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Subdivide and Conquer: A Modern Western

Bullfrog Films, (800) 543-3764

"Gimme land lotsa land" Roy Rogers croons while earth-moving machines rip up the western countryside, where vast housing tracts spread, and freeways unroll across the prairie. The original victims of America's relentless westward expansion were the Indians, narrator Dennis Weaver reminds us in a laid-back drawl that contrasts with the frenzy of road-raging commuters, but they weren't the last. "This time the victim is the land itself . . . fifty-thousand square miles in half a lifetime . . . incredible vistas plowed under into a sea of rooftops and parking lots."

This second conquest of the West hasn't paid off on its promises. People who hoped to enjoy open space find themselves confined to their cars instead. The typical suburbanite will spend a total of four years in a car just navigating to work and doing errands.

While we can blame ol' Roy and his sidekicks for promoting the myth that encourages Americans to flee to make-believe ranches on the open prairie, Subdivide and Conquer shows how government policies are the biggest enablers of untrammeled growth. Tax breaks for developers, tax deductions that encourage big houses on bigger lots, poor land-preservation laws, and the federal highway system itself all contribute to reckless development.

Following this fact-filled, yet entertaining exposť are some hopeful examples of solutions to sprawl. The video explores ideas of the New Urbanists, architects and planners who reinvigorate urban space, push for multiple-use rezoning, and create more compact housing. We hear from reverse refugees, those who have fled the suburbs to revitalized downtowns, where they enjoy proximity to stores, parks, and community gardens. We also visit places like Boulder, Colorado, which used sales-tax money to set aside 26,000 development-free acres. And when residents themselves get a democratic chance to do hands-on planning, they usually create denser, 1930s-style neighborhoods instead of the sprawl dictated by top-down planning. Revelations like these should make Subdivide and Conquer the anti-sprawl activist's favorite documentary.

Reviewed by Bob Schildgen

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