100 for the proximity of stores, restaurants, parks, libraries, movie theaters, drug stores etc. By comparison, my street in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn scored a 97, a "walker's paradise."

Whatever its drawbacks, my in-laws love their new home, and clearly their choice does not have to be everyone's. Overall, would it be better if more Americans lived in compact places rather than those like my in-laws? I think so, but there is also room in this world for many lifestyles. I did wonder how this suburb fit in with the noted Smart Growth policies of former Gov. Parris Glendening, who was governor from 1995 to 2003. But that's a conversation for another day. I've got to run now and go play with the kids in the backyard.