All Over the Map : Ills of suburban sprawl call for limits, regional planning

As a Lutheran priest in the Antelope Valley, Ken Simon sees firsthand the fallout from the region’s explosive growth over the past decade. And it worries him. “This way of life is destructive,” the Palmdale pastor told Times staff writer Sonia Nazario, who last week reported on many painful consequences of the area’s unchecked sprawl, with its side effects of often horrendous commutes and fraying families. “Families are literally being torn apart.”

Members of the clergy are not alone with their concern. Astute urban planners, environmentalists and transportation officials have argued for decades that Southern California’s promise of limitless suburbia is false--an alluring fantasy with severe long-term results. Using statistical models and complicated formulas, various experts have argued the technical case against sprawl. Infrastructure cannot keep pace with leapfrogging development. Agricultural land gets gobbled at alarming rates. Older communities suffer as capital chases affluence to each new temporary haven.

Yet as The Times series pointed out, perhaps the cruelest irony of far-flung suburban flight is that it can end up tearing apart the families hopeful residents thought they were saving--a purely human cost that no data can quantify. To be sure, many families find nothing but contentment in the wide streets and uncrowded neighborhoods of such satellite cities as Palmdale and Lancaster and Moreno Valley. But many also find that commuting up to five hours a day consumes so much of their lives that their children and spouses become virtual strangers.

Earlier this year, a landmark study by Bank of America and the Wilson administration made a convincing case that sprawl is among the most critical long-term issues facing the state, describing its impact as “potentially crippling.” The question, though, is how to change a half-century of thought in which the suburbs offered an escapist alternative to the ills of urban life. As Nazario showed, running away often only brings a new set of problems. Yet a Harvard study released last week showed that, as urban cores decay, suburban development continues to grow faster than ever.


City and county officials across Southern California need to agree that there is a point beyond which sprawl only drains the region’s vitality and that cutthroat competition between cities for tax revenue is counterproductive. In the web of overlapping jurisdictions that makes up Southern California, individual fates are tied to the fate of the region. Enforceable consensus must be reached at the regional level because the planning practices of outlying cities directly affect regional problems such as air quality and traffic congestion.

Some might argue this type of planning defies the desires of consumers and the invisible hand of the free market. But suburban sprawl is hardly a natural form. It was born of generous government subsidies that financed everything from highways to sewer lines. As those subsidies have dried up, residents of new communities who jumped at the prospect of cheap housing now often find themselves paying huge assessment fees to cover hidden costs such as curbs and street lights. And we all bear the intangible costs of fatigued commuters and fragmented communities.

Offering something better to our children is often cited as a reason for fleeing the city. But what do we offer our children if we never see them and the only communities they know are a succession of disposable neighborhoods?