Livin the American Dream

Last week, we finished our discussion of Rome’s study, The Bulldozer in the Countryside. Chapter 5 discussed “where not to build”, referring to the tendency of housing developers to build on land that is not conducive to such development. Developers have not hesitated to build houses on marshes, hills, and floodplains. This causes serious problems, as the land is not meant for track housing. By leveling the land in these areas, there is no natural run-off of water. This causes serious flooding. Houses built on hills collapse in on themselves because they are on inclines that are too steep. A steep incline, with the help of erosion, is bad news for a homeowner. In areas such as New Orleans and the Mississippi River deltas, houses are built directly on the floodplains.  Developers build in places like this because they are cheap land.  Not everyone thinks this is a smart business strategy, however. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service vocally disagreed with building in these areas, especially the wetlands. Wetlands are productive, natural drains. Also, hunters, gamers, and fishermen need these spaces.  Wetlands help clean water and provide food with nutrients for smaller animals.  Estuaries, or saltwater wetlands, are important to the water cycle.  Ian McHarg was a developer who wanted to “Design with Nature”. He recognized the coexistence of man and nature, and thought that housing patterns should respect this. If over 50% of wildlife lives in urban and suburban areas, we should make efforts to protect them! Communities like The Woodlands in Texas and Lake Barcroft in Fairfax, Virginia are good examples of this design.

The last chapter of the book discusses the legislation enacted in the 1960s to develop a land ethic for developers.  States became more involved in regulation policies, as local governments weren’t doing the job they should have. Land regulation policies were put into practice in places like Hawaii, where different land was sectioned off for different uses. The debate between the uses of private vs. public land were taken into consideration with the formation of these regulations.  William Blackstone, a British legalist who recorded English common law, set the legal precedent for American law. He determined that private land is sacred, and that the government could not tell you what to do with your land. The American government modified this idea, saying that people can not use their land in ways that are harmful to the public good.  It is too difficult to compartmentalize land, thus, whatever you do on your land affects your neighbors’. The idea of stewardship also comes into play here: humans don’t have ultimate control over the land.  We have to think about how it affects other life before we abuse it.  A grassroots movement in favor of public land use was spearheaded by organizations such as the National Association of Homeowners, the National Association of Realtors, the Chamber of Commerce, and also the Associated General Contractors of America.  By the 1970s, other crises were developing that pushed the environmental agenda aside. Only now are we starting to see the push for environmental awareness reemerge. Rome calls for three things in order to control the effects of continuing suburban sprawl: legal action, organized opposition, and government regulation. These three key factors can help protect the environment before it is completely taken over by housing developments.

When reading this book, especially chapter 5, “Where Not to Build”, I kept thinking back to my trip to Louisiana this summer. I was doing some rebuilding in the greater New Orleans area, in a small bayou town called Houma. The bayous in Louisiana, at a normal water level, are directly level with the street. As soon as it starts to rain, the bayous flood. Needless to say, when Hurricanes Rita and Katrina hit, many of the residents houses in Houma were flooded and severely damaged. Relief efforts are being made to put houses on stilts and also to reinforce foundations and roofs to prevent damage the next time a hurricane rolls through. While in Houma, I couldn’t help thinking, “WHY do people LIVE here?!” Why don’t they just move? The answer to that question is more difficult and complex than the question. People have lived in these places for generations. It is a part of their identity. Also, it costs MONEY to move, something that most of these people do not have. It is also very cheap for builders to put up houses on this land. Below are some pictures from my trip. The first is of my friend Brad climbing a ladder. Notice the concrete stilts on the house. Also, note the flooded ground. At the point this picture was taken, it had been raining for less than an hour. Imagine the flooding when a hurricane hits!

Here is a picture of my work crew with our residents. Notice how high up Mr. Eudrass’ house is! We were working on reinforcing his deck, so that the shingles wouldn’t fly off the next time a big storm hit.

When Katrina hit, Mr. Eudrass and his wife fled to Texas, where their daughter was living. A trip that usually takes about ten hours took over two days, due to the mass exodus of nearly all the residents of that area in Louisiana. Most of their house was flooded and their belongings were destroyed upon their return. When I asked them why they continue to live here, they simply replied, “that’s life in the bayou”.


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