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Thomas Jefferson and Sprawl

November 16, 2010

I’m currently reading “Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability,” by David Owen. You can pretty much guess what his thesis is based on the title. So far, one of the most interesting bits (although there are a lot of interesting bits, and I’ve just started the book) involves one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a proponent of the rural lifestyle, and apparently had a pretty low opinion of cities (for example, in an 1803 letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, he said: “Great cities [are] pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.” Wow!). My favorite passage on this from Owen’s book is:

“Jefferson…embodied the ethos of suburbia. Indeed, he could be considered the

Thomas Jefferson, by Charles Wilson Peale (1790's). Courtesy of the U.S. Diplomacy Center exhibition page.

prototype of the modern American suburbinite, since for most of his life he lived far outside the central city in a house that was much too big, and he was deeply enamored of high-tech gadgetry and of buying on impulse and on credit, and he embraced a self-perpetuating cycle of conspicuous consumption and recreational self-improvement. The standard object of the modern American dream, the single-family home surrounded by grass, is a mini-Monticello” (p. 25).

The good news, of course, is that many environmentalists are getting that the best way to preserve the open areas we all love is to live and work in more densely populated areas. Grist today posted a piece about this op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, about a ballot measure that just passed in Berkeley that will “[concentrate] housing, jobs, and cultural destinations near transit, shops and amenities [to] revitalize the downtown and help make Berkeley one of the greenest cities in the United States.”  The op-ed specifically talks about a generation gap between older generations of environmentalists and younger environmentalists (acknowledging, of course, that this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule). Do you think such a generation gap exists?

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