Ben Ross: To Fight Sprawl, Look Closer In

It may seem that fighting sprawl is all about the edge: have a strong urban growth boundary and and the rest will fall into place. But that's only one piece of the puzzle, argues author Ben Ross. We need also need more places to live in existing communities--yet how can we build that in an age of opposition?

We hosted Ben for two thought-provoking conversations in early May as he swung through Oregon on a book tour promoting his new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.

Oregon gets high praise in the book for being an early leader in recognizing the vital connection between a strong edge and strategies for infill development, and for building coalitions that see the wisdom in that approach. As Ross told The Oregonian's Anna Griffin in a recent Q&A: "It’s not just stopping the sprawl. It’s also had this enormous indirect effect of changing the nature of the inner parts of [Portland].​"

But in his book and talks here in Oregon, Ross also raises concerns that such coalitions are fraying. At just the time when we are seeing more interest in living in more walkable, close-in neighborhoods (which advocates and mainstream media sources alike are calling a "New American Dream"), we are also seeing growing opposition to new development in existing neighborhoods through Oregon and across the country.

Ben's book highlights how such opposition--even when its concerns are valid--increases pressure for development at cities' edges, and also exacerbates problems with housing affordability and equity. He argues that we need to be clearer about the trade-offs such choices represent.

Ross also believes proponents for infill need to understand the values underlying opposition to new development--including values that may be unconscious, deeply rooted in a culture that has long valued auto-dependent, exclusively single-family neighborhoods. Even though that culture is shifting, the inertia it has built up is considerable.

BikePortland.org blogger Michael Andersen quoted Ross's talk at Powell's Books in Portland on May 5:

"The opposition is not really necessarily motivated by the particular objections it raises," Ross said. "They have their reasons for their belief, whether or not they state them, and those are valid reasons."

In a debate shaped by intractable assumptions about what people do or don't want, logic isn't much use either.

"Politically, every motivation is legitimate," Ross said. "There's no point in telling people they're wrong if the real reason they're against something, they're right about. You just disagree with their value."

Ross also told the Portland audience that sprawl-fighters should present more compelling visions of urban life: 

"Most people are somewhere in the middle; most people have some of each in them," he said. "When we look out on the street, on Hawthorne Street, you are seeing one of the results of Tom McCall's vision: this lively walkable street. … What you want to emphasize is that this success needs to be built on, that replacing some of the auto repair shops and parking lots with more of what everybody loves would be good for the community....

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"It has to be presented in a way that this is not charity," he said. "This is something that we're doing to make something that is better for us. It will make all our communities better."​

Ross's well-researched and cogently-argued book makes for some very interesting conversations about how our cities got to their current state and what we might do about it. 

Learn more about Ben Ross and his book:

Ben's talks in Oregon were presented as part of our 2014 McCall Society Speaker Series--a series of free, public lectures and conversations around the state on livability, planning, and environment. The next event in the series is May 29 in Bend: a Conversation Project event about Oregon's urban-rural divide. Learn more here.