Take Eoin O‘Carroll‘s
“Bulldoze the ‘burbs?”, an article posted on the
Christian Science Monitor’s “bright green blog”. No title is
better calculated to arouse the interest of greens and town planners
everywhere. So much so that it featured on Crikey, the Australian
online magazine. Bulldoze the suburbs? Green activists would gladly
flatten them way the Romans flattened Carthage. It conforms to rule one
of the green-house-style. Choose a title that evokes a strong visual
image. Something about rising waters, parched landscapes and bleached
coral. Avoid abstract ideas or concepts; too much thinking doesn‘t help.
One of the style’s more grating features is rule two: reduce
controversial questions to conventional wisdom. Having assumed what is
still unsettled, the writer is free to select, arrange and emphasize
material in support of the authorised truth.
One fundamental strand of green thinking maintains that low-density
suburbs are doomed to collapse and die, like the abandoned ruins of
Central America. A combination environmental, social and economic trends
render suburbanisation “unsustainable”. The inevitable crisis will drive
populations back to the urban core or rural regions. The day of
reckoning has been a long time coming, but the global financial meltdown
has seen several writers rush to squeeze the facts into this frame. Rows
of “for sale” signs along typical suburban streets across the United
States and Britain (less so in Australia) certainly help.
Embracing the collapse thesis, O’Carroll dispenses with the need to
carefully account for his material. His piece starts with a story in
The Telegraph of London about an idea floated by officials in Flint,
Michigan to bulldoze vacant housing. For O’Carroll, this is a move to
return “the land to nature, and concentrate the population in the urban
core”. In other words, it’s a response to flight from outlying suburbs.
Yet nothing in The Telegraph’s report suggested that Flint’s
diminishing population is actually “concentrating” in the core. Rather,
Flint, like many Rust Belt cities, is losing people to other parts of
the US. The Telegraph calls it an “exodus”. The words
“concentrate the population in the urban core”, in his second paragraph,
are O’Carroll’s nod to the conventional wisdom. This strategic choice of
words shapes much of what follows.
At this point O’Carroll doesn’t neglect green-house-style rule three —
cannibalise and distort the views of respected experts.
Harvard’s Edward Glaeser is one of America’s brightest young economists,
and an acknowledged expert on housing and urban development. Yet
O’Carroll doesn’t hesitate to set him up. A view endorsed by Glaeser,
that “razing declining neighbourhoods” should be a priority for
President Obama, is juxtaposed with the claim by urban strategist
Christopher Leinberger that “more Americans are moving back into city
Sounds like Glaeser is on board with the conventional wisdom. But he
isn’t. In the source article from The New York Times’Economix Blog,
Glaeser’s position is the opposite to that pushed by O’Carroll. Glaeser
confirms that for some time Americans have been leaving Rust Belt cities
in droves for “newer Sun Belt cities built around the automobile”. He
calls it “the move to sun and sprawl”. Glaeser criticises Rust Belt
mayors for wasting money on light rail and other inner-city renewal
projects. This is the proper context of his “razing declining
Nor does O’Carroll bother to consider that Leinberger might be wrong. He
could have read the work of urbanist Joel Kotkin, who
points outthat Leinberger’s claim “rests more on anecdote than on demographic or
economic fact”. Kotkin cites a variety of population, employment and
property statistics to support his case.
Leinberger is a popular source for champions of the collapse thesis, not
least due to his deft use of rule four: if all else fails, go for the semantic shift. O’Carroll
clearly approves of Leinberger’s line that “McMansions threaten
to turn suburbia into the next slum”.
The tactic of renaming, or rebadging, concepts and policies is a modern
plague. Witness how the adjective “smart” is routinely applied to many
dubious notions (smart growth, smart planning, smart power) or how
carbon emissions have evolved into carbon pollution. Words are stripped
of meaning, invested with new meanings or simply discarded.
Alternatively, sound practises can be discredited if rebadged
negatively. Leinberger resorts to this in calling outer suburbs “the
next slums”, or “the slums of the future”. Unfortunately, the habit
caught on in town planning circles, including here.
Of course, it’s nonsensical to suggest that suburbs can be slums.
Certainly not slums as defined by The Oxford English Dictionary:
“An overcrowded district of a town or city, having squalid
housing conditions and inhabited by very poor people (emphasis
added)”. By definition, suburbs are the exact opposite of slums.
Historically, they represented an escape from slum conditions and do so
now. Leinberger’s purpose is transparent. It’s to shift the bad odour
surrounding one word, “slum”, to another word, “suburb”.
All the more reason for media consumers to beware the overcrowded and
squalid, if only metaphorical, slums of environmental journalism.