Why I fight

Michael Lewyn's picture

Occasionally, someone familiar with my scholarship asks me: why do you care about walkability and sprawl and cities? Why is this cause more important to you than twenty other worthy causes you might be involved in?

The answer: Freedom. I grew up in a part of Atlanta that, for a carless teenager, was essentially a minimum-security prison. There were no buses or sidewalks, as in many of Atlanta's suburbs and pseudo-suburbs.  But in my parents' non-neighborhood, unlike in most American suburbs, there were also no lawns to walk on, so if you wanted to walk, you had to walk in the street - not a particularly safe experience in 40 mph traffic.

So I was essentially trapped in my parents' house. (1)  Long before I started thinking of street design as a public policy issue, I began to say to myself: "This is outrageous! I shouldn't have to live this way". And when I grew up, I began to think: "Maybe other people shouldn't have to live this way either!"

And as a grownup, I took jobs in places like Cleveland and St. Louis. Before I moved to St. Louis in 1990, I asked a friend where to live. He said: "I do not recommend the city." Since Atlanta contains plenty of upper-class areas (primarily because it annexed a big chunk of suburbia in 1954), I was shocked. And I asked myself: how could things have gotten to this stage? How come I can't live in a city without living five blocks from the corner of Ghetto and Gang? And I started to read and to learn about sprawl.

Now, I live within the city limits of a relatively healthy city (Jacksonville, FL) and my city even has some well-off areas near downtown. But even here, I see things that trouble me. For example, I had an appointment at a regional planning agency yesterday. The planning agency was located in a suburban office park. I decided to experiment with the municipal bus system (which I usually take to work, but had never taken to this destination).

I was surprised and yes, shocked when I learned that I couldn't walk the thirty-minute distance to the bus stop closest to my job. Why not? Because the office park was cut off by one limited-access highway to the south and another to the west, so there was simply no way to reach the bus stop without getting on another bus that served one of the highways and then changing buses. (2) Again, I was basically deprived of the freedom to walk to my destination.

Some people worry about sprawl primarily because they are worried about air pollution or global warming. But I worry more about freedom. Bad street design means that in some places, you just aren't free to move around on foot (or bike, or even bus in some areas). And urban decay and out-of-control sprawl mean that if your job or family takes you to the wrong metro area or the wrong side of town, you have to live or work in one of those places.

(1) For photos see http://atlantaphotos.fotopic.net/c1521148.html , in particular the Atlanta photos.

(2)  For a visual picture of the situation go to www.maps.google.com .  The office park is near Belfort Road in Jacksonville, FL.  The highways are 95 and 202, and the bus stop I wanted to use is at Phillips Highway. 


Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Ghetto? I beg to differ.

A comment, and a criticism:

I think some context is important here. The "non-neighborhood" that you describe here, the Northside/Mt. Paran area in Atlanta is among the older suburbs outside of the central core. Quite frankly, I wouldn't consider this area to be sprawl, as the lots sizes are much smaller than those that are seen in the newer suburbs 5-10 miles outside of Atlanta, and you certainly do not see the same magnitude of strip mall or big box development that you'd see in the outer areas. Personally, I think that the area is among the nicest and classiest in Atlanta.

Next, you mention that "you can't live in a city without living five blocks from the corner of Ghetto and Gang"? Hmm...I wonder what ethnicity to which you are referring?

Maybe in addition to caring about sprawl and walkability, you should also care about people and communities within those neighborhoods.

Perhaps you could have moved near a neighborhood with "Ghettos" and "Gangs" where they would have appreciated your education and talents to help them in revitalization. (see Cory Booker, Newark). In St. Louis (and other cities in this Nation), it took leadership and the personal commitment of communities and individuals to address the unresolved challenges in these neighborhoods.

Atlanta has had terrific success with neighborhood revitalization in its urban core. I would encourage you to check out the Old Fourth Ward, a neighborhood that had been depressed for years by low expectations and racism, that has undergone an incredible renaissance, coincident with the revitalization of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. And yes, they have sidewalks.

Michael Lewyn's picture


1. Re Northside/Mount Paran- We must be talking about different areas. The Northside/Mt. Paran area that I know (off Mt. Paran just west of 41) generally has two acre lots, much bigger than most suburbs. By contrast, lot sizes tend to be smaller in most Fulton and Cobb suburbs. These suburbs, though not all that attractive, are far less unwalkable than the areas I am talking about.

And yes, there is big box development just a couple of miles away on 41.

2. Re cities- It seems to me that you have interpreted my remarks as a suggestion that all urban neighborhoods are "five blocks from the corner of Ghetto and Gang." This is simply not my view at all, and perhaps I was not clear enough. I agree that Atlanta's intown neighborhoods have revitalized remarkably over the past ten or fifteen years. We are in violent agreement on this subject.

But I do think that some cities are in much worse shape than Atlanta, and St. Louis is certainly an example (or at least was one in 1990).

My point was that I want all American cities to be places where intown living is normal behavior for people who can afford to live elsewhere (as is now the case in Atlanta) rather than an option only for the most socially conscious or adventurous (as was the case in St. Louis).

PS In St. Louis, I did wind up ignoring my friend's advice and moving to the city, about five blocks south of Delmar (the traditional dividing line between the troubled North Side and the more yuppified Central West End, and at that time a very troubled-looking street, to put it charitably). So don't get ad hominem on me!

Build Your Own Paper Block City

Urban Fold is an all-inclusive kit that allows anyone to build the city of their dreams with a few simple folds.
building block set

NEW! Build the world you want to see

Irresistible block set for adults when placed on a coffee table or desk, and great fun for kids.

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Book cover of Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning

Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning

Featuring thought-provoking commentary and insights from some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the field.