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Sprawl at Night:
Seeing the Light

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By John G. Mitchell Photographs by Sarah Leen

Most people agree that unchecked development is a bad deal—for commuters, for taxpayers, for the environment. But few can agree on how to achieve smart growth.

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Tom Spellmire lives with his mother on an 87-acre (35-hectare) farm in Turtle Creek Township, Warren County, Ohio. One county away, to the south, lies Cincinnati. One county north, Dayton. Spellmire’s is a place of silos and barns and a turn-of-the-century white frame farmhouse with a green roof. Another farm or two can be seen along the road in one direction. But going the other way, after a mile or so, you begin to run out of green roofs and open fields, and what you see instead are the kinds of manicured lawns and picture windows that for half a century have signified fulfillment of the American dream.

One blustery day late last year I traveled with Tom Spellmire to see how that dream had been playing around Warren County. Harvest time was behind him then, the corn and soybeans taken in, the winter wheat planted. Crops from a homestead of 87 acres (35 hectares) couldn’t begin to pay all his taxes, so Spellmire leases 2,400 acres (970 hectares) from other landowners, though this is not as many acres as were once available to him. As we drove south, then west into an adjoining county, he could point to a subdivision (like Four Bridges) or an industrial site (Mitsubishi Electric) saying, “We used to farm all this land.”

Spellmire is a tall, ruddy, intensely focused man who served on Ohio’s Farmland Preservation Task Force in the 1990s. And he is not happy about the prospects for farming in Warren County. “Believe it or not,” he says, “this county is promoted as having rural character, but the zoning codes, in effect, say: ‘We want to develop everything.’ That’s why the county is a haven for real estate investors.”

When investors come, can developers be far behind? And behind the developer comes the family in search of a home in the suburbs. We drove past or through a dozen new subdivisions that day. The Meadows at Mason. Heritage Club. Hickory Woods. Simpson Creek Farms. Presently we arrived at a subdivision called Trailside Acres, featuring homes that we figured might sell for up to half a million dollars apiece. At the end of a cul-de-sac Spellmire gestured toward a wide, open field we could see in the distance beyond the slim side yards of the big houses.

“We lease that farm,” he said. “We rotate corn, soybeans, and wheat on it.” Then he shook his head. “And what I find so ironic is that all these people who live here look out their back windows and see this fine old farmstead. When I’m out there on a tractor, the subdivision kids are hanging over their fences, watching me. And you know what their parents say to the people who own that farm? They say, ‘You’re not going to sell it for development, are you? Are you?’”

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As typical suburbs grow out of control, developers are building kinder, gentler, self-contained subdivisions. Would you trade a big house in the burbs for a lifestyle that could end sprawl? Voice your opinion.

To see what some planners prescribe for the ills of urban sprawl, visit our virtual “smart growth” suburb.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did you know that the company that built Levittown, N.Y., which has come to represent the quintessential suburb, not only mass-produced houses but entire suburbs? Levitt and Sons built four Levittowns in New York State, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico. However, in Levittown, P.R., you won’t find any of the famous Cape Cod houses; construction standards don’t allow wooden houses because of potential hurricane and termite damage. Instead they are made of concrete.

Did you know that you can increase your home-buying power simply by living close to public transit, stores, and schools? In an effort to increase home ownership in urban areas, use of public transit, and support of neighborhood businesses and to reduce energy consumption and air pollution, the Institute for Location Efficiency has created the Location Efficient Mortgage (LEM).

The LEM is a fixed-interest rate, 15-to-30-year residential mortgage that can be used to purchase owner-occupied, single-unit detached homes, condominiums, and town homes. Lenders are allowed to consider the transportation-related savings achieved by an urban household that uses public transportation and relies on local services such as stores, schools, entertainment, and recreation. For many urban households the LEM can mean an increase in buying power of 50 to 100 percent of one year’s household income!

The LEM is presently available in Chicago, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, and Seattle, and may be coming soon to Philadelphia and Atlanta. To learn more about LEMs and what you can do to bring LEMs to your city, contact: or James “Kim” Hoeveler at the Center for Neighborhood Technology at +1 773 278 4800 x115.

—Heidi Schultz

The Trust for Public Land
Get news and resources on the protection of land for parks, gardens, greenways, and riverways.

Congress for New Urbanism
Learn about the philosophy behind New Urbanism.

Urban Land Institute
Find resources on urban revitalization, smart growth, and transportation.

American Farmland Trust
Learn about efforts around the nation to preserve farmland and promote environmentally responsible farming practices.

Census 2000
Get the latest population figures for all 50 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and find out how fast your city, metropolitan area, and county are growing.

Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse
A clearinghouse for resources on sprawl with information and links on smart growth, federal policies, state-by-state information, land conservation, and what you can do to curb sprawl.

Sierra Club Sprawl Page
Access reports and activist resources on sprawl, smart growth, transportation, and livable communities.

National Building Museum “Smart Growth and Choices for Change” Exhibit
Read the transcripts from the four-part exhibit that explores smart growth alternatives to sprawl and includes information on the history of suburbs, landmark housing and transportation legislation, and case studies of recent smart growth initiatives.

Sprawl Guide
Loads of information about urban sprawl, including essays, books, and current news. Looking back, this site examines the roots of the problem. Looking forward, it offers solutions and resources for people interested in halting sprawl.


Baxandall, Rosalyn, and Elizabeth Ewen. Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened. Basic Books, 2000.

Chen, Donald. “The Science of Smart Growth,” Scientific American (Vol. 283, No. 6, December 2000), 84-91.

Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. North Point Press, 2000.

Harnik, Peter. Inside City Parks. The Urban Land Institute and The Trust for Public Land, 2000. Available at +1 800 321 5011 (U.S. and Canada only) or

Jackson, Peter. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Oxford University Press, 1985.

Katz, Bruce, and Jennifer Bradley. “Divided We Sprawl,” Atlantic Monthly Vol. 284, No. 6, (December 1999), 26-42.

Krieger, Alex. “Beyond the Rhetoric of Smart Growth,” Architecture Vol. 88, No. 6, (June 1999), 53-7.

Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere. Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Ross, Andrew. The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney’s New Town. Ballantine Books, 1999.

Shumsky, Neil Larry, ed. Encyclopedia of Urban America: The Cities and Suburbs. ABC-CLIO, 1998.

Stern, Robert, ed. The Anglo American Suburb. St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

Weingroff, Richard. “Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating the Interstate System,” Public Roads Vol. 60, No.1, (Summer 1996). Available at


Breslin, Jimmy, and others. “Urban Spaces,” National Geographic Traveler (October 1999), 14-24, 26-28, 30-32,34-36, 38-42, 47-50, 52-56, 58-60, 62-64.

Gonzalez, Laurence. “Backcountry 90210,” National Geographic Adventure (Fall 1999), 28-32.

Zwingle, Erla. “A World Together,” National Geographic (August 1999), 6-33.

Swerdlow, Joel L. “Tale of Three Cities,” National Geographic (August 1999), 34-61.

Swerdlow, Joel L. “Under New York,” National Geographic (February 1997), 110-131.

Scheller, William G. “Urban Pioneers,” National Geographic (September/October 1995), 110-111.

Zwingle, Erla. “Docklands—London’s New Frontier,” National Geographic (July 1991), 32-59.

Miller, Peter. “Pittsburgh—Stronger Than Steel,” National Geographic (December 1991), 125-145.

Fox, Robert W. “The World’s Urban Explosion,” National Geographic (August 1984), 179-185.

Asimov, Isaac, and others. “Five Noted Thinkers Explore the Future,” National Geographic (July 1976), 68-75.

Appel, Fredric C. “The Coming Revolution in Transportation,” National Geographic (September 1969), 301-341.


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