Worth Reading: Behind the Bulldozers

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According to historian Adam Rome, the house-building boom that followed World War II caused "an environmental catastrophe on the scale of the Dust Bowl." The boom and the accompanying mass migration to the suburbs destroyed farmland and wildlife habitat and banished the pacific sense of open space surrounding America's cities. It also played a key role in the evolution of the American environmental movement.

Rome explains how the wartime mobilization of industry provided a model for homebuilding on a previously unimaginable scale: In Long Island's Levittown in the early 1950's, a tract house was completed every 15 minutes. Builders like William Levitt became heroes in a nation where the Depression and wartime privations had caused a chronic housing shortage. Millions of young men and women, many newly discharged from the military, longed for homes of their own—even if those homes were small, wedged into tiny lots, poorly insulated, and apt to deliver tap water tainted by thousands of neighbors' malfunctioning septic tanks. (To maximize profits, developers usually eschewed building sewage lines and treatment plants.)

Sprawl spurred the construction of new roads, schools, shopping centers. When the flat, easy-to-build-on terrain had been exhausted, developers found ways to exploit more environmentally sensitive sites, such as hillsides, wetlands, and floodplains. From 1945 to 1970, writes Rome, "every year a territory roughly the size of Rhode Island was bulldozed."

The loss of open space was "a hot issue," he continues, "almost from the first. It bothered many people deeply, and it became one of the most important arguments for a new kind of activism." The issue had a certain "generative power. The more people thought about the destruction of open space, the higher the stakes seemed The issue drew public attention to other environmental problems" such as air and water pollution.

A new group of activists and a new set of grassroots organizations added their voices and political clout to those of traditional conservationists, many of whom had been sport hunters and fishermen. People began to realize that "conservation is of supreme importance in the cities, too." That realization ultimately led to Congress passing the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species act, all during the 1970s, laws giving federal agencies the power to regulate land use to a limited extent. A piece of legislation that failed to become law was the National Land Use Policy Act, which would have provided what Rome characterizes as "a compelling vision of sound development." In the debate surrounding the land-use act, "advocates of regulation assumed that the problem was obvious, and only the solutions needed to be debated." That assumption was a fatal mistake, as the ideal of wise land use proved "much harder to define than 'clean air' or 'clean water.'" In the end, property rights advocates prevented passage of a law that would have placed societal values above an individual's rights to determine precisely how to use his or her land.

And the bulldozers roll on, as development consumes more of our landscape than ever before: nearly 3.2 million acres a year by the mid 1990s. "Because land-use regulation is still largely a local issue," writes Rome, "the standards of environmental protection vary greatly from place to place." To address the problem of sprawl, activists today need to understand why earlier reform efforts proved inadequate: The Bulldozer in the Countryside provides a full explication.

Adam W. Rome, Ph.D., is associate professor of American history in the College of the Liberal Arts, 223 Weaver Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-0184; axr26@psu.edu. His book, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism, published by Cambridge University Press, won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award, given by the Organization of American Historians, and the Lewis Mumford Prize, granted to the best book in American planning history by the Society for American City and Regional Planning history.

Last Updated May 01, 2004