- I recently attended a public meeting where an elected official asked a group of planners the rhetorical question, "What is sprawl?" One planner's response was that sprawl occurred when the rural area was divided into large-acreage lots in order to build "McMansions." The official's response was, "Would you be happier if people located low-income trailers there instead?"
This dialogue troubled me. For the advocates of recent planning trends–such as smart growth and New Urbanism–to attract financial supporters and sympathetic voters, they use pejorative labels like sprawl, big-box, and McMansion. In order to demonize sprawl you need a demon. Rural farmers and foresters can't be vilified because planners are supposedly conserving resource lands for their use. And it's politically incorrect to malign lower-income families living in trailers. So who do special-interest groups scapegoat? Rich people and McDonald's are easy targets–thus: Rich people + McDonald's = McMansion.
This Orwellian doublespeak has been used by proponents to subliminally sell a political agenda that attacks a longstanding American institution: the land-settlement patterns of a culture dominated by automobiles and low-cost postwar subdivision housing. Their social agenda exploits fear and classism to advance their cause–at the expense of someone else's socioeconomic beliefs and well-being.
Former Portland METRO director and current Clark County, WA Community Development Dept. Director Richard Carson -- a self-described "contrarian planner" (we need more of those) -- has an article in Architecture magazine this month that assails the urbanist mentality: