The Environmental Protection Hustle

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No one likes ticky-tacky houses spread all over the landscape and invading the suburbs, least of all the people who already live there. But are environmentalists and suburbanites right when they object? Bernard Frieden, Professor of Urban Planning at MIT, doesn't think so. At least not when their objections take the form that they have in northern California. In this lively and certainly controversial book, Frieden uncovers a powerful, ideologically driven crusade to keep the average citizen from homeownership ...
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Overview

No one likes ticky-tacky houses spread all over the landscape and invading the suburbs, least of all the people who already live there. But are environmentalists and suburbanites right when they object? Bernard Frieden, Professor of Urban Planning at MIT, doesn't think so. At least not when their objections take the form that they have in northern California. In this lively and certainly controversial book, Frieden uncovers a powerful, ideologically driven crusade to keep the average citizen from homeownership and the good life in the suburbs. Written in the best tradition of civic reform, Frieden's observations are a warning signal to environmentalists, whose concerns may backfire, and to homebuilders and the general public in other parts of the country where projects for urban growth may soon run up against the protectionist's blockade.

In a series of case studies involving Marin County, Alameda, Oakland, Palo Alto, San Mateo County, and Contra Costa Couny, Frieden carefully documents instances where builders and developers attempting to construct new housing have found themselves harassed by a network of environmental regulations, public officials, and citizen crusaders. The no-growth tactics of these groups include placing land in agricultural preserves, raising the minimum lot size for single family houses, declaring moratoria on new water and sewer connections, setting explicit growth quotas, and charging thousands of dollars in public utilities "hookup" fees for each new house. Eyewitness accounts throughout the book recreate the noisy and contentious atmosphere of community meetings with developers and planning commissions.

Frieden asserts that the connections between housing and serious environmental issues such as pollution, use of toxic substances, nuclear testing hazards, and the conservation of natural resources are few and minor. The attack on homebuilding does not follow from the central concerns of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups but stretches the environmental agenda to phony issues—issues that have been used Marin-County style to legitimize arrogant public policies designed to keep the average citizen from using the land, while preserving the social and fiscal advantages of the influential few.

Middle-class citizens are in fact being hustled. The environmental controversies Frieden documents have already discouraged large, planned-unit developments with community open space, driven up the cost of housing, and promoted a return to 1950's style building practices of expensive freestanding single-family homes, each on its own lot in small, exclusive developments at the urban fringe.

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Meet the Author

Bernard J. Frieden is Class of 1942 Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT and Chairman of the MIT Faculty.
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