The Real Meaning Of The "American Dream"

Both supporters and opponents of the sprawl status quo often refer to suburbia as “The American Dream.” One sprawl-defending organization even calls itself “The American Dream Coalition.”

Read Time: 2 minutes

April 23, 2008, 7:41 PM PDT

By Michael Lewyn @mlewyn


Both supporters and opponents of the sprawl status quo often refer to suburbia as "The American Dream." One sprawl-defending organization even calls itself "The American Dream Coalition". Sprawl critics use similar language; for example, in 1998, the Sierra Club issued a report titled "Sprawl: The Dark Side of the American Dream."

The equation of the "American Dream" with sprawl is inconsistent with the term's original meaning. The term "American Dream" was apparently invented in 1931 by historian James Truslow Adams; he was referring to "That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement." (Youngro Lee, To Dream Or Not To Dream, 16 Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy 231, 232). Thus, the term "American Dream" means not one type of house on one type of lot, but an economy open to talent, whether in dense cities, streetcar suburbs, or small towns.

More importantly, the use of the term "American Dream" to describe just one type of development is so inconsistent with America's libertarian values as to be almost un-American.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that people are "endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." To me, "liberty" implies some diversity of living arrangements - not just suburbs, but big cities and small, rural retreats and small towns. "Liberty" implies that Americans should be free to create Manhattan as well as Montana.

By contrast, the use of the term "American Dream" to describe the sprawl status quo implies that only one form of development is "American" - that large-lot suburbia, as the "American Dream", is what all real Americans want, and that cities and small towns and rural areas are for foreigners. There is nothing particularly libertarian about such an attitude.

Sprawl critics weaken their position by allowing their opponents to get away with such abuses of patriotism. Instead, supporters of more compact development should be reclaiming the mantle of Americanism themselves - for example, by suggesting that people are freer when they can walk as well as drive.


Michael Lewyn

Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, in Long Island. His scholarship can be found at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn.

Green bike lane with flexible delineators and textures paint in Hoboken, New Jersey

America’s Best New Bike Lanes

PeopleForBikes highlights some of the most exciting new bike infrastructure projects completed in 2022.

January 31, 2023 - PeopleforBikes

Aerial view of MBTA commuter rail station in Concord, Massachusetts among green trees

Massachusetts Zoning Reform Law Reaches First Deadline

Cities and towns had until January 31 to submit their draft plans for rezoning areas near transit stations to comply with a new state law.

February 1, 2023 - Streetsblog Mass

Green alley under construction

Green Alleys: A New Paradigm for Stormwater Management

Rather than shuttling stormwater away from the city and into the ocean as quickly as possible, Los Angeles is now—slowly—moving toward a ‘city-as-sponge’ approach that would capture and reclaim more water to recharge crucial reservoirs.

February 2, 2023 - Curbed

Aerial view of residential development near beach in Oahu, Hawaii

Hawaii State Bills Could Limit or Expand Affordable Housing Law

Some legislators see a law that provides a zoning exemption to affordable housing builders as a necessary way to alleviate the housing crisis, while others worry about the impact of fast-tracked development on land zoned for conservation.

23 minutes ago - Honolulu Civil Beat

Cleveland

Cleveland: The Nation’s Most Equitably Walkable City

A new study assesses which cities have the broadest access to walkable neighborhoods.

1 hour ago - Streetsblog USA

Walkable, mixed-use neighborhood in Barcelona, Spain

Conspiracy Theorists Discover the 15-Minute City

USA Today debunks the false claim that the United Nations’ call for enabling 15-minute cities is a coded plan to institute ‘climate change lockdowns.’

2 hours ago - USA Today

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.