Suburban sprawl: the alienating force

Douglas E. Morris

Fauquier Times-Democrat, September 13, 2005


On Sept. 11, 2001, 2,973 innocent Americans lost their lives in a series of cowardly attacks. However, that number pales in comparison to the 30,000 Americans who are murdered every year. Even without Al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism, the U.S. is a frighteningly violent place to live.


In America, women are afraid to walk alone, even in their own neighborhoods. Parents don't let their kids play alone outside for fear that some "sicko" will snatch them. We are no longer the land of the free. For decades we have been the land of the frightened.


Other first-world nations have violent movies and video games. They have pornography, drug users, organized crime, prostitution, poverty, and racial disharmony. If you go down a checklist and compare the reasons American "experts" have given for the breakdown in U.S. society and the increase in violence, you will find that these same issues exist in Europe. However, those societies have not fallen apart -- as ours has.


There is one aspect of American life, generally overlooked as it is so ubiquitous, that does not exist to the same extent or degree in Europe. And that is suburban sprawl. We have it, they don't, and our society is the poorer for it.


Sprawl emerged in 1945, and was firmly in place by the 1960s. And side-by-side with the emergence of sprawl, violence also increased. The aggravated assault rate skyrocketed from 60 per 100,000 in 1957 to 200 per 100,000 in 1965, then erupted to over 440 per 100,000 by the middle of 1990s.


Just as with murders, assaults, and rapes, the statistics associated with serial killings can be clearly connected to the rise of sprawl.

Between 1906 and 1959, there was a steady rate of only 1.7 new cases of serial killers every year in America. When there was no sprawl, there was no breakdown in society, therefore no increase in serial killers.


Then, by the 1960s, when sprawl was firmly established as America's main form of habitat, new serial killers emerged at a rate of five per year. By 1980, the number of new serial killers per year had risen to 15; and by the 1990s there were 36 new serial killers identified per year. Because of this increase in serial predation, the FBI has estimated that serial murders could claim an average of 11 lives a day in the United States in the twenty-first century.


FBI agent John Douglas has spent over twenty years tracking and studying violent offenders, and he asserts that more than any other factor, children predisposed towards violence need responsible adult role models to be able to develop into healthy, well-adjusted individuals. Douglas and many other criminologists and psychologists indicate that healthy interactions with adult members of society are the key to helping dissuade budding violent offenders from their predatory impulses.


Regrettably, suburban sprawl has eliminated the places where children can spend time with responsible, caring adults. Without the adult supervision that was so common when we lived in genuine small town communities prior to WW II, many American children today are left to their own devices, allowing for those predisposed toward violent behavior to descend into the darkness of their impulses and become violent offenders.


Simply being a part of a genuine community would make it less likely for disturbed citizens to reach a point where their distorted fantasies take over their actions. Just as occurs in other developed nations, by being involved in others' lives on a regular basis in communities, those born with a "bad seed" would be able to realize that other human beings are not just objects to satisfy their sadistic needs and desires.


But how is that going to happen in sprawl where people are locked tight in their suburban fortresses, and many neighbors don't even know one another's names?


Suburban sprawl's connection to violence may seem tenuous to some, but statistics tracking the development of sprawl with the increase in violence clearly show a link. Cause and effect may be difficult to prove in a court of law or to replicate in a double blind scientific study. However, as the foundation upon which American society has literally and figuratively been built, sprawl is clearly involved in what ails our nation.


If we continue to bury our collective head in the sand and ignore the problems that our fragmented physical landscape imposes on our lives, we are dooming our children and ourselves to a lifetime of fear and potential victimization. As long as sprawl alienates us from one another, as long as we are relegated to living without genuine small town communities, America will continue to be a terrorized country -- with or without Al Qaeda.


Douglas E. Morris, of Washington, D.C., is the author of Its a Sprawl World After All (