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Polis Report

Don't Call It Sprawl

By Michael Learmonth

In the mid-1950s, as cookie-cutter housing developments, wide boulevards and cul-de-sacs began consuming vast acres in the South Bay's sleepy agricultural communities, a movement was born.

Fueled by prestigious universities, elite public opinion, books with titles like, The Split-Level Trap and The Crack in the Picture Window and a report titled "Hell Is a Suburb," the anti-growth movement attacked what it saw as wasteful land use in the suburbs and attached to it a powerful name that persists to this day: sprawl.

Webster's New World Dictionary defines "sprawl" as "to spread out in an awkward or uneven way, especially so as to take up more space than is necessary." But it has come to be used most often to describe low-density suburban development of the type most prevalent in Silicon Valley.

In response to distaste for "sprawl" (not to mention aversion to taxes), California built the most restrictive development laws in the nation--despite the overwhelming preference in what Rush Limbaugh calls "fly-over country" for the two-car garage and backyard barbecue.

To the rescue comes the reliably conservative think-tank Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, which issued a new report titled "Preserving the American Dream." Funded, predictably, by assorted home builders and banks, the report attacks the "sprawl" stigma, arguing that suburbs benefit the economy and honor consumer choice. In fact, they say, more than 80 percent of Americans surveyed expressed a desire to live in a "non-urban" area. They also coin a more "neutral" if leaden term they hope will usher in a new era of feeling good about low-density living: "discontinuous development." That's a mouthful. Not like the vague onomatopoeia of "sprawl." The developers have money, but it looks like the no-growthers still have poetry on their side.

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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