Read an Excerpt
In 1960, one of the most popular songs in America was a simple folk song by a group called The Brothers Four. Its opening lines evoked a youthful, sentimental memory of the best of the American landscape:
Once there were greenfields, kissed by the sunIn large part, this book is the story of what has happened to America's greenfields in the four decades since the haunting rhythms and minor chords of this song filled our nation's radio airwaves.
Once there were valleys where rivers used to run
Once there were blue skies with white clouds high above
Once they were part of an everlasting love...1
This is also a story about the so-called "American Dream." It is about astonishing rates of growth and about progress and prosperity, all of which are good and all of which we salute. It is about the United States of America at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and about our country's expanding population and economy.
But our story is also about the Dream's nightmarish twists. It is not so much about good, smart growth as it is about, to put it bluntly, dumb growth. It is about landscapes lost, traffic congested, air and water polluted, public health endangered, and a potential energy crisis that could make those of the 1970s look mild by comparison. It is about how nearly all of the incredible, positive strides forward that we have taken in improving our environmental quality could be overwhelmed if we do not change the way we grow.
Our story is also about economic waste, rising taxes, and unfair burdens that dumb growth places on taxpayers and governments. And it is about the consequences for those left behind as we place more and more of our investment and energy in new places-in our vanishing "greenfields"-rather than in the places where people already live.
Most of all, it is a story about our cities, the regions that surround them, and the people who live in these cities and regions. It is about Chicago and Cleveland and Fresno, and about Loudoun County in Virginia and the Willamette Valley in Oregon. It is about what is happening in these places and to their inhabitants, as we expand our reach ever-outward much faster than we are growing in population. It is about our houses and our yards and our workplaces and our stores and our schools, most of which are good, and where we have been putting them, most of which is not.
Ours is not, however, a story about villains. The only perpetrators are ourselves and frankly, we have allowed this to happen only because, until now, we have known no better.
Nor is our story about nostalgia. We are twenty-first century environmentalists. We seek progress, not retreat. We seek a future for our great regions and for our children that with smarter growth will be more prosperous as well as more environmentally sustainable and socially equitable than our present blind dumb path. We believe that this brighter dream is well within our reach.
This book is organized into five principal chapters. First, we describe the basic facts and trends that constitute our current patterns of growth. Second, we discuss what these patterns have meant and threaten to continue to mean for our environmental resources including air and energy, land, and water. Our third chapter discusses the fiscal costs of inefficient development, and our fourth describes the social consequences of development patterns that ignore existing communities. Finally, we conclude on an optimistic note, presenting some examples and strategies that we believe hold promise for a more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable future.
Our narrative is intended not only to tell this story but also to constitute a reference volume, presenting interested readers with a range of collected data and information, as well as citations to a larger body of research. Our hope is that, by organizing the various findings contained in what others have written about this subject, we can help readers bridge the gap between broader books about sprawl, which make a compelling case but do not always provide detailed annotations, and academic reports and other more focused pieces of writing that detail parts of the story but do not attempt to illuminate the whole. We are not academics, and we acknowledge that we have come to this project with a point of view; but we have investigated the facts, and we are firm in our conviction that the problems we raise are real and serious.
In sum, we intend this book to present the factual case why we should care about the way we grow, along with some ways that we might do better. Now, in pursuit of a brighter American dream, we begin our story.
1 "Greenfields," words and music by Terry Gilkyson, Richard Dehr, and Frank Mille, copyright 1956 by Blackwood Music, Inc. "Greenfields" was released on the album The Brothers Four in 1959 and reached number one on the popular music charts in 1960. It has been reissued on Greatest Hits, by The Brothers Four, Columbia Records CK-8603.