Friday, June 16, 2006
Questions of land use and sprawl don't typically make it into the New Yorker magazine, so I was glad when I was directed to a Malcolm Gladwell review, of a few months back, of Jared Diamond's book Collapse, which argues in part that civilizations often destroy themselves through environmental self-destruction. Gladwell concludes his review with a reference to Oregon's Measure 37, passed last year, that in part reversed the state's tight development laws and is expected to pave the way (no pun intended) for greater sprawl in Portland's suburbs. Gladwell makes two points. His first is that ecological resources such as rivers and forests should be treated as a "birthright;" this is hard to argue with, although I'm not sure he understands how the fertilized farmland encouraged by Oregon's old laws have not always been the friendliest neighbors to rivers and forests. His second point is that Measure 37 is "intellectually incoherent," arguing that the reason property is so valuable on the outskirts of Portland is that is has been protected from development. Once developed, he suggested, property is likely to fall in value. This cockeyed statement reflects a common view of sprawl as some kind of inorganic disease that we should avoid whenever possible. But sprawl is not simply pavement and strip malls; it is also people -- lots of people -- looking for an affordable and pleasant house in the suburbs.