Photo: Northern Virginia housing near farmland

A Northern Virginia housing development encroaches on farmland. Population growth and relocation is threatening rural environments across the world.

Photograph by Sarah Leen

Written by John G. Mitchell

Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine

The American Dream has long promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of a spacious, single-family home in the suburbs (with a pool, even). But as new generations of home seekers look for breathing room in the burbs and the lands beyond, the dream has been displaced by all too familiar worlds—places plagued by traffic jams, high taxes, and pollution: the irony of urban sprawl.

Tom Spellmire lives with his mother on an 87-acre (35-hectare) farm in Turtle Creek Township, Warren County, Ohio. One county away, to the south, lies Cincinnati. One county north, Dayton. Spellmire's is a place of silos and barns and a turn-of-the-century white frame farmhouse with a green roof. Another farm or two can be seen along the road in one direction. But going the other way, after a mile or so, you begin to run out of green roofs and open fields, and what you see instead are the kinds of manicured lawns and picture windows that for half a century have signified fulfillment of the American dream.

One blustery day late last year I traveled with Tom Spellmire to see how that dream had been playing around Warren County. Harvest time was behind him then, the corn and soybeans taken in, the winter wheat planted. Crops from a homestead of 87 acres couldn't begin to pay all his taxes, so Spellmire leases 2,400 acres (970 hectares) from other landowners, though this is not as many acres as were once available to him. As we drove south, then west into an adjoining county, he could point to a subdivision (like Four Bridges) or an industrial site (Mitsubishi Electric) saying, "We used to farm all this land."

Spellmire is a tall, ruddy, intensely focused man who served on Ohio's Farmland Preservation Task Force in the 1990s. And he is not happy about the prospects for farming in Warren County. "Believe it or not," he says, "this county is promoted as having a rural character, but the zoning codes, in effect, say: 'We want to develop everything.' That's why the county is a haven for real estate developers."

When investors come, can developers be far behind? And behind the developer comes the family in search of a home in the suburbs. We drove past or through a dozen new subdivisions that day. The Meadows at Mason. Heritage Club. Hickory Woods. Simpson Creek Farms. Presently we arrived at a subdivision called Trailside Acres, featuring homes that we figured might sell for up to half a million dollars apiece. At the end of a cul-de-sac, Spellmire gestured toward a wide open field we could see in the distance beyond the slim side yards of the big houses.

"We lease that farm," he said. "We rotate corn, soybeans, and wheat on it." Then he shook his head. "And what I find so ironic is that all these people who live here look out their back windows and see this fine old farmstead. When I'm out there on the tractor, the subdivision kids are hanging over their fences, watching me. And you know what their parents say to the people who own that farm? They say, 'You're not going to sell it for development, are you? Are you?'"

An old saying has it that you can't have your cake and ea3t it too. So it would seem in the land of the manicured lawn and the picture window, the treeless cul-de-sac, the sterile shopping center, the blockbuster mall, the corporate campus, the amorphous parking lot, the clogged highway that inevitably fails to serve its desired function as soon as it is built. Yet most Americans who live among these icons of suburban growth aren't terribly troubled by them. It's the way things are, a tolerable nuisance even if the process does gobble up the land, skewer the fabric of community life, and erode the economic base of older towns and central cities. And perhaps it is tolerable to so many because it has become so familiar. After all, outward growth of this kind has been occurring in most regions of the country since the end of World War II. Region to region the scenario has almost always been the same: As a city ages, crime and other urban problems induce many of the affluent residents to move out.

Cincinnati, for example, a century and a half ago the second most populous municipality west of the Appalachians, had by the 1960s begun to hemorrhage its population into the exurbs of its own county, Hamilton. And by and by Hamilton began hemorrhaging too, into Warren and other adjacent counties.

"Why are the people leaving?" John Dowlin, a Hamilton County commissioner put the question to himself when I called on him at the county courthouse in downtown Cincinnati. "I don't think it's just a racial situation." African Americans now make up 43 percent of the city's population of 330,000. "All the polls show that the people moving out are unhappy with the public schools. And they want larger homes on larger lots. I think what we're seeing is that same old thing—people wanting a piece of the American dream."

The media and the professional planners have long had another name for it. They call it sprawl. And they have measured its imprint on the nation in a hundred and one different ways. Here are just a few of them:

  • Seventy million Americans lived in the nation's urbanized areas in 1950; these regions covered some 13,000 square miles (33,700 square kilometers). By 1990 the urban-suburban population had more than doubled, yet the area occupied by that population almost quintupled—to more than 60,000 square miles (155,000 square kilometers).
  • Phoenix, Arizona, one of the Sunbelt's fastest growing communities, has been spreading outward at the rate of an acre an hour. Atlanta, Georgia, another overachiever, boasts a metropolitan area that is already larger than the state of Delaware.
  • Sprawl is claiming farmland at the rate of 1.2 million acres (10.5 million hectares) a year. Throw in forest and other undeveloped land and, for net annual loss of open space, you're waving good-bye to more than two million acres (10.8 million hectares).
  • Sprawl keeps a person in the driver's seat. The suburban family, on average, makes ten car trips a day (keeping in mind that most families have two vehicles). A commuter living an hour's drive from work annually spends the equivalent of 12 workweeks, or 500 hours, in a car. Traffic delays rack up more than 72 billion dollars in wasted fuel and productivity.
  • So pervasive is sprawl, extremists are using it to justify their acts of ecoterrorism. Last year in suburban New York several houses and a condominium, all newly built and unoccupied, were set afire; earlier, gasoline was used to torch a luxury house for sale in Colorado.
  • By 2025 the United States will be home to nearly 63 million more people than are here today. If current trends prevail, they're going to need more than 30 million new homes. Most of those homes will be single-family, detached units built beyond the edge of today's newest suburbs. And most of the families occupying those houses will be in and out of their cars at least ten times a day.

Apart from the fact that the Great Cincinnati area today ranks high on almost anyone's list of the nation's most sprawl-threatened metropolitan regions, I suspect it was the homing instinct that brought me back to southwestern Ohio. I grew up there through the 1930s and '40s, in a quiet neighborhood only four miles (six kilometers) from downtown Cincinnati, in a house near the end of a winding sylvan street called Garden Place.

My father was in the real estate business. He developed raw land into residential subdivisions. The one I remember best was way out near what was then the far north edge of Greater Cincinnati, at a place called Mayview Forest. It really was a forest then—oaks and hickories, and big sycamores down where the West Fork of Mill Creek cut through. I loved going to that forest with my father, seeing the limestone pools in the stream and smallmouth bass in the pools and squirrels in the hickory trees. While I fished or hunted, my father drove wooden stakes into the ground at the corners of his house lots. Now Mayview is just another old subdivision, and the north edge of Greater Cincinnati is miles beyond it, rolling inexorably toward a confluence with Dayton in the once and former cornfield of Butler and Warren Counties.

"This is one of the largest and fastest growing communities in Warren County," Dan Theno was saying with a proud smile. Theno is the director of economic development and community relations for Deerfield Township. We were sitting in his office just off U.S. 22, a thoroughfare so congested at rush hour that the township trustees are begging the state for a major widening. Theno said, "We're more than 25,000 residents now. We're heading on a hundred million dollars of new development a year. We're putting up 600 new homes a year. Sure, good schools here are a primary draw. But so are jobs. We've got over 800 businesses right here in Deerfield, including some big names like Hewlett-Packard."

To illustrate how aggressively the township is inviting such growth, Theno handed me a slick 24-page special advertising section that appeared in Cincinnati Magazine. Describing Deerfield as a "township for tomorrow," the promotional copy reflected Dan Theno's enthusiasm for the way Greater Cincinnati has expanded into this corner of Warren County. "Where rolling fields of corn once flourished," the lead article declared, "businesses and residential communities have sprouted seemingly overnight, providing jobs and housing for the Tristate population as it moves north…"

But not everyone in southern Warren County feels as cheerful as Dan Theno—or, for that matter, as threatened as Tom Spellmire, the farmer. Over in Mason, I turned into a subdivision cul-de-sac to visit the home of Jim and Helen Fox, neither of whom believes that growth necessarily means progress. Jim Fox was born and raised in Mason and is now the city's vice-mayor. Helen Fox is co-founder of a small grassroots group called Balance, which seeks to put a brake on the way Mason and Deerfield have been growing.

"Every other day there was a story in the newspaper," Helen Fox said, explaining what motivated her to get active. "Traffic snarls one day, schools can't keep up the next—800 new students projected for Mason every year for the foreseeable future. And the day after that it's something else. So rather than get sick about it, we decided—Hey! What can we try to do to slow down this runaway train?"

We sat in the kitchen over coffee. The vice-mayor was away at work. She explained that the mission for Balance was just getting out the word about sprawl and maybe finding the funds to buy up a few of the green spaces remaining. "But let's be realistic," she said." "We're not going to change Mason now. It's so far along. I just hope it's not too late to make other parts of Warren County see what's happening so that they can become more thoughtful about how they want to grow in the future."

The urge to move on lies entrenched in most Americans. It is a kind of cultural impulse, as one historian has defined it, "to withdraw from the great world and begin a new life in a fresh, green landscape." Here is the tired city, out there the fresh country, the pastoral Jeffersonian ideal, the sort of place where that fellow Thoreau built a hut and grew beans, far from the townies living lives of quiet desperation.

So begins the succession from country to suburban to sprawl.

Contrary to popular opinion, the suburb was not an invention of the 20th century. By the late 1800s suburbs galore—rural communities brought closer to the urban workplace by the moving miracles of streetcars and steam—ringed most of the older cities in the East. If Boston could have its Concord, then Manhattan would have the Bronx and Staten Island too. After the Civil War there were even a few new communities designed specifically for suburban living. One of the first was Riverside, Illinois, straddling a rail line nine miles west of the Chicago Loop. Laid out by the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and his parkmaking partner Calvert Vaux, Riverside would become what one Olmstead biographer described as an "agreeable" community, "knit in upon itself by curving streets, a place apart but in the convenient reach of a great city."

With Chicago's Riverside as an inspiration, if not a model, the great cities reached out to enlarge or establish other convenient and agreeable places apart—Scarsdale and Swarthmore and Shaker Heights, and Mariemont, right there on the eastern flank of Cincinnati.

At the end of World War II the United States faced an acute shortage of housing and promptly declared war on that. Loan programs previously created under the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration encouraged the development of single-family, detached houses in the suburbs. And the secret to that effort was the guaranteed fixed-interest mortgage, which in many cases made it cheaper to buy a house than to rent an apartment.

By most accounts nothing moved the suburbs so efficiently towards sprawl as a certain stroke of President Dwight Eisenhower's pen, signing into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which launched a 41,000-mile (66,000-kilometer) interstate highway system. Among other things, the interstates would grease the skids for commerce, industry, and a burgeoning roster of fast-food emporiums to roll off the exit ramps into a countryside previously reserved for corn. And it was thought at the time that the interstates would facilitate the evacuation of central cities in the event that our Cold War nemesis might post an intercontinental ballistic missile into city hall. Voilà! A warhead did explode, but it wasn't nuclear. It was sprawl.

One of the most congested peripheral corridors in the nation is the stretch of Greater Cincinnati's own beltway, I-275, as it brushes the topside of Hamilton County to scoop up I-75 from Dayton and I-71 from Columbus before sending them on their converging way to and through inner neighborhoods of the central city. From his Turtle Creek farmhouse north of the beltway Tom Spellmire can get to either of these interstates in less than 20 minutes. That fact alone may explain why, given the bracketing proximity of three superhighways, Warren County is on such a roll, and why Tom Spellmire's farming future isn't.

You'd never guess it from the looks of Great Cincinnati and most other metropolitan regions around the country, but there is an alternative to mindless sprawl. Some people call it smart growth.

Smart growth rests on the assumption that we can curb sprawl by building better kinds of new communities, by fixing up and filling in the old ones, by finding better ways to get people out of at least some of their cars, and by going out into the countryside to preserve large tracts of open space before the developers can pave them. This is one tall order, and only time will tell to what extent it can be filled.

One measure of how the nation might be willing to tackle the smart-growth agenda is the ballot box. Last November referenda authorizing bonds or tax increases to pay for land conservation, neighborhood redevelopment, or mass transit passed overwhelmingly; voters said yes to seven of every ten growth-related initiatives in state and local elections. And in Ohio voters approved a 400-million-dollar measure for redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites and—good news for Tom Spellmire—farmland and green space preservation.

Smart growth advocates looking for further encouragement or inspiration are likely to turn to the one state that has managed better than any other to put a brake on runaway sprawl. That state is Oregon. And the man who designed the brake was its governor from 1967 to 1975, Tom McCall.

Early on, McCall ordered a study of land use patterns in the crop-rich Willamette Valley. Among other things, the study found that in the 1960s Clackamas County lost 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares) of farmland to development flowing outward from Portland. Oregon, said McCall, was under siege from a "buffalo-hunter mentality" inserting "cancerous cells of unmentionable ugliness into our rural landscape." The legislature agreed and enacted a law mandating urban-growth boundaries for Oregon's 240 cities. Development was to be contained inside the boundaries. Outside the boundaries, farmland and forestland were to be protected by zoning, the minimum lot size set at 80 acres (32 hectares).

As a result of the rural zoning program, some 25 million acres (10 million hectares) of privately owned farmland and forestland are now shielded from sprawl throughout the state. There's no way you can make a subdivision out of houses on 80-acre lots.

"Oregonians hate two things," Mike Burton was saying. "They hate sprawl. And they hate density." Burton is the executive officer of Metro, Portland's metropolitan planning agency and the nation's first (and, so far, only) popularly elected land-use regional government. Metro oversees land-use plans and the urban-growth boundary that encompasses 24 cities, including Portland, in the three-county region. So when Burton speaks of people hating both sprawl and density, he is simply putting a spin on that impossible human urge to have it both ways. Obviously, to avoid hateful sprawl outside, density somewhat less hateful must be accommodated inside the urban-growth boundary.

And yet today there isn't a whole lot to dislike about Portland. It is a handsome, tight little city of some 529,000 people (up from 366,000 in 1980) tucked into the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers; its downtown, pedestrian friendly; its residential areas growing up rather than out; its growth in transit use outpacing its increase in auto use. Its open spaces range from Forest Park, at nearly 5,000 acres (3,000 hectares) the largest woodland park within any city in the United States, to a river-front greenway named in honor of the late Tom McCall.

Some critics, mostly homebuilders, content that Portland's growth boundary is riddled with flaws, that it hasn't been as flexible as the law intended, that it has raised housing prices substantially. But defenders of the system say it's the region's hot high-tech economy that's inflating the housing market. And even with that, they say, it is still less expensive to live in Portland than in San Francisco or Los Angeles, which do not have urban-growth boundaries.

From downtown Portland I rode the MAX (the Metropolitan Area Express aboveground light-rail system) out to the western suburbs to take a peek at a place I'd been hearing a lot about, a place called Orenco Station. MAX has 33 miles (53 kilometers) of light-rail track, and the idea at Metro is to use MAX as a magnet for new residential and commercial development, all within the growth boundary and all within walking distance of a light-rail station. Orenco is one of those stations.

From the station the walk to the town center is a long quarter mile. You have the feeling, as you approach across an open field, that you are about to enter a village stylishly snatched from the 19th century. There are cottages and bungalows and Main Street shops with bay windows. When the community's 200 acres (81 hectares) are fully developed, there will be 1,800 units of mixed housing types, including home-office town houses, lofts, and rental apartments.

But just as there are those who would criticize Portland for being less than perfect, so can one also hear groans that Orenco and other so-called new urbanist experiments are simply attempts to disguise America's flight to the suburbs with a new suit of clothes.

Over the years, I became addicted to reading the country through an airplane window. It is a habit I acquired before jet engines took us higher and faster than propellers could, before we began to lose, for any number of unearthly reasons, the visibility one would expect from a cloudless sky. Still, the visibility was pretty good the last time a jetliner lifted me out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. I could see the gleaming office towers down in the Loop and the big blue lake and the suburbs sprawling north. The suburbs looked gray.

I had been down there where the gray begins to get green a day or two before, to check out another new railside community called Prairie Crossing. This one is a bit different from Oregon's mixed-use Orenco Station. This one features roomy frame houses with rocking chair porches clustered around or within more than 350 acres (142 hectares) of open space, including an organic farm, a swimmable lake, a restored prairie, and—in place of the concrete gutters and detention basins of a conventional development—a network of grassy swales and cattail marshes to filter the storm-water runoff.

Once upon a time the acres at Prairie Crossing might have been developed with conventional homes and non-native landscaping. But along came Victoria and George Ranney, Jr., with a better idea. Victoria is a conservation and cultural activist who edited a volume of the papers of Frederick Law Olmstead and who appears to see the land through Olmsteadian eyes. George Ranney is president of Chicago Metropolis 2020, a group of business and civic leaders seeking to make some regional sense out of the chaos of Greater Chicago's 1,200 disjointed political jurisdictions.

Among the Ranneys' guiding principles for Prairie Crossing is a statement on economic and racial diversity. It holds that "a mix of incomes and races is essential to the future of our society" and expresses an intent to keep prices down "so that some homes will be within the range of families needing affordable housing." Several African-American families have purchased homes in Prairie Crossing, and the community has done far better on the racial diversity scorecard than many of its neighboring subdivisions. Its homes, however, sell in the range of $270,000 to $428,000—hardly affordable to lower- and middle-income families.

When the Ranneys pursued the economic side of their diversity principle and presented a plan that included garage apartments, they hit a stone wall. Officials in Grayslake, Illinois, with permitting authority over Prairie Crossing, resisted the idea of any apartments. So did some of the Crossing's own residents, fearing that apartments might lower the value of their homes. And perhaps there was something else, some kind of unspoken distress, a glimpse through that crack that has never been fixed in the picture window of the American dream: the dread of living next door to a cultural stranger, to a person of noticeably lesser means.

I was mulling the issue of affordable housing as the plane from O'Hare began its wide turn east toward the lake. I was thinking of how, all too often in cities like Chicago and Cincinnati, efforts to make over the inner-ring neighborhoods only reduce what little affordable housing there is. A renovated brownstone downtown may look good to the empty nester who is sick of life in the suburbs. But where does the dislocated downtowner of lesser means go when he cannot afford to buy into that gentrified brownstone? Move to a new subdivision in the suburbs? Can't often afford that. Besides, most new subdivisions don't want him.

In my earlier peregrinations through Deerfield Township and Mason, Ohio—those booming communities and the 800 businesses strung out between the bracketing interstate highways—I had heard that the lack of affordable housing was beginning to take its toll. I remembered one of Helen Fox's colleagues telling me that the folks in the trophy homes weren't taking the low-paying jobs. "You go into the supermarket and stand in line behind a dozen people," said Tracy Mollitors. "And why? The store can't hire enough cashiers to man the empty checkout slots. You see 'Help Wanted' signs all over the place."

Officials in Warren County say that they are beginning to address the problem of affordable housing. In the meantime a consortium of funding partners including the federal government has decided to subsidize JobBus, an expanded reverse commute services that buses hundreds of workers from downtown Cincinnati to Deerfield and Mason to fill the low-paying jobs the locals don't want.

And then, as my jetliner flew out over Lake Michigan, Chicago's unofficial but effective urban growth boundary, I remembered George Ranney saying, "Sooner or later it has to come. People have to live closer to their jobs. We've simply got to have housing that's affordable to the workforce where it works."

Then I heard another voice. It was Tracy Mollitors', speaking to my memory of our meeting in a kitchen in Mason, Ohio. I had asked her where this national experience called sprawl was going to end. And she said, "End? Why there's no end in sight, the way it's going. We just keep moving farther and farther out until one of these days we'll all be rubbing elbows. All the way across America."

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