Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Driving Home the Hidden Issue of Suburban Sprawl

The next time you see a presidential candidate walking on the street – not uncommon in our neck of the woods – do not mumble “Hello sir, good luck,” and then immediately run back to Harbin and call your parents to notify them that John Kerry looks even more French in person than he does on TV. Instead, approach the guy, place your hand on his shoulder and offer the following advice: “Sir, you must campaign to help fix a terrible problem that is threatening the entire country.”

Before he starts quoting from his latest policy paper on terrorism, tell him that you are referring to suburban sprawl. Tell him that Americans spend the equivalent of 18 days driving in their cars every year, that residential and commercial developments eat up 400,000 acres of land per year, and that the amount of acreage developed per person in this country has almost doubled in the past 20 years.

The issue of sprawl does not receive nearly the attention that it deserves – not from college students, not from community leaders and not from presidential candidates. But, it does make for one hell of a good cliche. Everybody wants to “fight sprawl,” they just don’t want to tell you how. In his plan for a cleaner environment, John Kerry claims he will “marshal all resources to reduce sprawl,” but elaborates on that in only a short, five-line paragraph. Dean, Clark and the rest of the bunch are equally vague.

Sprawl also gets the silent treatment on Georgetown’s campus, even though we Hoyas seem to acquaint ourselves with every single other issue that pertains to the world. “I always knew that Moammar had WMD.” SFS students talk about Libya as if it were right next door.

But we should pay more attention to the issues that are closer to home, which is often a Northeast suburb. (Sometimes you get the feeling that campus diversity is when a kid from North Jersey makes a new friend from South Jersey. “Dude, they’re like two totally different countries.”) Many of us live in cookie-cutter suburbs with one-acre lots and more dead squirrels on the road than pedestrians on the sidewalks – assuming sidewalks even exist.

The aesthetic faults of sprawl are bad enough; it’s just plain ugly that strip malls and mega-malls ringed by parking lots replace the tree-lined main streets of the past. But sprawl also has more profound effects. People exercise little in a car-dominated environment. Less contact among neighbors destroys the social fabric of the community. And there is a greater tax burden when municipalities must provide basic services to an ever-widening network of isolated homes.

Some basic services are nearly extinct, like public transportation. It is only in the suburbs that one must commute to the commuter train. As for children, it’s no wonder they’re increasingly addicted to television and video games. Bicycling to a friend’s house is a risky venture, what with all the speeding mothers who can’t see over the steering wheels of their new Lincoln Navigators. Gas-guzzling SUVs can mow down a Toyota Camry with such remorseless zeal that you’d think Automotive Darwinism had just become the state-sanctioned philosophy of the New Jersey Turnpike.

So what’s the answer? Not to worry, it does not involve living on a commune, dismantling the automotive industry or abolishing Wal-Mart. Instead, federal and local governments must provide the money and resources to construct more sustainable communities, where schools and parks are accessible in a short and safe walk, and public transportation is a convenient alternative that will reduce traffic. Also, rather than rely solely on the distant mall, every community should have a centrally located commercial district where local entrepreneurs have the opportunity to compete with – not replace – the corporate chains.

But the government alone cannot solve the problem. We citizens must learn to embrace more modest dwellings, putting aside the mansions and swimming pools and tennis courts. In that sense, our historic neighborhood of Georgetown is quite ahead of its time. Even if it is an enclave for the rich, at least the blue bloods are willing to forfeit massive houses and large yards for the greater sake of the community. They can walk to a wide variety of stores and restaurants, and there’s no shortage of communal park space to toss a Frisbee or walk the dog.

That’s not to say Georgetown is perfect. Public transportation is adequate but not ideal, and there is very little grassroots commercial development. Think about it: we now have two Subways, and still no Metro.

Brian Levinson is a senior in the School of Foreign Service and can be reached at levinsonthehoya.com. CAPITAL LETTERS appears every other Tuesday.

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