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  July/August 1999 Features:
Your Next Car?
Why Detroit's Going Green
Carsick Country
Back in the saddle
Splendor in the Swamp
A Smaller But Better Future
Inside Sierra
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Sierra Magazine
Mixed Media

Books | Video | Web

BOOKS: Sprawlbusters

With the revolt against sprawl gaining momentum, more and more writers are challenging the myth that growth is inevitable, beneficial, and resisted only by nostalgic Arcadians or selfish NIMBYs. But it's not just this challenge that will disturb the boosters, real-estate profiteers, and other architects of sprawl: their critics also offer plenty of excellent advice on how to fight unsound development and supplant it with more livable alternatives.

  • Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community by Eben Fodor (New Society Publishers, $14.95) demolishes the argument that growth is an economic necessity. Fodor shows, for example, that it can cost a community more than it gains in tax revenues to build the infrastructure to expand ($25,000 per home, according to some studies). Harshly criticizing the bogus pastoralism that persuades us that our dream dwelling is a gigantic house surrounded by an acre of lawn, Fodor asks just how much room we need, anyway. Between 1970 and 1990, new homes became almost 600 square feet bigger, stretching the space per person from 478 to 790 square feet-gobbling up not just the suburban turf, but depleting distant forests. Data like this and a useful resource list make Fodor's book an effective crowbar in the sprawlbuster's toolbox.

  • There Goes the Neighborhood: Protecting Your Home and Community From Poor Development Choices by Kim Patrick Kobza (Neighborhood America Press, $17.95) is a practical manual to help people organize against inappropriate development. Especially useful for beginning activists perturbed about the latest megamall threatening to encroach on their neighborhood, it tells how to choose consultants, raise funds, do effective public relations, control meetings, and, when all else fails, go to court.

  • Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and Their Governments by Mark Roseland (New Society Publishers, $19.95) covers everything from bottom-line tactics of resisting bad development to creating better transit and reducing waste. Roseland calculates some of the costs we pay for environmental destruction, such as the $310 billion annual subsidies that bankroll our dependence on the automobile. He emphasizes approaches to community development that rely heavily on local resources, foster green businesses, and encourage stronger citizen participation in the planning process. Roseland presents a wealth of examples of bold attempts to reduce pollution and sprawl, such as taming cars by banning them from the city center in Freiburg, Germany, or requiring tenants to forgo car ownership as a condition of residence in an apartment complex in Edinburgh.

  • Once There Were Greenfields: How Urban Sprawl Is Undermining America's Environment, Economy, and Social Fabric by F. Kaid Benfield, Matthew D. Raimi, and Donald D. T. Chen (Natural Resources Defense Council, Surface Transportation Policy Project, $20) lays out damning information about runaway development in marvelous detail, and documents how sprawl has turned U.S. transportation into an inefficient, nerve-racking battlefield of road warriors. One reason, they say, is that miles traveled per capita exploded from 3,979 in 1960 to a staggering 9,220 in 1995. Also covered are efforts to create "smart growth" in cities such as Portland, plus tactics to curb growth, design dense yet pleasant housing, and preserve agricultural land. The book may seem too technical to some readers, but it often requires more than a little wonkiness to outsmart developers.

  • The Transit Metropolis: A Global Inquiry by Robert Cervero (Island Press, $45) is a formidably comprehensive look at transit systems from around the world. Explaining how people get around in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Zurich, and a half-dozen other major cities, Cervero covers mistakes, successes, and long histories of trial-and-error.

    Then he returns to the United States to tally the cost of ignoring such lessons: "Accidents, pollution, social disruption, global climate change, and other externalities put annual subsidies for motoring in the United States in the neighborhood of $2,000 for every man, woman, and child." Of the problems facing public transit, he concludes, "The gross underpricing of automobile travel-especially along heavily trafficked corridors where transit is most needed-heads the list."

  • Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town by Brian Donahue (Yale University Press, $27.50) is a change of pace from the titles above. Instead of presenting diverse case studies, it paints an intimate picture of how one town, Weston, Connecticut, rescued land from sprawl and restored part of it to sustainable farming and forestry. Donahue got involved in this project after an epiphany on a mountain in Colorado that the biggest threat to such wilderness was the ecologically fatal suburban lifestyle, which demands resources from all over the world.

    A wonderful addition to the literature of urban and small-scale farming by Gene Logsdon, Michael Ableman, and Wendell Berry, the book maps out the possibilities for a greening of the suburbs. Basing his observations on the history of New England forests, Donahue sees sustainable farming reviving again "within the forest" (a return to Native agricultural practices, really). Increasing the amount of food our communities grow, Donahue says, reduces "the pressure we place on other ecosystems around the world today."—Bob Schildgen

    New from Sierra Club Books

    The Lost River: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Transformation on Wild Water by Richard Bangs. An adventurer famed for daring expeditions explores Ethiopia's Tekeze River.

    Adventuring in the Chesapeake Bay Area by John Bowen. A comprehensive guide to natural and historic sites among coves, fishing villages, and rivers of the tidewater country. Completely updated edition.

    Order these titles from the Sierra Club Store by phone, (800) 935-1056, through our Web site,, or by writing 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105.

    (C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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