American landscapes are uniquely revealing about who we are as a nation. Landscapes are mirrors of society: Our economy, politics and culture are all inscribed in fields and fences, skyscrapers and suburbs. Just as the palatial city halls of the 19th century and the art museums and waterfront redevelopments of the late 20th century say a lot about civic pride and local boosterism, today’s inner-city slums and ghettos speak volumes about the persistence of social inequality and our unwillingness to address its consequences. New England townscapes symbolize an idealized, family-centered, church-going, industrious, thrifty and democratic community. Rust Belt townscapes are witnesses to our inability to manage local economies in the face of global economic competition. Gated, master-planned private communities reflect their residents’ desire for status and security; the landscapes of suburban commercial strips are microcosms of consumer culture.
As palimpsests of economic and social history, landscapes not only echo and embody the fortunes of successive generations of inhabitants. They also reflect our individual behavior and even our ability to think and act collectively. Our daily surroundings are powerful but stealthy backdrops that can naturalize and reinforce dominant political and economic structures as if they were simply given and inevitable. Laden with layers of symbolic meaning, everyday landscapes—including the people who inhabit them, their comportment, their clothes, their “stuff”—amount to moral geographies that both echo and tend to reproduce a country’s core values. In America, nothing is more central to these values, at once aesthetic, social, cultural, political and economic, than the American Dream.
Origins of the American Dream
The term “American Dream” was first coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America. The product of Depression-era politics, the original formulation flowed from the idea of American exceptionalism, stressing individual freedom and the possibility of dramatic upward social mobility through ingenuity and hard work. It promised, too, that successive generations would enjoy steadily improving economic and social conditions.
It did not take long, though, for the ideal of home ownership to be grafted on to the original notion. Real estate, as Thorstein Veblen once wrote, became the “great American game” the moment that streetcars released the middle classes from the confines of the industrial city. During the 1920s and 1930s the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges (today called the National Association of Realtors) transformed real estate brokerage from a loosely and locally regulated activity, open to any unscrupulous operative, to a nationally organized occupation with significant influence on American housing policy. Working in collaboration with various government agencies and civic groups, realtors’ “Own Your Own Home” campaign promoted the idea of the single-family home as a central element of the American Dream, worth sacrificing and going into debt for, a stepping-stone of intergenerational upward mobility.
The vast majority of Americans bought into this idea, which was, after all, merely the culmination of a venerable republican tradition linking property ownership to civic virtue. Built on individual freedom and private property rights, America would be free from the degenerative ravages of class struggle. When the New Deal introduced Federal mortgage insurance, the American Dream fell within the immediate reach of millions of households.
It was no coincidence that automobile ownership became a distinctive component of the Dream at about the same time. An essential adjunct to suburban lifestyles, private automobiles conferred another dimension of freedom—personal mobility—as well as another very visible means of demonstrating personal success. After World War II, houses and cars became the cornerstones of an increasingly affluent society, and the Dream acquired yet another dimension: “lifestyle”, defined almost exclusively in terms of consumption.
David Brooks has argued persuasively in On Paradise Drive (2004) that this coincided with the Dream spilling over into a “Paradise Spell” of relentless individual aspiration and restless consumption, amounting to a new controlling ideology of American life that is with us still today. Home ownership, fierce individualism, the accumulation of wealth and private property rights remain central to the 21st century version of the Dream. The domestic platform for George W. Bush’s second term, for example, was framed around an “ownership society” in which families are offered incentives and rewards for owning homes and businesses and for controlling their own savings, health and retirement benefits. One of the first outcomes of the Bush policy was the American Dream Downpayment Initiative, which provides downpayment and closing cost assistance to low-income, first-time homebuyers.
All of this has been half a century in the making, however. The first full expression of the Dream in the American landscape came in the 1950s, in the form of the suburbs. It was unleashed by a combination of factors. In addition to the increased availability of Federal mortgage insurance through the GI Bill and a beefed-up Federal Housing Administration, there was a backlog of unfulfilled demand for housing from the Depression and war years, combined with the postwar baby boom. During the war there had been a moratorium on new residential construction, so that by 1945 there was an accumulated backlog of demand for three to four million dwellings. Abraham Levitt and his sons William and Alfred, the first large-scale developers to apply a highly-rationalized, assembly-line approach to residential development, showed how the backlog could be addressed in short order, and at an affordable price. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 included funding for circumferential beltways that made outlying locations more accessible, particularly where there were intersections with major radial interstate spokes. Meanwhile, the number of automobiles on the roads jumped from just under 26 million in 1945 to more than 52 million in 1955 and 97 million by 1972. The result was a dramatic spurt in suburban growth.
The first quarter century after World War II was the era of the “Sitcom Suburb”, a democratic utopia of ranch and split-level homes where life imitated television, the number of which had skyrocketed even faster than homes and autos. This, though, was the pre-Cosby and Jamie Foxx Show sitcom era. Sitcom Suburbs were rolled out according to local government zoning regulations that were founded on the Supreme Court’s landmark case on zoning law: Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co. (1926). Ruling in favor of the municipality’s right to prevent a property owner from using land for purposes other than those for which it had been zoned, the Court established the power of local governments to “abate a nuisance.” The latter, the Court ruled, could be defined broadly to include anything affecting the general welfare of a residential area. As a result, zoning promptly came to be used to exclude not only undesirable land uses from residential areas but also (by establishing large minimum lot or dwelling sizes, for example) undesirable—low-income, often minority—households. And thus, just as legal segregation came to an end, a new source of residential segregation arose.
Transcribing the Dream onto suburban landscapes, architects, planners and developers were all influenced, directly or indirectly, by the legacy of the so-called American Renaissance. Rooted in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and propagated by the likes of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, was an explicitly anti-urban perspective, viewing cities as diseased, dangerous and even infernal. Thoreau famously observed that in industrial cities “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In Walden, published in 1854, he advocated accessibility to Nature as a spiritual wellspring for city dwellers.
By the late 19th century, Americans had come to think of their relationship with Nature and the Great Outdoors as something distinctively American. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner successfully advanced the influential idea that the “frontier experience” was the single most significant factor in determining the American character and, as Leo Marx put it in The Machine in the Garden (1964), it became broadly understood that “access to undefiled, bountiful and sublime Nature is what accounts for the virtue and special good fortune of Americans.” Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, a major figure in American planning history, carried this mode of thinking into his design for Central Park and, later, his work on garden suburbs, firmly establishing an arcadian ideal in the minds of urban designers.
Frank Lloyd Wright, a gifted architect who fancied himself a visionary intellectual, took these values into the automobile age. Ever the iconoclast, Wright decided to be an architect who hated cities. He was also eager to position himself as a visionary with a distinctively American flavor. His vision was for a “Usonian” (a word-play on “U.S. own”) future. In contrast to the dominant European-based Modernism of the day, and in direct contradiction of the rationale of the high-rise Ville Radieuse of Le Corbusier (another gifted architect who fancied himself an intellectual visionary), Wright argued for a low-density, low-rise pattern of settlement in his idealized “Broadacre City.” Drawing on the individualism and naturalism of Jefferson, Emerson and Thoreau, Wright gave primacy to individual freedom rather than the European Modernists’ emphasis on social democracy. Single-family homes on one-acre lots, he argued, provided the only way to guarantee the individual freedom that was the birthright of Americans. Broadacre City would be the ultimate expression of a truly democratic society, not to mention healthful, aesthetically pleasing, and both morally and culturally uplifting. The inaccessibility inherent to the large lots and low densities of Broadacre City was to be conquered by a network of landscaped parkways and freeways, and the focal point of semi-rural neighborhoods would be provided by huge gas stations, architectural centerpieces that would double as cafeterias and mini-marts. Unfortunately, Wright, like most would-be visionary architects, did not really understand cities and their complex, recursive interdependencies. Like his predecessors, contemporaries and successors, he saw no further than a prescriptive and deterministic relationship between urban design and individual and social well-being: Build it this way and people/community/society will thrive.
But although Wright’s rationale turned out to be flawed, his inspirations—American individualism, the single-family home, the automobile and the wide-open spaces of America—proved to be the dominant ingredients of the subsequent realization of the American Dream in suburban landscapes. The first landscapes anywhere to be cast in the image of the automobile, the American suburbs quickly became distinctive for their drive-in and drive-through establishments for all kinds of services, bigger and bigger “boxes” for retailing, and acres and acres of parking space that imposed an unrelieved and generic sterility on the eye. To accommodate this parking space, buildings had to be set back so far from the road that advertising signs became ever larger and more outlandish in an attempt to catch motorists’ attention as they sped along. The net result was the classic “strip.”
The Dream Disturbed
Almost by accident, then, Americans developed a distinctive way of life and a new social and spatial order that has come to be known as Suburbia. Rising incomes, broadening educational opportunities, increasing levels of home ownership and ever-expanding choices of consumer goods allowed Americans to reimagine their country and what it meant to be an American. As industrial cities declined, Sun Belt cities and Suburbia displaced them as the cradles of a new national personality. The suburbs’ new centrality to American identity was reinforced during the Cold War as the United States showcased its suburban lifestyles and consumer culture by way of contrast with the Soviet Union’s regimented and modest living standards. As Robert Beauregard points out in Why America Became Suburban (2006), this new narrative also enabled Americans to distinguish themselves from the old-world culture associated with European cities, thus simultaneously adding another dimension to the idea of American exceptionalism.
But as the dream of a single-family home in the suburbs became available to an increasingly broader public, the American Dream itself became tarnished. Individual pursuit of the Dream led to collective disappointment; standardization begat indifference; rationalization led to disenchantment. By the early 1970s, disenchantment with Suburbia had become the conventional wisdom. Despite the fact that there were few practical alternatives to the “sprawl machine”, Suburbia had acquired a charge sheet that listed not only the bland standardization and rationalization of “placeless” subdivisions but also environmental degradation, social isolation and malaise.
The shocking rate and extent of low-density suburban development clearly drove the popular critique of Suburbia. By the late 1960s, “sprawl” had become a synonym for suburbs, and it didn’t take long for academics, architects, planners and social critics to document the nexus of its negative attributes. Sheer weight of numbers brought to Suburbia the full spectrum of maladies that afflict the whole of American society, including violent crime. Suburbia’s particular social pathology became the collective ritual of frustration and misery that is commuting. The low densities inherent to single-family suburban development resulted in increased traffic, ever-longer commutes and chronic dependence on automobiles. It also generated a fascinating battle over cul-de-sacs, pitting consumers who love them and pay a premium to live on one, and traffic engineers who loathe them.
The high environmental costs of automobile dependency, meanwhile, included air pollution—in particular the generation of millions of tons of greenhouse gases from suburban commuters—and polluted run-off from the roads and parking lots that cover a third or more of suburban watersheds. The ad hoc nature of most suburban development, it was also pointed out, destroys millions of acres of wildlife habitat and agricultural land every year. The health costs included an increased incidence of asthma, lung cancer and heart problems. Stress resulting from commuting, it was argued, led to adverse effects on marriages and family life.
And then there was how it all looked. Rationalized, standardized and tightly zoned suburban developments resulted in neighborhoods that lack visual, demographic and social diversity. The economics of private subdivision led as well to a lack of public open space, urban infrastructure and civic amenities. A century after the publication of Walden, therefore, it was the mass of residents of Suburbia who were evidently leading lives of quiet desperation—housewives, apparently, not least.
These themes still dominate the literature, both academic and popular, fiction and non-fiction. Robert Putnam’s briefcase bestseller Bowling Alone (2000), for example, focused on the growing separation of home and work, the increasing segregation and homogeneity of Suburbia, and the attenuation of civic engagement. It is the placelessness of suburban landscapes, however, that has become one of their most emblematic attributes. Another briefcase bestseller, James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere (1994), captured popular disenchantment with the placelessness of suburbia: the “Nowhere” of the book’s title. Kunstler portrayed Suburbia as a cartoon landscape of tract houses, car-clogged highways, parking lots, strip malls and franchise food, with no sense of place. The genius loci of diversely appointed towns and cities had been eclipsed by the genius loco of Suburbia. And of course there is Malvina Reynolds’ classic song “Little Boxes”, which sums it all up about as efficiently as humanly possible.
In response to such mass disaffection, the American Dream has been recast once more. Today’s enchanters are developers, realtors and marketers—including architects and planners with an eye for profit and professional advancement. Fulfillment of the recalibrated Dream means that home ownership in an arcadian setting now has to be packaged with a significant degree of suburban bling: Bigness, spectacle and affordable luxury have eclipsed mere residence. It is the American Dream Extreme.
Vast tracts of suburban landscapes have quickly come to reflect the new approach. In 1987, the size of the average new home was 1,900 square feet; by 2001 this had increased by 20 percent to an average of 2,300 square feet. Over the same period the percentage of new homes larger than 3,000 square feet almost doubled, from 11 percent to 20 percent. Ceiling heights have soared and, even in homes without an actual second floor, ceiling heights are now so elevated as to give the outward appearance of there being two stories. The typical new home now runs to eight rooms with at least two full baths and a two-car garage, with kitchens, bathrooms and closets all super-sized. Meanwhile, lot sizes have remained almost unchanged, and, in many land-constrained markets such as California, have actually begun to shrink. The result is a marked bulking-up of suburban landscapes, and, of course, the neologism McMansion.
In older existing suburbs, teardowns and scrapeoffs are being replaced with monster homes that overshadow their neighbors. The trend has the saving grace that for every infill monster home there is one less potential addition to new sprawl. But it has provoked NIMBYism: Many communities have enacted “mansionization” ordinances to limit the height and size of new homes.
It is in new subdivisions, though, that the Dream has been recast most effectively. Private, master-planned communities are the new expression of the Dream. Today some 47 million Americans—almost one in six of the total population—live in one or another of the quarter million master-planned subdivisions that have been laid out with their own bike trails, “town” centers, country clubs, golf courses and elementary schools. The result of carefully researched niche marketing and product differentiation, they offer packages of amenities and themed settings that are matched to the finances and aspirations of different income and lifestyle groups.
Some, like Anthem, north of Phoenix, Arizona, are packaged to appeal to young families. Anthem feels more like a luxury holiday resort than a town. It includes a water park with slides, a children’s railway, hiking trails, tennis courts, a rock-climbing wall, two golf courses, several spotless parks, a supermarket mall, two churches, a school and a country club. Some are packaged to appeal to affluent retirees: The Del Webb development corporation’s marketers have identified early-retiring baby-boomers—called “Zoomers”—as the target market for their latest Sun City development, packaged accordingly with Starbucks cafes, Internet access and multi-gyms, as well as the usual tennis courts, pools and golf courses. Some developments are packaged as “green” or “sustainable” communities. Others have a narrower focus: Front Sight, Nevada, is under construction with a guns-and-ammo theme, featuring streets with names like Second Amendment Drive and Sense of Duty Way, target-shooting ranges, a pro shop stocked with weapons, a martial arts gym, a defensive driving track, and a K–12 school where teachers will be allowed to carry concealed firearms. There will also be sales inducements that include a free Uzi machine gun and a discounted game-hunting safari in Africa.
The common denominator of all these suburban theme parks is a “servitude regime”: a set of covenants, controls and restrictions (CCRs) that circumscribe people’s behavior and their ability to modify their homes and yards. They are typically drafted by developers but implemented by homeowner associations, membership in which is mandatory. The scope and detail of most CCRs is numbing, covering everything from exterior trim and landscaping to the length of time that vehicles can be left visible on the street, the weight of family dogs, the type holiday decorations, and long lists of proscribed behaviors: putting out the laundry, making loud noise, putting up TV antennas, displaying political or religious posters, placing toys and garden equipment in the yard, and so on.
Presiding over CCRs, the boards of homeowner associations amount to private governments, with power to tax residents (via homeowner dues and levies) and responsibilities not only for policing CCRs but also, in many cases, for neighborhood services such as clean-up, mowing, snow-clearing and security. Under U.S. law, CCRs have to be taken very seriously: If homeowner associations don’t enforce them to the letter, they can be accused of being arbitrary and capricious—deadly in any court of law. So draconian measures have to be taken against even the smallest infringements (Repaint those garage doors! Re-lay that driveway! Take down that poster!) in order to prevent the neighborhood from descending into a landscape of, well, normality.
The result of all of this is that the servitude regimes of private master-planned communities now define the “legal landscapes” of the American Dream. Developers are keen on CCRs because they impose a high degree of stability on communities until they are entirely built out and sold off. While this degree of control may seem somewhat tyrannical and contrary to American ideals of individual freedom and private property rights, consumers like them because they help to enhance equity values when markets are bullish and preserve equity values when markets are flat. In the current version of the Dream, then, the accumulation of wealth trumps homeowners’ freedom of individual action and expression, at least insofar as aesthetics and public comportment are concerned.
Servitude regimes are taken a couple of steps further in new urbanist developments (“The” New Urbanism, capitalized, to its closest adherents). New urbanism codifies designs in great detail with the intention of fostering “community”, civility and sense of place in compact, mixed-use, walkable and relatively self-contained developments. These are highly laudable goals. But the prescriptiveness of new urbanism is founded on the conceit (inherited from Wright, Corbusier and others) of a simplistic spatial determinism: That the arrangement of buildings and spaces, along with the configuration of their details, will result in certain predictable behaviors. Good design equals community, civility and sense of place; bad design equals placelessness, ennui and deviant behavior.
There is a grain of truth in this: People do respond to their environments, and everyone wants a nice place to live. New Urbanism, however, goes beyond this to insist upon an essentialized, form-based code for urban development. This, of course, is a chimera: “Place” is socially constructed, and the relationships between people and their environments are complex, reflexive and recursive. But even though new urbanism is a fetishized and strapped-on kind of urbanism, it has nevertheless become extraordinarily influential. Persuaded by the assertions of new urbanist seers, the rosy rhetoric of new urbanism has proven popular with developers, who have quickly recognized its attractiveness in branding their products. It has also gone down well with gullible journalists and desperate civic leaders, and with consultants, architects and planners who are more at home with normative manifestos and armchair philosophizing than with empirically-tested understandings of urban dynamics. Evangelical new urbanist consultants have thus been wildly successful as mythographers and enchanters on behalf of developers. Form, after all, follows finance. In a classic case of cooptation, new urbanism has been transmuted from a critical and progressive force into an instrument of the prevailing order. Developers across the United States are now using the tag “New Urbanist” as a kind of designer label for privatized dioramas and picturesque enclaves of what basically amounts to upscale sprawl.
Welcome to Vulgaria
Key elements of the Dream as it exists today can be read clearly in the preferred aesthetic of master-planned communities in general and of new urbanist developments in particular. The dominant aesthetic, by far, is neo-traditional, with the American small town of Norman Rockwell illustrations serving as the model. Developers’ advertising copy and the solemn proclamations of the Congress for New Urbanism (a sort of politburo for the movement) are studded with historical allusions to the American Dream (version 1.0), wishful arcadian fantasies, and the values of the Founding Fathers. The actual developments, however, draw freely on a palette of house and building types that often include not only neo-Victorians and neo-neoclassicals inspired by mid-century small-town America, but also neo-Georgian, faux-French chateau, neo-Tuscan and fake Tudor.
This approach has now been formalized by a derrière garde of architects and planners as Traditional Neighborhood Design. Time-tested designs for conservative privatopias? Nostalgia for safer, simpler times and reassurance of lasting values in an increasingly anxious world? Or suburbs in period costume, infantilized Disneyfication, and the commodification and sanitizing of nature, community and history?
All of the above. The net result is that the contemporary landscapes of upscale suburban America are meretricious and camp. Infused with the bigness and bling endorsed by developers’ focus groups, new urbanism’s ersatz-traditional neighborhood design amounts in practice to schlock-and-awe urbanism. So welcome to Vulgaria, where the sumptuary codes of contemporary America are simple: Nothing succeeds like excess.
Perhaps the most easily read elements of the Dream in today’s American landscapes are economic prosperity and conspicuous consumption. The outcome is a proliferation of landscapes of casual vulgarity, where everything is dominated by a presumed reciprocity between size and social superiority. Upscale Suburbia is a place where ostentation and simulation pass for style and taste, and where affluence is confused with cosmopolitanism and urbanity. It is characterized by tract mansions and starter castles of 4,000 square feet and upwards, featuring two-story entrance halls, great rooms, three- or four-car garages, huge kitchens, spa-sized bathrooms, his-and-hers room-sized master closets, media rooms, fitness centers, home offices, high-tech security systems, and perhaps even an au pair suite. Vulgaria’s exterior residential styling deploys any kind of neotraditional motif as long as the street frontage is impressive, with high gabled roofs, unusually shaped windows, and architectural features such as turrets, bays and portes-cochère. The overall effect is an outlandish, contrived spectacle of serial repetition and over-the-top pretension. It is noveau riche tackiness on an unprecedented scale.
Other elements of the original Dream are now increasingly difficult to discern in contemporary landscapes. The ideal of individual economic, social and residential mobility, played out in cities in which a common culture could be forged, has been precluded by the fragmentation of cities into artful figments of architects’ and developers’ imaginations. Physically designed and tightly regulated through homeowners’ associations to provide privacy autonomy, stability, security and partition, private master-planned communities have propagated a kind of “moral minimalism” in their residents: Bound only by their contracted commitment to lead a private life, most Vulgarians have little social contact with neighbors, virtually no social interaction beyond their workplace and, as a result, few bonds of mutual responsibility. Most are utterly indifferent to issues that go beyond their own property and lifestyle.
Givings and Takings
Does any of this matter if this is what people want, if this defines the fulfillment of their dreams? In Sprawl: A Compact History (2005), architectural historian Robert Breugmann has attempted a revisionist/apologist history of sprawl. Sprawl, he argues, is a logical consequence of economic growth and the democratization of society, providing millions of people with the kinds of mobility, privacy and choice that were once the prerogatives of the rich and powerful. Joel Kotkin, too, has persistently argued that most people seem to like living in the suburbs: So why all the fuss? Libertarian think-tanks like the Reason Foundation and the Heritage Foundation have also tried to counter anti-sprawl arguments on the principle of freedom of markets and individual choice.
These neoliberal interpretations appeal to the individualistic republicanism that derives from the American Renaissance. What they overlook, however, is that the benefits of sprawl tend to accrue to Americans individually, while the costs of sprawl—in terms of infrastructure building, energy generation and pollution mitigation—tend to be borne by society at large.1 And it’s not just American society. The American Dream is becoming other countries’ nightmare in the shape of our disproportionate contribution to global warming and, arguably, our geopolitical strategies that are based partly on securing access to the petroleum supplies necessary to sustain our sprawling suburban lifestyles.
Could we rewrite or edit our landscapes through policy and planning if we had a mind to do so? Could we perhaps reciprocally influence the nature of the American Dream in the process? In theory, yes; in practice, probably not.
There are plenty of policy options, including ceilings on mortgage deductions, surcharges on second homes, open space and amenity assessments, regional transfer-of-development rights schemes, regional tax sharing, higher gasoline taxes and highway tolls, impact fees, user assessments, and the replacement of our balkanized web of local municipalities with metropolitan-wide governance. In Europe, policies like these have long been deployed routinely, albeit in support of a different Dream, one in which government “gives” order. As Jeremy Rifkin puts it in The European Dream (2004), this approach
emphasizes community relationships over individual autonomy, cultural diversity over assimilation, quality of life over the accumulation of wealth, sustainable development over unlimited material growth, deep play over unrelenting toil, universal human rights and the rights of nature over property rights, and global cooperation over the unilateral exercise of power.
American urban planners have been unable to deploy such policies with any degree of rigor or conviction. Their hopes are currently pinned on the idea of “smart growth”, a rather fuzzy and elastic concept that boils down to guiding growth to more efficient locations at higher densities. Despite some local “smart growth” successes, urban planning and policy are fast becoming undercut by one of the American Dream’s most enduring elements: the absolute sanctity of private property rights.
It was not part of the original Dream that private property rights should trump the public interest but, in the peculiar mix of political conservatism and social libertarianism that is the hallmark of contemporary America, the issue of “takings” is shaping up to do just that. Libertarians and property-rights activists have long been unhappy with planners’ use of eminent domain to compel owners to accept a buyout to make room for new roads, electricity lines, urban renewal and other projects that benefit public health, safety and environmental protection. More recently, they have advanced the notion that government regulations on real estate, such as zoning or subdivision limits, “take” away property value. They have attempted to use Congress, state legislatures and ballot initiatives to pass laws that would treat most regulations as “takings”, requiring financial compensation to affected property owners.
Their first significant win came in November 2004 when Oregon voters passed Measure 37, a ballot initiative that torpedoed what had been the strictest land-use system in the country. The following year, however, a Supreme Court ruling effectively broadened the use of eminent domain to cover economic development. The outcome of the Kelo v. New London case in 2005 held that the town of New London, Connecticut could condemn private property in order to make room for a global pharmaceutical company’s hundred-acre manufacturing complex. To many, this extended government powers too far, and it has encouraged libertarians to launch ballot initiatives similar to Oregon’s Measure 37 in eleven other states in order to advance a broader anti-government agenda. In the November elections, property rights initiatives were passed in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and South Carolina, in most cases by overwhelming margins.
The implications of libertarian “takings” initiatives for policy and planning—and for the evolution of American landscapes—are enormous. Unable to find the resources with which to compensate private property owners for regulatory takings, municipalities would be compelled to allow myriad exceptions to their regulatory frameworks, thus replacing any semblance of strategic planning with piecemeal negotiations over every land-use decision. Municipal planners would be emasculated; consultants would rule (and collect handsome fees).
In private master-planned developments, meanwhile, the “takings” issue will be irrelevant: Servitude regimes of CCRs insulate and exempt them from most municipal land-use planning regulations, making them even more attractive to developers. The next iteration of American suburban landscape development is therefore likely to be framed overwhelmingly within private master-planned developments. We are thus confronted with a breathtaking only-in-America irony: More and more people living and working in communities with a significant circumscription of individual rights, thanks to the success of the libertarian movement.
A similar point, novel at the time, was made by K. William Kapp in his classic, The Social Costs of Private Enterprise (Schocken, 1950).