catching the New York Times on sprawl
- Published on Tuesday, September 28, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
Another Lapse of Journalistic Integrity at The New York Times
by Joel S. Hirschhorn
Some may argue that articles in the Times' Magazine represent the
author's viewpoints and do not have to live up to the highest journalist
standards. But when the author works for the Times and the article is
completely unfair and unbalanced, one has to wonder whether there are any
serious editors left there. The Sunday 26, 2004 Magazine included an article
by John Tierney, a correspondent in the Times' Washington bureau, entitled
"The Autonomist Manifesto (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the
Road). It is arguably the most pro-suburban sprawl article ever published in
a major American newspaper. But the quality of its information is abysmal.
Tierney disarms readers by first revealing his preference for skating,
biking or using the subway to get to work. "I hate the drive," he says. He
then goes on to say that he no longer believes that his "tastes should be
public policy." "I've been converted by a renegade school of thinkers you
might call the autonomists" - actually these are the pro-sprawl,
pro-automobile defenders of the status quo. Logically, how could those who
defend the status quo of suburban sprawl be considered "renegade" thinkers?
The real renegade thinkers are the advocates of smart growth and New
Urbanism; they are trying to offer Americans more alternatives to
automobile-dependent sprawl living that has dominated housing for over 50
A number of the leading pro-car, pro-sprawl advocates - I call them
sprawl shills - are cited in the article, but only one comparable smart
growth advocate. Anyone with an ounce of integrity writing about sprawl and
leaning towards support of it should have approached spokespeople from
leading organizations such as Smart Growth America and the Congress for the
New Urbanism, or academic centers at the University of Maryland and Virginia
Tech. But not Tierney.
He regurgitates some key arguments from right-wing sprawl shills, who
are financed by business interests making money from land development, home
building, and road building. These positions now "brand" sprawl shills.
First, is the limitless land lie: "More than 90 percent of the continental
United States is still open space and farmland," says Tierney, as if this
supports continued unchecked sprawl land development, because we have all
this abundant land. When this position is repeated ad nauseam in far-right
conservative and libertarian publications, there is no surprise. But to see
it used unquestionably in The New York Times boggles the mind. Why? Because
so much of all that undeveloped land is not usable because of physical
features like steep slopes on mountains and hills, much of it should remain
as greenspace and farmland, and much must be preserved for the public good,
such as wetlands. Moreover, anyone can think for a moment and realize that
there are vast stretches of land that very few people want to live on (think
Nebraska, North Dakota, etc.). Places where Americans want to live are
actually running out of land as suburban sprawl development increasingly
puts homes on 5 and 10-acre lots. Land development is running at many times
population growth in most metropolitan areas.
The second right-wing lie Tierney buys into is the "automobile as
liberating technology" belief. He especially likes the concept of the
automobile being autonomy-enhancing - hence the "Autonomist Manifesto"
phrase. There is now remarkable evidence that American's love affair with
the car has ended in disillusionment, suffering in traffic congestion,
time-poverty, and costs second only to personal housing. Countless polls
nationwide have consistently found that Americans want public spending on
public transit, not more roads. Homes near transit stations are in high
Two topics are totally missing in Tierney's article, and any well-read
editor should have raised some questions about these omissions. First, with
so much rhetoric in support of automobiles, how could any writer ignore the
currently hot issue of the connection between sedentary lifestyles and
health? Sprawl-based, automobile-dependent living is a root cause of
widespread overweight and obesity, as well as a host of chronic diseases.
Coincidentally, the day after the article appeared, newspapers throughout
the nation carried a story on new research findings from the Rand Corp.; a
solid relationship between sprawl and a number of chronic health problems
was found, consistent with many other studies linking physical inactivity
with poorer health. Community design really matters. Yet Tierney makes no
mention whatsoever of the downside of automobile dependent living.
The other mind-boggling error in thinking by Tierney is to connect the
national smart growth and New Urbanism movement only with city living.
Literally anyone who is well read knows by now that innovative land
developers are building totally new places in suburban areas which are
mixed-use, higher residential density, and rich in neighborhood greenspace.
In many of these, there are office buildings, but even if residents must
commute to jobs, there is much less car use, because 85 percent of car trips
is for non-commuting needs which can be satisfied by walking in these "new
towns." Considering that Tierney lives in the Washington, D.C. area where a
number of these smart growth developments have been hugely successful, such
as King Farm in Rockville, Maryland, it is hard to understand why he made no
mention to hundreds of these places all over the nation. Only intellectual
bias or sloppy research can explain this omission.
Shame on The New York Times for giving the right-wing sprawl shills
such undeserved visibility and credibility.
Joel S. Hirschhorn was formerly Director of Environment, Energy and
Natural Resources at the National Governors Association; his book "Sprawl
Kills - How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money" is being published
in November. He can be reached through www.sprawlkills.com.
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