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The Cultural Theory of Sprawl

Following on yesterday's post about how discrimination is a cause of changes in the landscape (namely the growth of exurbia), Joel Hirschhorn points out how that landscape is in turn the cause of more discrimination:

Analyses of the failure of all levels of government to prevent or effectively manage the Katrina calamity in New Orleans have generally missed a crucial point. Alongside bias against poor people and African-Americans is automobile apartheid, born of fifty years of suburban sprawl. First-class citizens drive motor vehicles, second-class Americans walk, cycle, or ride public transit. Certainly many of the latter are poor, but millions more are middle-class Americans.

When emergency response largely ignores the plight of second-class citizens, no one should be surprised.

Automobile apartheid means anyone who wants mobility through walking, cycling, or public transportation suffers discrimination in a built environment designed for automobiles. In the past 20 years, as automobile addiction has increased, sprawl has run rampant, the number of trips people take by walking has decreased by more than 42 percent, and obesity has skyrocketed.

Putting these two posts on sprawl side-by-side also makes an interesting illustration of grid-group cultural theory. The foundational claim of CT is that people with different ways of life fear a different set of risks. The risks feared by the exurbanites quoted in the previous post are familiar. They're the risks of social deviance and disorganization -- crime, school discipline problems, lower-caste people moving in next door to the brahmins. CT argues that these risks will be most salient to people of a Hierarchist disposition, and in fact the exurbanites' preference for strong social order and caste solidarity is apparent. Even their protest at the end of the article that they give generously to charity fits in, as charity donations are a form of supererogatory noblesse oblige (rather than a duty) associated with the higher-ups in an Authority Ranking/Hierarchist form of social organization. It's these risks to social order that drive Hierarchists to exurbia.

From an Egalitarian perspective, however, the actions of Hierarchists are constantly creating dangers to others, particularly to the lower-ranked members of society. Hirschhorn takes up this banner by making a persuasive case that the automobile-centric environments of exurbia are *more* dangerous, due to traffic accidents. Pedestrians -- who are more likely to come from the lower strata of society -- are particularly vulnerable. Hirschhorn's overarching concern with "apartheid" is classically Egalitarian, as is his practice of pointing to technology and environmental destruction as the key sources of risk.

Where are the Individualists in all this? In Douglas and Wildavsky's initial statement of CT, they argued that the most stable alliances are diagonal on the grid-group diagram* -- and in fact the Individualists do seem to ally with the Hierarchists in creating exurbia. The biggest Individualists would be the developers who build exurban towns. They live to take advantage of demand, and the elite Hierarchists have the biggest effective demand. The greatest risks to the Individualists, then, come from Egalitarian attempts to rein in the Hierarchist cash cow. Indeed, the Individualists are so cozy that they happily indulge in the fruits of Hierarchy by taking advantage of government subsidies that facilitate sprawl. Individualist rhetoric also provides a convenient cloak for the Hierarchists, whose viewpoint is often considered impolite. Individualists' focus on consent and motive at the level of the individual transaction and faith in the invisible hand to take care of the larger picture allows them to divert attention from structural inequalities of the type Hirschhorn denounces and the Hierarchist exurbanites positively desire.

*Which perhaps explains why I, as a Fatalist, find Hirschhorn's Egalitarian perspective (as well as the implied Egaliatarianism of the author of the article about the exurbanites) so convincing.


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