Friday, June 4, 2010

Thad Williamson's "Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship"

Thad Williamson is Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science at the University of Richmond. He is co-winner of the American Political Science Association's Harold Lasswell Award for best dissertation in public policy in 2004, and lead co-author of Making a Place for Community.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of Life, and reported the following:
As it happens, page 99 of my book is both a) deeply misleading concerning the book as a whole and b) an important step in my overall argument about suburban sprawl in the United States. Page 99 of Sprawl, Justice and Citizenship takes up the question of what a comprehensive assessment of the cost and benefits of sprawl might conclude. It comes near the end of two chapters devoted to examining suburban sprawl from a utilitarian perspective, including looking at the economic costs and benefits associated with sprawl as well as empirical evidence on the relationship between residence in a sprawling (automobile-oriented, low-density) neighborhood and community satisfaction. The reason the page is misleading is because by the end of that section I argue that cost-benefit analysis is too limited a tool to help us assess whether, going forward, sprawling development is superior or inferior to plausible alternatives, and that utilitarian frameworks in general often provide very indeterminate judgments about complex social questions.

This is especially true in the case of sprawl, which is often more expensive than more compact development but also appears to provide very many benefits to many, many people. The real import of this section is arguing that there isn’t a slam-dunk case against sprawl on either economic or quality-of-life grounds. At best the utilitarian-guided critic of sprawl could make a somewhat speculative argument that if we improved the social conditions of American cities and made them more attractive places to live, then Americans’ preferences for low-density suburbs would weaken, and that more Americans who would be very happy to live in cities but do not now because they fear crime or bad schools would (having a larger choice set) be better off. I happen to think that argument is probably correct, but I think it’s fair to label it as speculative at this point.

I do think there are other, stronger grounds for critiquing American-style sprawl. These include, first, the ecological consequences of continued car-centered development; second, the social injustice involved in (for instance) denying children growing up in disadvantaged urban areas the same quality education and opportunities as suburbanites; and third, the fact that suburbanization has often served as a mechanism by which the relatively well-off can escape from politics and sustained political engagement.

Taken together these are (to my mind) powerful arguments, and they are each developed at length in the book. But they will not translate into reversing sprawl unless or until major steps are taken to improve the quality-of-life of our urban centers. Doing this in a socially just fashion means more than just building museums and concert halls, attracting “creatives” or pursuing other elite-oriented strategies. Rather it must mean addressing the interconnected issues of substandard urban public education, disproportionate poverty in our cities, and inadequate employment opportunities for urban residents.
Learn more about Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue