Give me those wide, open spaces?

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11720839093730.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘After WWII, the triple revolution of the Three Great Cheaps led to urban sprawl: 1) Low-cost mortgage financing; 2) Access to freeways; 3) Low-cost gasoline.‘);

Nothing gets folks going like property rights. Our country is founded on a principle that property rights are practically sacrosanct, except when it interferes with neighboring or, perhaps, community issues. This confluence is where issues like the height of a building, or whether you can keep rusted auto wrecks on your driveway takes the philosophy to practicality, often with neighbors refusing to speak to each other.

Property issues getting beyond immediate or community interests have been around for a while with issues like water rights. But the very nature of property size has run into the controversial aspects of sprawl, environmental and energy issues, all of which lead to an issue we all care about, the quality of life.

Cities like Rockford were founded for very practical reasons, primarily access to transportation routes like rivers, early roads and being the nexus of economic activities like agriculture and manufacturing. Housing and building lots were laid out in generally practical rectangles with close proximity encouraged. People wanted to be within walking distance for daily shopping needs and work, if possible, and within a short ride for weekly or occasional activities like attending church.

Rail and interurban, or streetcar transport in the late 19th and early 20th centuries increased the opportunity where people could go, but they generally chose to stay within close boundaries out of convenience and stability. What threw this all out of kilter was the triple revolution that fully took place after World War II, what may be called the Three Great Cheaps. Cheap No. 1 is access to low-cost mortgage financing of homes with relatively large expanses of land in suburbia. Cheap No. 2 is access to “free” or affordable toll superhighways that could whisk one in theory up to 50 miles of a metropolitan area in an hour or less. And Cheap No. 3 is low-cost gasoline that made driving a vehicle an incidental expense.

These Three Cheaps created suburbia out of cornfields. They started with small houses on quarter-acre lots, up by a factor of two or three from urban areas, then bigger houses with multiple acres per lot. The completion of an interstate from suburbia to downtown was the equivalent of a suburban spider sucking the life out of an urban insect trapped in the web. Cheap No. 4, home air conditioning powered by cheap electricity, accelerated sprawl toward the Sun Belt. Cities like Rockford were eviscerated by migration to Roscoe or Scottsdale. Abandoned buildings and empty lots sprouted like mushrooms in a wet forest.

After a half-century or so of this phenomenon, countercurrents may be surfacing. Energy costs are no longer an afterthought, and the very availability is becoming a question in many thoughtful people’s minds. Suburbia is proving to be not quite the paradise many thought, with growing isolation, gridlock, cost and crime eating away at the advantages. There may be a deep hunger for people to be in a physically-connected community not tyrannized by single-occupancy car travel. Demographics favor the progressive. Households are getting smaller, with many large incomes among them. Quality becomes more important than quantity, and end for some to super-sized houses, house lots, or Bloatmobiles. Nice houses with small lots can mean collecting more property taxes per acre, more efficiently provided infrastructure, the encouragement of walking, bicycling and transit, and reducing pollution and energy costs.

This presents an opportunity for cities like Rockford to reclaim a version of their earlier advantages by reclaiming one of them—proximity. The important thing is to provide a choice for the growing number of people who want a true urban lifestyle. A lifestyle not spent lawnmower riding. A lifestyle where money can be spent at a local coffee shop instead of gasing up for a 30-mile commute. A lifestyle watching the RiverHawks, rather than taking out a second mortgage and losing half a day to go to Wrigley Field. What will be important for Rockford is to remember that its past and future greatness lies in being a city, not a suburb with more traffic lights. A compact, vibrant city that is not an appendage to anything.

Mark Burger is president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association, a chapter of the American Solar Energy Society, and Principal of Kestrel Development Company, a renewable energy consulting firm and developer of zero-energy building.

From the Feb. 21-27, 2007, issue

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