Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism by Benjamin Ross

Dead End is an engaging book, appropriately critical of sprawl without being sanctimonious and asking the right questions about why we continue to build sprawl when so many people prefer complete neighbourhoods.

By Rob Fiedler
Published November 17, 2014

Dead End
Dead End

At the end of September, I attended an event co-sponsored by Epic Books on Locke Street and Raise the Hammer (RTH) dubbed "An Evening with Transit Activist Benjamin Ross". Ross was in town to promote his new book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, which I purchased and later agreed to review for RTH.

For those of you who missed his talk, Ross is an activist for urbanism and transit. A hydrogeologist with a PhD in physics from MIT, a Washington Post story about his book reports that "he got involved in advocacy [in Maryland] in the early 1990s out of annoyance that he had to walk in the street from his Bethesda home to the nearby Medical Center Metro Station."

This personal frustration about lack of sidewalks in his neighbourhood eventually led him to serve 15 years as president of the Maryland's Action Committee for Transit, which, according to his book's dust jacket, "grew under his leadership into the [United States'] largest grass-roots transit advocacy group."

Message to municipal politicians everywhere: you never know where a failure to provide sidewalks can lead.

More seriously, many RTH readers will find his discussion of the Purple Line - an LRT line destined to connect three Washington, DC Metrorail (subway) lines in Maryland's Montgomery and Prince George Counties - insightful.

I'll leave the specifics of the Purple Line and other examples he discusses in Dead End for readers to discover, except to say that after more than 20 years of political twists and turns, construction on the Purple Line is expected to start next year.

One can only hope that our B-Line LRT moves from plan to reality more expeditiously.

After a couple of reads, I can report that I found Dead End an engaging book, one that is appropriately critical of sprawl, but avoids being sanctimonious.

It helps that the author is an activist for urbanism and transit who resides in suburbia. This is a book about spreading urbanism far and wide because there's growing demand for it, including in "the burbs".

The book starts with a brief tour through suburban history. Hardly exhaustive or comprehensive, his review works for its purpose. It establishes the linkage between the antecedents to contemporary sprawl and the use of covenants then zoning to protect the social status of residential areas, whether urban or suburban, from physical and social change, except where it would be status enhancing.

Readers familiar with recent debates about suburbanization and suburban history will note that Dead End tacks toward the suburban cliché. Ross tends to emphasize suburban trends that relate only to wealthy suburbanites or affluent commuters.

That tends to reinforce the impression that the historical suburban periphery was a place of privilege and leisure rather than a complex and variegated landscape of open spaces, agricultural production, industrial satellites, unplanned working-class districts, picturesque borderlands, and railroad suburbs (i.e. commuter towns).

Quibbles aside, Dead End gets the story mostly right in terms of what contributed to vast, sprawling form and ways of life in contemporary metropolitan regions: early planning ideas that confused density with "congestion" and "overcrowding"; fiscal and snob zoning; federal housing policies; mortgage redlining; white flight/racism; public subsidies for automobility; the destruction of inner-city neighbourhoods via the combination of urban renewal, parking lots, and expressways; and later the rise of NIMBYism and anti-development politics.

As the book progresses, Ross increasingly turns to the subtle abuses of language, planning, and the law used to preserve the status quo, which often without acknowledgement fuels sprawl. It is here that Dead End takes no prisoners. I suspect that many readers will find themselves nodding in agreement one minute and troubled or passionately disagreeing the next.

For example, Ross outlines how "compatibility" has come to relate more to protecting and enhancing the character of the neighbourhood than actually ensuring that truly incompatible uses are prohibited.

A few paragraphs earlier a letter from a spurned builder is quoted. It offers a rare, but candid assessment of the real intent of a wealthy New York suburb's zoning rules: to ensure "that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they." The builder had proposed building an apartment building for seniors.

This is, of course, a case of snob zoning, and it is easy to deplore it as such. But it also an obvious and egregious example. What about when this isn't the case?

When Ross next moves on to discuss the "shell-game" that has emerged around "exemplary" you can see more clearly the difficulty. The ordinary or dictionary meaning of exemplary revolves around "a thing of unusual value" and this was, as he says, how the public initially understood laws to protect historic buildings and districts, "to preserve the outstanding". In practice, Ross argues, the result can be the opposite, "to embalm the ordinary".

Urbanists in Hamilton will probably see this critical assessment of "exemplary" as double-edged. We've lost so many of our outstanding historic buildings that what's left may be ordinary, but worth preserving precisely because it's old, typical of past urban form, and irreplaceable.

Of course, we are blessed in Hamilton with an impressive amount of land downtown being used as parking lots. There is little reason for us to have to choose between preserving old buildings and intensification. We can have both.

The final chapters of Dead End review the history and politics of "smart growth success stories". Again, those interested will find the details he covers worth reading.

In Hamilton, we might benefit from the overall lesson Ross draws from Portland, Arlington, and the Purple Line: that advocates for urbanism and transit win by thinking big. As he states, only a big vision can stitch together a broad enough coalition of support to override parochialism and backyard politics.

It is the balancing of local and regional concerns and determining broad public interest that is the essential business of politics. Smart Growth intensification is not only about curtailing sprawl and the rebirth of urbanism, it is also about land development.

Perhaps, if there is one glaring weakness throughout the book, it is that Ross elects not to subject finance capital and the real estate development industry to the same degree of critical scrutiny as planning ideas, zoning laws, government policy, and the political pull of nimbyism.

Dead End asks the questions that so many of us urbanists ponder: "What is the compulsion that keeps us building what so many revile? Why are urban streets, so much in demand, so rarely supplied? Why do attempts at cure so often worsen the disease?"

To this reader, Ross mostly hits the mark. A large part of that lies in his asking the right questions. The ones that matter, and should preoccupy us if we see a better future as one where more neighbourhoods are transit-supportive, walkable, and home to vibrant mix of places to live, shop, play, and work.

His book is also a reminder that politics is the vehicle that gets us there.

[Postscript: Dead End is an American book. It goes without saying that our two countries share much in common, but certain aspects of the historical narrative and arguments Ross presents differ in their specifics from the Canadian experience.]

Rob Fiedler is a member of the Beasley Neighbourhood Association executive. Expresses himself in a 280 characters or less @rsfiedler.


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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 08:42:29

I too, attended the event. Having been able to chat with him prior to the reading, I can attest to him being a really nice fellow. For me, the evening was too short. But being there certainly reinforced my long-held belief that this discussion is not only a valid one, but one that should be had all over the city; this topic isn't one that most Hamiltonians have much knowledge of, let alone any grasp of. Preaching to the converted is nice, but getting the word out, penetrating the general population is paramount.

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By Realist (anonymous) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 09:44:59

Read today's paper. His assessment is quite accurate. LRT (unfortunately) if not dead is on life-support. That is the unfortunate reality despite the well-reasoned arguments made by the enlightened informed enthusiasts. How do you deal with this real-politik? Stay tuned, I guess!

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 12:52:33 in reply to Comment 106248

C'mon Larry. For once why don't you and your pals look towards the future and needed investments in a future, modern city instead of expecting us to all sit idly by and enjoy the never ending 70's.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 10:34:14 in reply to Comment 106248

"That is the unfortunate reality despite the well-reasoned arguments made by the enlightened informed enthusiasts. How do you deal with this real-politik?"

Well, there are a few elements at play here. the first, and maybe the most important, is that the average person has not been sold the merits of LRT. Despite the claims that there was 'substantial' outreach by the City (am I mis-remembering '1600'residents?), the truth is that the average Hamiltonian does not have a grasp on the information, pro- or con-. I saw this during the election campaign. (More disturbing was that candidates were often incredibly ill-informed, and therefore unable to take part in the discussion.) And the reason why is that there has never been wide-spread discussion across the city. So, as suggested this summer, the average Hamiltonian's default setting when discussing such a major investment is 'No'. Not because they're uniformly against LRT, but because they've never been part of the discussion, never had it sold to them properly. (For the record, this is not the role of Council.)

Secondly, because no candidate could unreservedly say 'Hamiltonians want LRT!' (and this includes Mr. McHattie), there has been reluctance to go 'all-in' on their parts. (Please see point one.) Politicians by-and-large are not chance-takers. There's too much at risk. During the campaign, I had suggested to one candidate to not get caught up in the LRT discussion, and instead make it clear that he was not going to comment on LRT, period. This leads to point three...

Until the the cheque's been cut, until it's determined just how much money it's going to cost the taxpayers of Hamilton to make LRT happen (beyond the promised capital costs), all conversations are moot. It doesn't matter how eloquently the case for LRT is made, it wouldn't matter if God called out from Heaven that She's a supporter of LRT, if the money's not in the kitty, then there's going to be no cheque cashed. In today's fiscal climate, to blindly believe that 'the money's going to be distributed, so if we say 'No' to our share, then it's only going to go elsewhere' is folly. Well-intentioned, enthusiastic folly, but folly nonetheless.

As a post-script, what I say here is opinion. I am not caught up in numbers, in facts, in ideology. The thoughts I've presented here comprise my opinion, nothing more. I'm just sayin'...

Comment edited by ItJustIs on 2014-11-17 10:36:03

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By j.servus (registered) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 18:38:16 in reply to Comment 106250

"Until the the cheque's been cut, until it's determined just how much money it's going to cost the taxpayers of Hamilton to make LRT happen (beyond the promised capital costs), all conversations are moot. It doesn't matter how eloquently the case for LRT is made... to blindly believe that 'the money's going to be distributed, so if we say 'No' to our share, then it's only going to go elsewhere' is folly."

I think this is a mistake. A healthy enthusiasm for LRT will not guarantee provincial funding. But a distinct lack of enthusiasm will almost certainly give the province a way out. What is folly is to suppose that local political conditions will not be relevant to the allocation of provincial capital funding.

Comment edited by j.servus on 2014-11-17 18:39:24

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 18:57:46 in reply to Comment 106264

I'm also annoyed at the attitude that unless the province pays for 100% of the cost, we won't even consider building LRT.

Funny, we plowed ahead with Red Hill/ Linc planning and construction without promise of provincial money. If I recall, the city ended up paying around 50% of the cost for those projects.

It's 2014 and we're still acting like 1970 Los Angeles. Embarrassing.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 13:22:39 in reply to Comment 106250

The 1600 number is the number of Hamilton residents who actually submitted comments to city staff, either directly, or at one of the many public information centres held throughout the city. The number who actually attended these presentations and meetings would have been quite a bit higher, probably several thousand based on my attendance at several PICs. Even more would have seen the posters on the buses and the rest of the media campaign.

Of course, one could say this is a small proportion of the total population of Hamilton, but it is incomparably more than the city has ever engaged on another issue in the past. And it was a large enough number, and the preference for LRT was so marked (over 80%), that it is a very clear result. The fact that the support was strong throughout the city even outside the Lower City seems to have been forgotten. And don't forget that a wide range of stakeholder groups, representing thousands more residents, also officially and publicly endorsed LRT (including the Chamber of Commerce, McMaster Students Union, Realtors Association, Homebuilders Association and many BIAs and neighbourhood associations)!

Unfortunately, almost four years has past since this massive public consultation and outreach effort was undertaken, and that time has been squandered since nothing was down to keep the momentum going (in fact the Mayor spent most of his four years spreading misinformation and fighting against LRT despite having won on a strongly pro-LRT platform). Even some councillors have forgotten why they were convinced to vote for LRT so many times.

So, Fred is probably right that we need to re-start the process to remind ourselves why those who took the time to get informed about LRT (including councillors and many residents and stakeholder groups) support it. Once the committee is appointed would be a good time for people to tell them AGAIN why LRT is such a good idea for Hamilton, especially if 100% of the direct costs are going to be funded by the province.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-11-17 13:27:09

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By LRTcampaign (anonymous) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 11:01:29

Like I asked before, what detailed initiatives that took place for the Yes We Cannon campaign can be applied to mobilize people to demand LRT? For one, I think the website needs to be updated regularly, at minimum.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 15:20:19

LRT is a bit off topic from the point of this - living in the burbs, literally or figuratively, sucks. If you live downtown but your neighbours do suburban things like fire up the leaf blower after work, smoke you out with their fireplace, and double park their truck, then you live in the burbs.

I think the best way to implement LRT is to ignore it for now and work on other small projects such as Yes we Cannon. A dozen of such citizen led quick successes will show what is possible, then LRT becomes easy.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted November 21, 2014 at 21:54:46 in reply to Comment 106257

living in the burbs, literally or figuratively, sucks.

Opinion, not fact. When I lived in the core I had a few things that were great (regular street cleaning, well lit, great moving traffic, walking distance to Jackson Square, etc) but lots of things that weren't (noise, rude pedestrians, issues with drugs in the parks, some VERY unsafe areas, etc).

If you live downtown but your neighbours do suburban things like fire up the leaf blower after work, smoke you out with their fireplace, and double park their truck, then you live in the burbs.

No idea what this comment means, but I've never had any of those things occur either downtown or up on the mountain in the burbs.

I'd say that where I am, I have access to _more_ services than I did downtown. I have multiple elementary and secondary schools literally outside my front door, immediate access to a rec centre, walking distance to shopping, an urban forest, tons of green space, peace and quiet, friendly neighbours, community events... it goes on and on. Remember, your opinion is just that, yours - just as mine is mine.

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By Selway (registered) | Posted November 18, 2014 at 00:22:57 in reply to Comment 106257

As you point out, the comments are somewhat off topic, but if you can't beat em join em, so instead of discussing this article, I will discuss another one, namely your piece last month on the costs of sprawl. (Yes, yes, Right Railers, I understand that Light Rail is also a putative development tool.) While the premises of your argument seem sound enough, we need more local specifics. You say

"The downtown house, being closer to the economic and cultural action, is worth more. So the downtown house ends up paying $4,500 for $3,500 of services and the suburban one pays $3,500 for $4,500 in services, making a $1,000 cross-subsidy from urban efficiency to suburban waste."

I am not sure that this is entirely the case in Hamilton. My impression is that in fact residential property is not estimated more highly in the old city than in the more recent suburbs. Westdale is a probable exception as is the old money bench above Aberdeen west of James. But again, it is my impression, I have not looked into it very closely.

Also, it is a misleading simplification to assume, as many proponents of lower city intensification seem to do, that services in the older built up area are kind of a natural endowment that we can use comparatively cheaply. Some of the older infrastructure needs to be renewed, and in any case some areas currently scheduled for development in the old city require as much brand new servicing as any greenfield project. The buildings on the escarpment face at 467 Charlton, if built, will require water and wastewater service de novo; west harbour development at piers 6, 7, and 8 requires at least a major sewage pumping upgrade; and Barton Tiffany will also require moslty new everything.

What would be useful, IMHO, is some visualization of the data as maps. For example, the last notice of assessment we got from MPAC indicated two neighbourhoods deemed by MPAC to be very like the one in which the house being assessed was located. If we had a map of these sibling neighbourhoods i.e those with housing of similar market value, and therefore similar municipal property tax contributions, and an equivalent mapping of infrastructure costs, we could begin to make some meaningful assertions about the (possible) re-distribution of tax revenue from one area of this city to another.

We might also be able to say how much density was required at, for example, the corner of Rymal Road and Upper Mount Albion Road, currently proposed for single and town house development, to cover the true costs of servicing that block.

Preparing maps of this sort would not be an easy task. Your article pointed out some of the complications. However, without a fair bit of detail, one is left in the extremely difficult political position of saying to the electorate in the outer suburbs (as you were not quite blunt enough to express it) that the parasite thinks it's the host. This is not going to be a helpful slogan.

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By Still (anonymous) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 18:36:43 in reply to Comment 106257

Best way to implement LRT is to ignore it for now, you say. Let's hope your approach is the last of a list of other pathetic attempts, lame arguments, and excuses to derail the LRT project entirely.

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By Fake Name (anonymous) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 17:12:11 in reply to Comment 106257

We already were promised the money, and we already voted to do it. The process started in 2007.

Let's compare to another city - Dijon, France. They built 20km of LRT in 4 years from vote to completion, at about half the cost per km of our plan.

So in other words, there's no good reason why we don't have the B-line and most of the A-line done *today*, within the 800M budget planned. The French did it.

But I guess we're just not as good at this as the French. I mean, they have their reputation for being hard-working, and for cheap non-union labour, and for wide sprawling modern cities with plenty of room for laying tracks. Oh, and everybody knows the wonders of French engineering. Truly we never had any hope of approaching the success of the great French.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 18:09:28 in reply to Comment 106260

Keolis operates Dijon's LRT, and they'll soon operate Waterloo's as well.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 17:16:27 in reply to Comment 106260

exactly. We are an embarrassment.
We've been putting off installing the first phases of a modern transit system since the 1970's and the same creaky old boys club is still trying to put it off today. The amount of time it takes us to do 3 more studies, other cities have revolutionized themselves and moved towards their future.

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By jacklin (anonymous) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 21:17:20

I don't think LRT is a public engagement issue. The public has spoken. It became an election issue because it is an easy way to score political points with the disengaged and to entrench in your ward via the backyard politics you mention. I guess Fred was right in his middle road approach, even though at the time I thought it would sink him. Now that its business as usual the key is to ensure the province keeps its end of the bargain. Ideally I'd like to see whatever Hamilton's contribution will be spun out as a form of bond financed by future tax levies attributable to the LRT.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 17, 2014 at 21:25:24 in reply to Comment 106266

also important to remember that Fred is very pro-LRT and didn't hide this fact during the election. His first interview on CHML after the election is well worth the listen. Very straight forward about us needing to stop goofing around as usual and get on with things.

The pre-election poll clearly showed the public supports LRT, and as Larry DiIanni always says "those polls reflect the averages of the community". He was right - the vote breakdown went exactly as was suggested by the poll. So ditto for the LRT support from the same poll.

Furthermore, nobody with a straight face can suggest that anti-LRT people were voting for Fred. Simply not true. Anti-LRT people had 1 candidate. And that candidate took 30% of the vote, with the rest going to Fred and Brian.

Any attempt to spin the polling results or election results as somehow being 'anti-LRT' is pure nonsense.

Heck, some of the pundits have pointed out that Dundas elected a councillor who isn't gung-ho on LRT. That had more to do with her great track record and work in the community for many years. The FACT is, Brian McHattie was the top vote getter for mayor in Dundas, with Fred second. Dundas is anti-LRT? Anything but.

Chad Collins is the only lower city councillor who has waffled on LRT and only because of the 'disruption of road construction' during the construction phase. Fred did a great job dismantling this argument in his CHML interview reminding everyone that we regularly rebuild entire roadways, and he's not aware of council deciding against such a job because it's disruptive for a couple of years. Yea, building a city can be disruptive at times.
Get over it and make it work. Short-term pain for long-term gain, a concept this city's leaders have NEVER wrapped their heads around.

Comment edited by jason on 2014-11-17 21:27:34

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By Jobs (anonymous) | Posted November 19, 2014 at 05:49:18

There are very few jobs in Hamilton.

Stop talking about LRT.

Start talking about job creation.

LRT will not produce any jobs in the next 7-10 years.

No one will be using LRT if they do not have jobs.

We need jobs.

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By Fake Name (anonymous) | Posted November 19, 2014 at 12:56:07 in reply to Comment 106290

Cities with dense, well-connected downtown areas attract employers to those areas. LRT will support that. Is it a sure thing? Of course not. But it has worked in other places.

If the province is planning on building LRTs in GTHA cities, we should be on board.

Do you have a better plan for creating employment in Hamilton? Anything?

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted November 19, 2014 at 13:43:00 in reply to Comment 106303

How about being the battery capital of the world?

How about building green power?

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:58:05 in reply to Comment 106290

exactly why Ottawa, TO, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, K-W are building and expanding LRT networks. They don't want jobs. They want to remain depressed and crappy.

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By LOL_all_over_again (registered) | Posted November 28, 2014 at 00:03:24

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By skewl (anonymous) | Posted November 28, 2014 at 12:50:30 in reply to Comment 106470

lesson learned: never improve anything

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By Fail all over again (anonymous) | Posted November 28, 2014 at 08:26:39 in reply to Comment 106470

If everyone listened to you, nothing would ever get any better.

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