Friday Roundup: ‘Sprawl’ is the N-Word for Suburbanites

My favorite attorney, Robert Guest, talks about how bad zoning contributes to DWI. And I agree.


Robert rightly notes that drinking and driving is not a crime as long as you’re not intoxicated — yes, MADD, you can drink and drive and people do it every day and do it safely. That’s an important distinction few in the media make when parroting the MADD fundamentalist line.

But then Robert equates bad zoning — separating residential and retail use so that you can’t have a neighborhood bar or neighborhood market in an actual neighborhood — with the word “sprawl.”

Zoning is what happens within a municipality. “Sprawl” is the n-word urban yokels use to criticize suburbs and exurbs. Like drinking and intoxication, that’s two different things.

I like “sprawl.” Or, “s-word growth” as we cool people say.

Sprawl means growth with lower costs, allowing more choices and less crowding. It means more diversity of both living space type and a wider market of municipal governments to choose from. I know, like white guys in the 1950s thought of black guys, you untraveled urbanites think all suburbs look the same.

Sprawl means I have a choice and don’t have to live in a rundown DISD school system, or under a city government that has zero sense of fiscal responsibility, or under a police department that pulls drivers out of closed windows (hi Garland PD) for failing to use a turn signal.

Sprawl also means I don’t have to be packed like a sardine in hip, trendy, poor-quality multifamily housing built on top of light rail stations used by homeless people as open-air urinals, by DISD students as aftermarket car part shopping, and by commuter trains that no one rides. Or spend $1.2 million for a 1950s home smaller than my garage and still in a crap school district.

So, love you Robert, but let’s leave the S-word with the bigots and control freaks who invented it, and come up with something better.

Is “Tribe of Danger and Excellence” taken?


  1. Robert Guest says:

    I was inspired to discuss Sprawl while watching a public tv broadcast in my Austin hotel room Saturday nite. The show chronicled how sprawl was destroying Cleveland. I wasn’t sold on that point, big government, corruption, high taxes etc, also make people want to move.

    The show made one point that stuck; sprawling suburbs and exurbs have infrastructure costs (roads utilities) that are borne by the public, so the cost effectiveness of sprawling may be understated. Sprawl also depends on our federal highway system, which is another subsidy for the spread out/automobile lifestyle.

    Now, I accept that the producers of this show had a “smart growth” agenda. That doesn’t mean all sprawl opposition need be borne out of a socialist utopian ideals.

    I haven’t thoroughly researched the issue, but I am open to the idea that sprawl is not as low cost and free market as I once assumed.

    It’s hard not to discuss sprawl without entering the most libertarian of all debates over whether public roads should be privatized. It makes sense, we subsidize our automobile culture with federal highway slush fund money, this creates exteranilities that otherwise wouldn’t exist. That’s a choice we should reconsider.

    What am I for? Less zoning, less federal funding of well.. pretty much everything, and a debate over whether there are alternatives to our War on DWI that don’t involve the police state.

  2. “Sprawl” is a double edged sword. While the new development that has consumed Plano farmland has undoubtedly been boon to landowners, let’s not forget that development most commonly follows the asphalt arteries of street and freeway development. Urban arteries that rest on the original sin of eminent domain.

  3. Nathan says:

    A few thoughts:

    1.) Trey is correct in saying that many urban dwellers use a very condescending tone when speaking of the suburbs. With this post, Trey has stooped down to their level by over-exaggerating the homeless situation, making broad generalizations about DISD students, and basing his perceptions of the city on isolated incidents that could happen anywhere – including Frisco (i.e. Garland cop).

    2.) Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the suburbs, there are more, not less, zoning rules than there are in the city. In the city you can have a small house, a mid-rise apartment building, and a twenty story office tower all in one area – Lower McKinney, for example. In the burbs, this is not the case. Especially in communities like Frisco and Southlake, suburbs have strict rules that regulate everything from building setbacks, to height restrictions, to property usage. And don’t think about running a business out of your house, or having a yard sale in a nice suburb. You might find yourself cross with the city’s code enforcement gestapo.

    3.) The suburbs require more eminent domain for highways and water reservoirs. Suburban “freedom” and affordability requires using the coercive arm of the state to seize private land from somebody else.

    4.) The reason why Dallas is controlled by the Democrats, why it is building a publicly owned hotel, and why it is pushing a boondoogle of a transportation project is because citizens and voters who advocate for limited government, like Trey, have fled to the suburbs.

    Of course DART, DISD, and the Trinity River Project are funded largely through federal pork, and people in Collin County sure pay a hell of a lot more in income tax than the majority of Dallas County residents, so I guess the joke’s on the suckers who are footing the bill. Am I right? Suburbanites can run and hide in the hills all day long to escape the dirty public transit, aging houses, and awful, urban schools. But when it comes time to vote, the gates of Rome are closed to all but those who live within its walls.

    And the Romans, through the power and authority of the federal government, will take what belongs to the suburbanites if they want it. The suburbanites cannot out vote the Romans. We’ve seen time and time again, when the people elect conservative leaders, they turn out to be anything but and immediately expand the role of government. The suburbanites cannot revolt by refusing to pay taxes, for Rome will take their property by force. Nor may they revolt with weapons, for Rome’s army will silence them.

    But look on the bright side, when your house is siezed to make room for the new Cowboy’s stadium in 2039, you’ll be able to take shelter in the less than brand new Dallas Convention Hotel – four star luxury at government prices!

  4. Great points all, gentlemen, especially where you corrected me.

  5. Tom says:

    Trey’s points are valid, and, as usual, I respectfully disagree.
    That’s why he’s free to live in Plano, and I’m free to live in Midway Hollow. Different sprawls (or lack thereof) for different folks.
    I wish the area’s cities and counties would work together to solve some of these issues. Mass transit, utilities and charity hospitals would all benefit from better cooperation and less finger-pointing and stereotyping. We’ve got too many NIMBYs around these parts.

  6. Then Tom comes along and ruins a beautiful moment…

  7. Rawlins Gilliland says:

    I agree with anyone on this howvere makes anyone happy of for that matter mad. Sprawl is like beauty; in the eyes of the beholder. But, with no dog in this hunt whatsoever, consider that today’s escapist sprawl is tomorrow’s crowded inclusion as anyone old enough to have seen what happened to the world north of Northwest Hwy and later north of LBJ/ Beltline which only a few decades ago was rural and laid back ‘get away from it all’ sanctuaries.

    And as for ‘Don’t tread on me’ federal subsidied infrastrutures? No less than any orbit, what goes around comes back to bite you. In this century, w/o mass transit (which is bound to…no less than highways involve federal funds)…, when the cities are too crowded to drive everywhere and park routinely, and the cost of gas too high to regularly commute, who is going to be glad they got ‘away from it all’?

    I think the trick is to go wherever one needs when they are raising children and/or send them wherever you feel best,. Then buy an easy maintenence sizable piece of wooded land with a house off the beaten path with low taxes. Then relax knowing that the only thing worse than a city… poorly run and struggling with its growth … is an adjacent area that is ultimately dependent upon it, sucked into its vortex while in the next stages said satillites benefitting not otherwise from its proximity.

  8. Don says:

    Bob, I’m seeing toxic mortgages created by by credit debt obligation-backed securities all over Dallas, “luxury” apartment complexes which are rented by those folks you seem to pick on. It is everywhere. By the way, TARP is not measured in trillions (784 billion) – trillions are for all the stuff that has happened _since_ TARP.

    The sad fact is, no one wants to deal with the pain of the economic adjustment we all must make. We, as a nation, lived beyond our means for a very long time. We all became very interested in short term performance and profits rather than long term growth and stability. We decided we no longer would be competitive in the labor market. Sprawl is not the problem – living beyond one’s means gets to the heart of Bob’s concerns. That happens in the city as well as the ‘burbs. Just ask Mike Hinojosa and the DISD or Mary Suhm and the Dallas City Council.

    I’d be interested to see your list of “useful things” and how many of those “useful things” are simply your individual choices of what constitutes the good life. As for me, I’d rather see government doing a few things well, rather than a multitude of things poorly.

  9. Bob says:

    Oh fudge! Trey has deleted my comments. You’d think someone who’s spewed so much ill-considered utopian vulgarity would be a little more tolerant of comments on his remote little crackpot outpost.

  10. Steve says:

    So happy to see that you are dead-set against condescension unless you are the one doing the condescending.