Bulldozer in the Countryside

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The Bulldozer in the Countryside: suburban sprawl and the rise of American environmentalism. By Adam Ward Rome. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001 ISBN 978-0521804905

Although we might think that concern over suburban sprawl is a relatively new phenomenon, for decades, environmentalist groups and scientists have expressed resevations about this phenomenon. Written in 2001, Adam Rome’s The Bulldozer in the Countryside examines the protests against the housing construction craze from 1945-1970. It examines how changing technology allowed builders to construct homes in environmentally sensitive areas, resulting in “frequent flooding, costly soil erosion, and drastic changes in wildlife populations.” (3)

Rome begins his tale with the rise of Levittown in response to a huge housing shortage after WWII. Concern about the housing shortage was not new—Herbert Hoover had addressed the subject in the 1920s—but the crisis hit home in the years after World War II. Newspapers revealed the horrid conditions in which some folks lived—“the city of Chicago sold 250 streetcars as homes. In California, people were living in the unfinished fuselages of bombers.” (18) Concerned, the federal government got into the act, passing measures to encourage homeownership, which increased dramatically in the postwar years. As people bought these houses, they wanted to forget the privations of the Depression and World War II. They bought bigger, gas-guzzling cars and washing machines to appear affluent. But at what environmental cost?

Next, Rome discusses the shortlived solar housing movement. During the 40s, solar housing seemed to have a promising future. But even as experts discussed the positives of solar construction, “from 1945 to 1970, the energy consumption of the average American household increased precipitously. In the 1960s alone, the jump in household energy use was 30 percent.” (46) Housing developers shied away from solar construction. As Rome notes, “The postwar housing industry was driven by the demand to produce as cheaply as possible.” (47) Furthermore, although the movement had support in Washington, D.C., support quickly waned, especially as the price of heating fuel was so low.

Rome begins his discussion of suburban waste disposal invoking Erma Bombeck’s The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank (1977). The construction of septic tanks exploded in the years under study. From the late 1940s through the 1950s, the problem of failing septic tanks seemed largely a matter of protecting investments and preventing public-health hazards. The backyard waste-disposal system also became a symbol of the folly of unplanned growth. (89) By the 60s and 70s, however, concern over septic tank leakages also included the effects on drinking water and, eventually, “the well-being of many creatures, not just humans.” (89)

Next, Rome looks at the open space movement, which he sees as, “a critical stage in the evolution of modern environmental movement.” (120) Instead of providing for green spaces, builders, “simply wanted to maximize the number of lots per tract,” even though “the growth of suburbs destroyed thousands of acres of unmatched productivity.” (122-3) From Rome’s account, it was preservation of green space that showed the dichotomy between predevelopment and pro-conservation. The 1960s witnessed greater concern on the part of developers for the preservation of wetlands. Even though this idea conflicted with the idea of private ownership and allowing the owner to do as he pleased, the populace seemed receptive.

As the 1960s progressed, the federal government also adopted a new “urban consciousness.” By 1970, Richard Nixon had signed the National Environmental Policy Act, and the future appeared bright for those who wanted regulation of land use. However, by 1973, these champions faced defeat at the hands of Washington.


Commentary

Curtis Vaughn, Fall 2007

Adam Rome has taken a national viewpoint to a very local issue—land use planning and its environmental impact in suburban America. He contends that by taking this broader viewpoint, his study addresses the issues that have became some of the root concerns of the environmental movement in America. In taking this view, Rome uses records of the Departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development and their subsidiary bureaus to examine the emerging environmental discussion of the suburbanization of America. This approach gives an overview, but the richness of the discussion was in the local arena. Rome uses parts of this local debate in discussing the emergence of some of the country’s largest suburban developments such as Columbia, Maryland, Woodlands, Texas, and Levittown, New York. It was at this local level that the decisions concerning balancing housing needs, transportation concerns, economic development, and environmental issues were made. By ignoring the local issues that affected environmental decisions, Rome fails to discuss key elements in the debate about suburbanization.

The book does a solid job of recounting the issues that arose as the demand for housing in post-World War II America erupted. The demand was immediate and pushed development where basic services such as water and sewer were not available. Rome’s discussion of the inadequacy of the interim solutions of wells and septic tanks is extensive, and the desire for clean water and adequate disposal of human waste is not very controversial. It is later in the book when Rome tackles the more controversial issues of land-use planning and preservation of environmentally sensitive areas. Since these issues often collide with personal property rights, Rome correctly identifies these issues as ones that brought an end to a unified national concern about the impact of suburbanization on the environment. Because there was not national consensus, localities had to struggle with the competing ideas about rights in land ownership. These battles have continued long after Rome closes his study on the rise of American environmentalism.

This book is a good overview of environmental issues facing America in the second half of the Twentieth century. Given its focus on national issues, it misses the intensity of the debate on the local level, and environmental issues are driven primarily by concerns of citizens about their local living conditions. There is much more to be written about this movement outside the national debate.

Scott Abeel, Spring 2011

The Bulldozer in the Countryside follows a typical theme in twentieth-century American historiography. A problem is solved by the development and use of new technology, which in turn gives rise to unforeseen consequences. Rome’s analysis of the suburbanization of America is an important contribution to this theme.

In Rome’ narrative, post World War Two suburbanization was a response to a severe housing shortage that developed from the lack of new housing construction during the Great Depression and the demobilization of millions of service people following the cessation of hostilities. Sensing opportunity, residential developers such as William Levitt and his imitators applied mass-production techniques to home building. The mass production of housing following the war was based on the premise of delivering a product as cheaply and rapidly as possible. However the technique employed by these homebuilders proved to be problematic as the methods uses for mass construction and builders, banks, and land speculators based residential infrastructure incorporated into the mass-produced homes solely on profit motives. Subsequently, the mass production builders ignored important environmental considerations such as site selection, energy use, and effluent disposal. These problems, as Rome argues, gave rise to an environmental consciousness on the part of experts and politicians that became a national debate in the 1970s over land use policy. Unfortunately, as the author points out, business interests won the debate, which in turn contributed to the United States presently being in an environmental and an energy use dilemma.

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