The Bulldozers Are Coming!
The frontier impulse unsettles Springfield
June 29, 1979
This essay was occasioned by the public hearings held during the preparation of the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission's new land use plan. It sounds the chords of the anti-sprawl laments I would sing in print for the next 40 years. I must have sung off-key, because no one in authority listened.
You can substitute the names of any of dozens of Illinois towns for Springfield's, of course, and it would read just as true.
On Monday June 18, some thirty central Illinois citizens skipped the Cubs game on television and drove to the New Berlin high school for a meeting. The occasion was the second of four meetings scheduled around Sangamon County by the county board's land use committee to hear what the public has to say about the proposed land use policy plan developed by the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission.
Sangamon County, including Springfield, suffers from most of the usual ills that result from unplanned, uncoordinated growth, plus one or two more of its own devise. It's a pretty dismal catalog. We have shopping centers in suburban backyards, a grade school in the middle of a shopping center, shopping centers in the middle of nowhere, parts of the city sitting in cornfields and cornfields inside the city. Partly because things are so spread out, people drive their cars too much, and ozone pollution gets so bad some days that sick people don't dare go outside. Streets are a special pain. Springfield may be the only city in the country where it I possible to say, literally, “You can’t get there from here.” Increasingly in Springfield, you can’t get anywhere from here.
The land use policy plan was put together in the hope of providing some direction to this undirected growth and so make it possible to allow expansion of the population and economic base of what the Chamber of Commerce calls, with unintended irony, "greater Springfield," without at the same time destroying surrounding farmland, clean air, and open space. The plan, in short, is intended to settle the ends of progress in Sangamon County.
The job is not going as well as it might. Planning is a bone over which even well-fed dogs are willing to fight. Developers especially have been bitter in their denunciation of the commission's land use proposals.
Developers resent planners because they make it harder for developers to make a lot of money. This is natural; bank robbers resent police too, for the same reason. Dorothea Sager, a Springfield subdivision developer, showed up at the New Berlin hearing to castigate the plan, for instance, and according to reports by those who were there disputed the need to provide park space for new residential areas—one of the plan's proposals—because, she said, "if you go in a park you just get mugged."
The John Birch Society was there, too, in the person of one Rocky Schoenrock, who complained that any kind of planning violates property rights. But of course the proposed land use policy plan doesn't establish control of the government over land. The government has that control already. The plan does, however, seek to coordinate government's miscellaneous land use controls—subdivision regulations, zoning and building codes, antipollution laws, dedication ordinances and the like— toward a set of more or less coherent economic, administrative and environmental ends.
This complaint about property rights came up before, at the first hearing at Springfield's city hall, and it probably will come up again. There have been nearly as many crimes committed in the name of property rights as there have been in the name of religion. The comparison is apt, I think. Developers like Sager are among the last unself-conscious spokespeople for the old American theology of the frontier.
Our profligacy with the land is an historical attribute, the result of our having so much of it that it was believed for two centuries that we could never use it all. The presence of this apparently perpetual frontier shaped our ideas about the country, about ourselves as a people, even about the nature of progress. New land variously meant an escape, a chance for new beginnings, inexhaustible riches. This impulse to move on and build again still beats in the breasts of developers. They are the descendants—diminished but recognizable—of the muscular heroes who killed the buffalo and felled the forests as they marched west before ending up, appropriately, in California.
That impulse helped build America. But more recently, it is helping to destroy it. The America defended by Sager and Schoenrock with such spirit at New Berlin, the America of untrammeled property rights and the freedom to exploit land for private profit over the public good, has been gone for a long time. What the committee members heard was the past fuming futilely against the future.
So far, citizens haven't been heard from much during the hearings. This is typical. Most people don't get angry about a lack of planning until the bulldozers show up at their front doors. These hearings may determine in large part Sangamon County's land use posture for years to come, and though it's possible to speak confidently about the eventual success of planning over unrestrained development, the victory can be delayed a year, ten years, maybe twenty years by inaction, with nothing but unhappy results for the county.
For these reasons,, what the members of the county's land use committee hear at the hearings— and more importantly, what they conclude about the planning constituency in Sangamon County as a result—is crucial. Those bulldozers are getting closer all the time. ●