From the Winter issue of SOCIALIST FORUM: Working Against Sprawl

The new issue of Socialist Forum is now live, its theme the climate crisis and the Green New Deal. It’s full of compelling stuff, like Nafis Hasan et al. on taking back the grid, Matt Huber on ecosocialism and penetrating interviews with Jane MacAlevy and Alyssa Battistoni. Click here to see them all.

Antonia Stolark’s essay below speaks to struggles against gentrification, and for housing/transit justice, in which so many DSA chapters are currently engaged – and evoked for some of us the song below, which some may remember from its Pete Seeger cover. — Ed.

A socialist approach to ending sprawl must rely on two core concepts: socializing wealth and ending social alienation.

America is addicted to the frontier. Ever since the earliest days of this imperialist nation, land on the edge of our country has felt like an inexhaustible resource. Beginning with land theft that marched westward and continuing through subsequent centuries of urban and then suburban development, the U.S. has grown outwards toward the horizons, displacing people of color all the while. But the chickens are finally coming home to roost: land isn’t infinite, cities can’t expand forever, and marginalized groups won’t be mistreated any more. Neither will the planet. Sprawl is the disease plaguing U.S. land use and it is our biggest obstacle to fighting global warming.

A socialist approach to ending sprawl must rely on two core concepts: socializing wealth and ending social alienation. Land value taxes and expropriation can solve the isolation and inequality created by U.S. land use policies. Critically, these policies would densify the population and drastically reduce reliance on the personal automobile. Transportation comprises over a quarter of all U.S. emissions, and it is vitally important that private cars and all of their socially isolating effects become a relic of the past.

A truly climate-forward society is urban, based around pedestrians, bicycles, and public transit, and allows for the development of exclusively multifamily housing. Such policies remind all residents of a city at every turn that they are part of a society, and that their individual lives cannot be divorced from those of their neighbors.

Sprawl is the development of low-density communities on the undeveloped outer limits of dense urban areas. Think single-family homes and McMansions, endless seas of placeless strip malls, neverending parking lots, and four-lane arterial highways that branch off into infinite fractal gated neighborhoods. Sprawl has been the dominant mode of U.S. urban development for over a half-century, and it’s currently the fastest-growing category of land use. Cities cannibalize the land on their periphery to build new single-family homes, new strip malls, and new schools, all served by highways with ever-worsening traffic. When considered in this light, it’s unsurprising that households in sprawling areas like the suburbs of Atlanta produce almost twice the carbon emissions of households in Atlanta’s urban core.

Against King Car

The first climate benefit of substituting urbanization for endless sprawl is freedom from the private automobile. Residents of practically every city in the U.S. claim to have the worst traffic. They’re not wrong. Thanks to urban sprawl, traffic is terrible everywhere. But rather than take a holistic view of transportation systems, government officials at every level have instead pushed for roads to be widened year after year.

Unfortunately, building extra lanes doesn’t help traffic–it actually makes it worse. Road expansions have contributed to the massive increase in road miles traveled over the last several decades, in turn increasing our transportation emissions. It’s not as if residents have other options, though, because in a suburban environment cars are often the only way to get around. The suburbs are too sparsely populated to support robust transit infrastructure, and streets oftentimes either don’t have sidewalks or are built as bike- and pedestrian-hostile “stroads.” So those of us who live in the suburbs carry on in our car-centric dystopia: we move from place to place in a private car all by our lonesome, venturing out of our steel and glass bubble only for long enough to step into the grocery store or to roll down our windows to accept food from drive-thrus.

Private car ownership is a cost that’s baked into Americans’ lives. Car use is a question of wealth, of course: the annual cost of owning a vehicle starts at about $10,000 for a sedan, and increases with the size of the vehicle. The burden of vehicle ownership is particularly harmful to the poor, who get pushed further and further away from their jobs as they get priced out of the city center, and who waste a greater percentage of income on car ownership than do the upper classes. Reducing or totally eliminating private car ownership is a critical step towards combating climate change. If private cars stick around at all, they’ll only work as a mode of transportation if their use is strictly limited, as André Gorz pointed out in 1973,

“The automobile is the paradoxical example of a luxury object that has been devalued by its own spread. But this practical devaluation has not yet been followed by an ideological devaluation. The myth of the pleasure and benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread its superiority would be striking. The persistence of this myth is easily explained. The spread of the private car has displaced mass transportation and altered city planning and housing in such a way that it transfers to the car functions which its own spread has made necessary. An ideological (“cultural”) revolution would be needed to break this circle. Obviously this is not to be expected from the ruling class (either right or left).”

If many more people are to fit into an urban environment, the city must densify–that is, reduce the acreage allocated to each person who lives there. This can’t be done while continuing to rely on the personal automobile and outward growth. Instead, cities must grow upward, not outward, and transition to a transportation system built for people, not cars, with a reliable network of buses, trams, and/or subways, and safe pedestrian and cycling infrastructure on every street. This will shrink the so-called “space-time prism” of residents by reducing residents’ personal radius of daily travel. Lest we fear that we will miss out on all our favorite things to do, see, or purchase, cities can increase the amenities available in every neighborhood via zoning regulation. Rather than the current regime of industrial, residential, and other single-use zones, cities can develop an urban environment where residents of a neighborhood are able to live a full and enriching life without ever traveling more than a few blocks from home. To suburban residents, accustomed to traveling dozens of a miles a day to work, or in pursuit of groceries, retail, or plain old leisure activities, this may sound like fantasyland. But it’s already reality in truly urban cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston that all developed decades before the automobile’s existence. Even cities out west are finally trying to replicate those urban success stories. In old, urbanized locales, neighborhoods have apartments, laundromats, schools, parks, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, libraries, offices, and more.

Living Single

Single-family homes, the dominant mode of suburban housing, also put massive strain on the environment. Standalone homes like these have more square footage per unit than multifamily housing does, which increases average emissions per home, and this effect is exacerbated because single-family homes have more exterior walls and windows, allowing for greater temperature loss to the outside. Even as single-family homes have maintained the same proportion of total housing stock, their energy usage has actually increased. When taken in conjunction with the use of cars as mass transportation, suburban single-family homes create nearly three times the carbon emissions as dense, urban multifamily housing.

Urbanization will also force residents to transition away from the private lawns of suburbia and toward shared public green spaces. The benefit here is twofold: first, ditching private lawns will also mean eliminating all of their harmful environmental impacts. Lawns are the destination of 30% of household water consumption, requiring hundreds of millions of gallons of gasoline for the mowers that trim them, all while their monoculture drives outnative plant and animal species and the fertilizers used to make them green leach into local waterways. Second, public parks function as a free, non-retail “third place,” a place where people can congregate and spend time together outside of the home or the office. The creation of third places is one of many ways that urbanization can fight back against climate change while simultaneously reorienting our society from its current neoliberal individualist bent toward a democratic common vision.

Emotional Landscaping

Sprawl’s harmful effects aren’t just environmental; they’re social, too. Under capitalism, people are alienated from the product of their labor, and they’re also isolated and alienated from each other. More Americans than ever before say they have no close friends. It’s no surprise that the increase in loneliness has coincided with the metastasis of suburbia.

When they were built, the suburbs’ appeal was their cleanliness, privacy, and individualism. Every (white) family got a house to themselves with a private yard for their children to play in, and residents could live unbothered by the day-to-day disturbances and mess made by their neighbors. But somewhere along the way, the suburbs “overshot their mandate.” Instead of rugged American individualism, we got endless rows of stucco houses, perfectly manicured lawns, and a crushing sense of quiet desperation. We effectively severed ourselves from the social networks we need to survive. Once more, the solution is urbanization.

Over half of Americans say they feel lonely, and yet, suburbia stands in the way of the easiest way to make human connections: repeated spontaneous contact. Stroads and lawns separate our suburban homes from those of our neighbors, and we encase ourselves in individual vehicles when traveling, insulating ourselves once more from the people around us. Even worse? The lonelier we feel, the more vulnerable we get, causing a positive reinforcement loop by which we slowly isolate ourselves entirely from social contact, rarely venturing out from our homes. The socialist response is to remember that, contrary to Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal quip, there is such a thing as a society, and to then reorganize the way we live accordingly. In an urban environment, daily life is framed by a series of repeated spontaneous interactions. Whether it’s the doorman of an apartment building, neighbors on the elevator, or your favorite employee behind the deli counter, city residents interact with familiar faces every day. Before you know it, the urban neighborhood that once felt so new and impersonal starts to feel like home.

Sprawl Against Social Justice

There is and always has been racially-coded resistance to densification in many urban areas, as owners of single-family homes sound the alarm about what will happen if significant infill is permitted. Recently in Minneapolis, when the 2040 Comprehensive Plan eliminated single-family zoning citywide, NIMBY, or “not in my backyard,” organizations were enraged, falsely claiming that adding more housing would somehow increase home prices. In reality, the groups are just concern trolls who claim to care about good urban planning in majority-black north Minneapolis while doing everything they can to maintain the exclusive character of rich, white southwest Minneapolis. This process will repeat itself across the country for as long as we allow it. Cities must replace the current public feedback system, which favors older, richer, and whiter homeowners, with a democratic system that allows for input from residents of all ages and racial and ethnic groups, and puts the needs of renters on par with the demands of homeowners.

As new transit projects are planned and built in municipalities nationwide, marginalized constituents are successfully organizing in response to make their voices heard. Activists in the Rondo neighborhood of Saint Paul, Minnesota, razed when I-94 was built in the 1950s, successfully advocated for three stops to be added to a light rail line that would have run through the neighborhood without stopping while simultaneously reducing Rondo’s bus service. In the Bay Area, a transit line that would’ve sliced through the heart of Oakland was successfully stopped after the non-profit group Urban Habitat sued Bay Area Rapid Transit, asserting that residents’ civil rights were being violated. The plaintiffs won on the grounds that the project planners had illegally failed to evaluate the project’s “discriminatory impacts on minority [and] low-income populations.” The racism that was so fundamental to the creation of the suburbs is all the more reason for their immediate demise.

Sprawl cannot just be stopped while urbanization accelerates. It must be actively rolled back every step of the way until the U.S. is at least as dense as its international counterparts. While it’s true that we have nowhere to go but up, immense wealth is caught up in the intrinsic value of land, which currently flows to an obscenely rich elite. The capitalist land-owning class will fight tooth and nail to keep things as they are.

The Land Question

That’s where land seizure comes in. Expropriation, which is the state taking property from its private owner for public use or benefit, may sound like a radical policy. In reality, it’s just a different name for what we know as “eminent domain,” and it’s necessary to combat the massive scope of global climate change. The expropriation of all land in the suburbs, and especially in the wildland-urban interface–that is, places where human development buttresses grassland, forest, and other untouched nature–will facilitate a shift in population distribution from suburban and rural areas into urbanized places. Not only would this permit the regrowth and repopulation of flora and fauna that were displaced and endangered by human activity, it returns the land to the people, increasing the footprint of federally owned lands, and ideally providing for more state and national parks accessible to all.

Of course, an unheard-of mass migration into cities is liable to reproduce the same housing crisis that cities are already facing, and on a far greater scale. Those who already own land would see their property values skyrocket. Newcomers would find it nigh impossible to find affordable housing, since new housing construction wouldn’t keep up with population growth. And NIMBY-type homeowners would do everything possible to keep it that way. The best way to prevent these scenes from playing out in every urban area in the entire country is to implement a land value tax, or LVT. The tax works just the way it sounds: it’s a levy paid on the annual rental value of a plot of land, with no regard to the value of any property that sits atop the land. The LVT could redirect the capital gains from land ownership away from rich property owners and into a social wealth fund.

As the Washington Post pointed out, it’s possible to divorce the value of property from the land under it; this reveals deep regional divides in land prices. And it’s patently unfair that the appreciated value goes to those who were lucky enough to take ownership of the land while it was still cheap. Taxing the land and fairly dividing up the returns among all US residents is the fairest way to ensure that everyone gets to benefit from rising land values–not just the ultra-wealthy. Land owners in high-demand areas would cease to unfairly reap the benefits of their land’s location value. A land tax thus leads to higher incomes and lower inequality.

The best use of revenues collected from land taxation would be the establishment of a universal basic income. While such a proposal may sound radical to many, it’s not: just look west to the Alaska Permanent Fund. Established via referendum in 1976, the Earnings Reserve Account pays out an annual dividend to all Alaskan citizens. A Land Permanent Fund would do the same. Using collected land taxes as principal, the LPF would invest in stocks, bonds, and other assets to realize a fully diversified portfolio, and would pay dividends to US residents on a recurring basis. This effectively redistributes land wealth from the pockets of the rich to all US residents. And in a country where the 100 largest landowning families own more land area than the entire state of Florida, and the 1% owns 40% of the land in the country, it’s about damn time that everyone get to share in the spoils of our land.

The Future is Urban

If massive urbanization is the answer to global warming, it’s critical to urbanize in a manner guided by the democratic socialist vision. A small-scale, local-control-oriented approach to local governance clearly isn’t working: we’ve seen how local NIMBYs and homeowners can dominate conversations and derail the public input process. Instead, a democratic and socialist response must meet the public needs of everybody to effectively address the isolation, alienation, and inequity of American development. This includes righting historical wrongs by undoing destructive urban infrastructure, amplifying the voices of the marginalized groups who were most harmed by 20th century urban planners, and fairly sharing the economic and social benefits of urbanization with everyone.

In the postwar years, the consensus among urban planners was that the “inner city” was noisy, dirty, and beyond repair, so homes should instead be built on the periphery of the urban environment. Thus the suburbs were born. In that golden postwar period of economic development, the US government flooded the economy with cash for single-family homes in the suburbs–that is, if you were white. Policies created first by FDR’s Public Works Administration, and later crystallized into redlining maps by the Federal Housing Administration, ensured that mortgages would only be issued to buyers in white neighborhoods. The only problem was how to connect these new picturesque homes with the job centers that remained downtown. Rather than bolstering existing streetcar lines, widespread adoption of the automobile conspired with other economic forces to put most streetcars out of business. Then, to solve the resulting gridlock, Congress authorized the construction of an interstate highway system inspired by the vehicle infrastructure Eisenhower saw in Germany. When it was built, a car-based society seemed like a great idea: White Americans became newly prosperous thanks to their federally secured home loans and commuted many miles in each direction every day. But highways were intentionally built to run through what had once been prosperous black urban centers, thanks to state-sponsored terrorism that forced Black Americansout of their homes.  People of color were and still are consigned to dense urban neighborhoods, entirely unserved by any sort of public infrastructure, investment, or services, and almost always with a noisy and polluting highway running right down the middle.

The first step to correcting historical wrongs is relatively easy: tear up the freeways and replace them with something better. But then what? How can a city convince longtime residents of color, especially those who remember the trauma of highway building, to support new urban infrastructure? According to an anonymous Twin Cities DSA member and development activist, “It isn’t good enough to just create opportunities like open houses to engage with the public; while in theory it’s a way for all parts of a community to have an equal say, this approach is more accessible to wealthier, older, whiter people than anyone else, giving their voices outsized influence in decision-making. To get input from typically underrepresented communities, decision-makers have to make a proactive effort to meet their communities where they actually are and actually take their views into account. This is only one way to remedy centuries of exclusion of people of color from public participation, but it is an important place to begin.”

From there, the benefits of urbanization can be shared equally by everyone. Densification will readily create wide-reaching social network effects: merely being around other people has a way of making people feel less alienatedfrom one another, helping nourish a communal spirit. And a land-value tax goes a long way to prevent the land speculation and price bubbles that afflict so many in-demand U.S. cities, all while sharing the intrinsic wealth of desirable land with everyone. Above all else, of course, are the wide-reaching environmental and health benefits of living in dense, walkable communities. Instead of relying on the private automobile, people will be able to move around on foot or on bike–both zero-emission alternatives to driving! Urban communities can encourage widespread use of mass transit while practically eliminating use of the private automobile. And instead of gobbling up land on the urban periphery, cities can leave a healthy greenbelt that can be used for food production or pure recreation. Reducing human use and abuse of our limited land resources is one of the best ways that we can minimize our climate impact, and the time to start is now.