Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the rise of American Environmentalism, 2001

Following World War II, America experienced an explosion in post war building that sought to meet the constrained housing needs of the country. The government and private developers hoped to create “a nation of homeowners” in which “tract housing would help lay the foundation for a booming mass consumption economy.” (3) The problem arose as mass production “greatly intensified the environmental impact of housing” (3). The leveling of hills, filling of creaks, and clearing of vegetation set in motion a process of environmental degradation that only became worse as use of septic takes and the abandoning of regional building traditions exacerbated the already damaging ecological trends. Rome begins with the proliferation of mass produced housing but continues through to the mid-1970s illustrating how local and state governments, responding to ad-hoc concerns of residents over environmental damages and health risks created by new building techniques and approaches. Rome describes the shift from conservation to environmentalism, explaining the similarities and differences while exploring how municipal, state and federal governments responded to mounting evidence of environmental degradation.

The shift towards mass produced housing had a great deal to do with a consumer based economy, representations of homeownership, and government policies. The rise of advertising in the 1920s led to the proliferation of images that promoted the home as a device for capital accumulation and central to national identity, “By 1945, the single family home with full complement of consumer goods had become the most common image of “the American way of life.” War rhetoric conflating consumerism with patriotism abetted such developments. Yet the image of mass consumer culture could only become reality with mass production of housing. (37) Thus, the combination of a real housing shortage with widespread representation of the suburban home as the ideal contributed to a growing housing infrastructure that included federal agencies like the HOLC and FHA, quasi-public finance entities such as Fannie May, and legislation like the 1949 Housing Act that signaled to a growing private industry that mass housing needed to be constructed. Moreover, the FHA allowed for consumer household appliances to be insured as well, “Eventually, the electrical industry persuaded the FHA to insure purchases of smaller appliances, including vacuum cleaners.” (38)

Before and during WWII, energy conservation had emerged as a real force in home building. Wartime restrictions contributed to its goals, leading to an interest in solar housing that persisted through the early 1950s. However, lower energy costs, lobbying from builders and consumer industries, and the end of war time rationing impacted the debate over how best to heat and cool homes, “The postwar economic boom brought the first taste of affluence to millions of Americans, and the conservation ideal soon ran up against a powerful desire to enjoy pleasures that once seemed extravagant or simply inconceivable for working class families. The advocates of energy efficient housing faced competition too from corporate leaders with very different visions of the future.” (47) The shift toward mass produced housing meant constructing them had gone from craft to industry, as result regional styles and building techniques for cooling/heating homes became obsolete. Consumer appliances tied to this new housing functioned to cool and heat homes, significantly increasing the energy demands of the nation. Here Rome criticizes the conservation movement for failing to frame its importance, using a defense posture rather than a more proactive approach that promoted conservation “as a way to reduce air pollution from fossil fuel use.” (47) Electrical utilities saw value in promoting “electrical heat” seeing the homebuilding craze as pure profit. Corporations like General Electric and Westinghouse found profits in selling “electric heating units; the use of electric heat led to increased demand for a variety of household appliances, including air conditioners; and the overall growth of the power industry meant a growing market for electrical generating equipment, which the companies also manufactured.” (75) According to Rome, the fundamental support for a consumer based environmentalism failed to establish strong roots in the decades immediately after the war. Cheap fossil fuels, post war affluence emphasizing consumerism, and the compromise many first time buyers made with themselves and the building industry all resulted in a “dramatic increase in energy consumption.” (86) Here one of Rome’s key insights relates the compromise struck by first time homeowners and the well off, “”the well to do were often drawn to homes designed to provide a new closeness with nature – yet they also wanted a host of high energy comforts and conveniences. Working class homebuyers often wanted homes that cost less to heat and cool – yet, as the price of homeownership, they had to accept places with little protection against the extremes of climate.” (86)

As developers and builders expanded outward, developments (i.e. subdivisions and the like) not connected to municipal infrastructures such as sewage and waste disposal grew. The use of septic tanks in the 1940s and 1950s proliferated, however, their frequent failures not only caused environmental damage but also financial costs for the homeowner, federal government, and taxpayers since the FHA and VA insured homes with such disposal systems. If in the 1940s and 50s, these failures evoked responses focusing on “the matter of protecting private investments and public health hazards” by the 1970s the role of septic tanks in tainting drinking water led to the idea that the tanks themselves were only one “part of a vast environmental crisis that threatened the well being of many creatures and not just humans.” (89) By the mid 1960s, the federal government took three notable steps. First, HUD “changed the rules governing federal aid to homebuilders in order to prevent the use of septic tanks in large subdivisions … Second, the government subsidized suburban sewer construction … Third, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act required states to draw up plans for controlling pollutants from nonpoint sources, including backyard waste disposal systems.” (112) Though HUD’s rules did not require states to implement plans, it encouraged states to enact their own laws regarding septic tanks (some states had already done so). Several more created their own environmental protection agencies.

Some of the first protests to erupt against unplanned mass suburban development arose through the “open space” movement. The strength of the “open space” movement lay in its appeal to three different lines of argument that appealed to a wide arrange of individuals and organizations, “The open space activists made three kinds of arguments. In the words of the time, one was a “conservation” argument. Another argument, essentially aesthetic, focused on “amenity”. The third argument dealt with “outdoor recreation”.” (123) If “open space” advocates failed to immediately demand government regulation they eventually came to such a conclusion by the 1960s as rising ecological awareness drew environmentalists and open space proponents together, “the emergence of a popular ecological consciousness strengthened the conservation argument for open space. At the same time, the campaign for open space increased the range of support for the environmental cause.” (151) Still, the failure of the “open space” movement to stop development led many supporters to conclude that the responsibilities and rights accorded property ownership must be redefined while others developed a heightened sense of America’s environmental irresponsibility.

The influence of geographers, environmentalists, civil engineers, and architects along with a growing awareness of ecological environmentalism led to critiques of not only what developers built but where as well, “in the decades after World War II, developers built to unprecedented extent on wetlands, steep slopes, and floodplains, and in time construction of tract housing on all three kinds of land became controversial.” (154) Moreover, this awareness reconceptualized areas and land types previously thought to be marginal such as wetlands, “the new ecological understanding directly countered the oldest image of wetlands – the swamp as wasteland. In a time when Americans were obsessed with the growth of gross national product, the very word, “productivity” also conveyed a powerful message. The marsh was efficient, amazingly productive, abundant – in other words, the marsh was a miniature of the United States. It was already a highly evolved community and so it did not need to be “developed”. Instead, the marsh should be admired and applauded.” (161) Critics marshaled admonishments of both planners and conservationists as “each group had failed to respond to the environmental challenge posed by urban growth.” (185) For example, landscape architect, planner, and University of Pennsylvania Professor Ian McHarg (who coined the term “natural processes which became part of the “lexicon” of planning; he also was critical of “the ideology of development”, planners, and builders) noted the conservation movement focused too much on the defense position of preservation, “To stop the despoliation of the countryside, he concluded conservationists needed to widen their field of concern ‘to include, not only wild environments, but those dominated by man’” (185) Critics like McHarg lamented the influence of “economic determinism” on homebuilding and the environment. Land was not just a commodity. McHarg’s arguments and those of others illustrate the burgeoning influence of ecological concerns regarding suburban development and the role of public ownership.

Many of Rome’s federal examples suggest that leaders remained reluctant to actually regulate development. The efforts and agencies Rome highlights often depend on the voluntary cooperation of local municipalities and industries. For example, three federal natural resource agencies – the Geological Survey, The Fish and Wild Life Service and the Soil Conservation Service – failed to create or enforce regulations but instead “To varying degrees … all three organizations saw the postwar growth of cities and suburbs as a challenge. Though none had the power to regulate homebuilding, all sought to improve the process by providing important information to citizens, builders, and local officials.” (191) These agencies seemed to take McHarg’s criticisms seriously, melting the urban rural divide noting the connections between the two required federal guidance or assistance. Public pressures accelerated this realization as by the late 1960s, many citizens encouraged the Fish and Wild Life Service to assume a larger role. Notably pressure came from metropolitan residents who wanted to enjoy the great outdoors unspoiled by the very suburban developments in which many resided while conservationists applied their own influences in order to protect endangered species. The Fish and Wild Life Service’s 1968 conference “Man and Nature in the City” helped to “encourage debates about the ecological impact of urbanization” which in turn contributed to a redefining of “the agenda for wildlife managers and researchers”. (216) While the three aforementioned agencies lacked a “holistic” view that environmentalists promoted, the three agencies’ efforts “emboldened activists and policy makers.” (219)

Still, the lack of a holistic view illustrates the very problems government and civil society encountered when trying to prevent future difficulties. Responses too often arose in ad-hoc manner, failing to connect the larger ecological, environmental, and urbanizing processes that led to the very problems, all involved hoped to eliminate. However, by the 1970s policymakers and activists began to grasp the larger connections and set course to redefine land use and its accompanying ethic. Even Nixon, though his real commitment to such has been questioned by scholars most recently by Bruce Schulman in The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics, addressed this dilemma promising a new administrative infrastructure to deal with such environmental concerns. States such as Hawaii, Vermont and Maine were the first to enact land use limits, but were followed by others afterward. State courts began rethinking property rights and responsibilities, “To protect the health and welfare of the public, the government had the right to limit ‘the use of private property to its natural uses’.” (235) The attempt to pass the National Land Use Policy Act represents a legislative shift toward such developments. All this is not to say everyone applauded environmental sensibilities. Property rights “sparked grassroots activism” against land use regulations seeing such legislation as an attempt to undermine the “institution of private property.” (244-5). Of course some of this activism found support from industries and trade organizations that saw such efforts as potentially damaging for their economic well being. The ideological aspect of land regulation law drew the most vociferous participation as “dissenters argued the that the trend toward public control over the use of private property threatened the American system of free enterprise and individual liberty.” (246) The combined national and local efforts of various groups enabled the rejection of the National Land Use Act but failed to stop future environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, all of which strengthened the ability of federal agencies to “regulate land use”. Moreover, the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 found safe passage and “provided federal assistance to states willing to control land use on the nation’s coasts.” (247) Though the federal government failed to pass land use acts, state land use laws increased. However, by the mid-1970s, many businesses and others felt environmental legislation created too significant an economic burden and resulted in palpable social costs. As well, environmentalists erred in their conflation of land use with pollution. Property rights emerged as potent force in the anti-environmentalist backlash, “Indeed the threat to property rights became a powerful rallying cry for opponents of environmentalism in the decades to come, and the property rights activists of the 1980s and 1990s often drew on arguments first used against the National Land Use Policy Act in the early 1970s, especially the attack on the “new feudalism”” (250). Clearly, land use meant different things to different people.

The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism illustrates the development of a national ecologically aware environmental movement spurred on by the environmental problems that arose from urban- and suburbanization. Federal efforts initiated the problem with support for wide scale tract housing and the subsidizing of electrical and consumer industries through FHA home insurance. As environmental problems emerged various civic groups and organizations pressured local and state governments to enact some sort of legislation. Though the Federal government slowly developed regulations, most lacked the strength of enforceable law. However, government efforts encouraged activists to craft an ecologically aware environmentalism that could hold sustained dialogue with policymakers. By the same token, these efforts met with resistance by homeowners appropriating the ideal of private property and freedom and businesses concerned about financial costs.

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