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      Comment: 25 June 2009                                                                                             

                     Bulldozing the ‘burbs or bulldozing the truth?

Infused with moral fervour, green journalism often strays from the path of accuracy. In the era of climate change, it seems, environmental ends justify the journalistic means, while hyperbole, distortion and selective quoting define a virtual house-style of green reporting. This sensational style is so pervasive in the mainstream media and blogosphere that, for many readers, it’s synonymous with journalism itself.

Yet there’s value in holding egregious cases up for scrutiny now and again given the issues at stake.

Take Eoin O‘Carroll‘s
“Bulldoze the ‘burbs?”, an article posted on the Christian Science Monitor’s “bright green blog”. No title is better calculated to arouse the interest of greens and town planners everywhere. So much so that it featured on Crikey, the Australian online magazine. Bulldoze the suburbs? Green activists would gladly flatten them way the Romans flattened Carthage. It conforms to rule one of the green-house-style. Choose a title that evokes a strong visual image. Something about rising waters, parched landscapes and bleached coral. Avoid abstract ideas or concepts; too much thinking doesn‘t help.

One of the style’s more grating features is rule two: reduce controversial questions to conventional wisdom. Having assumed what is still unsettled, the writer is free to select, arrange and emphasize material in support of the authorised truth.

One fundamental strand of green thinking maintains that low-density suburbs are doomed to collapse and die, like the abandoned ruins of Central America. A combination environmental, social and economic trends render suburbanisation “unsustainable”. The inevitable crisis will drive populations back to the urban core or rural regions. The day of reckoning has been a long time coming, but the global financial meltdown has seen several writers rush to squeeze the facts into this frame. Rows of “for sale” signs along typical suburban streets across the United States and Britain (less so in Australia) certainly help.

Embracing the collapse thesis, O’Carroll dispenses with the need to carefully account for his material. His piece starts with a story in The Telegraph of London about an idea floated by officials in Flint, Michigan to bulldoze vacant housing. For O’Carroll, this is a move to return “the land to nature, and concentrate the population in the urban core”. In other words, it’s a response to flight from outlying suburbs.

Yet nothing in The Telegraph’s report suggested that Flint’s diminishing population is actually “concentrating” in the core. Rather, Flint, like many Rust Belt cities, is losing people to other parts of the US. The Telegraph calls it an “exodus”. The words “concentrate the population in the urban core”, in his second paragraph, are O’Carroll’s nod to the conventional wisdom. This strategic choice of words shapes much of what follows.

At this point O’Carroll doesn’t neglect green-house-style rule three — cannibalise and distort the views of respected experts.

Harvard’s Edward Glaeser is one of America’s brightest young economists, and an acknowledged expert on housing and urban development. Yet O’Carroll doesn’t hesitate to set him up. A view endorsed by Glaeser, that “razing declining neighbourhoods” should be a priority for President Obama, is juxtaposed with the claim by urban strategist Christopher Leinberger that “more Americans are moving back into city centers“.

Sounds like Glaeser is on board with the conventional wisdom. But he isn’t. In the source article from The New York Times’
 Economix Blog, Glaeser’s position is the opposite to that pushed by O’Carroll. Glaeser confirms that for some time Americans have been leaving Rust Belt cities in droves for “newer Sun Belt cities built around the automobile”. He calls it “the move to sun and sprawl”. Glaeser criticises Rust Belt mayors for wasting money on light rail and other inner-city renewal projects. This is the proper context of his “razing declining neighbourhoods” comment.

Nor does O’Carroll bother to consider that Leinberger might be wrong. He could have read the work of urbanist Joel Kotkin, who points out that Leinberger’s claim “rests more on anecdote than on demographic or economic fact”. Kotkin cites a variety of population, employment and property statistics to support his case.

Leinberger is a popular source for champions of the collapse thesis, not least due to his deft use of rule four: if all else fails, go for the semantic shift. O’Carroll clearly approves of Leinberger’s line that “McMansions threaten to turn suburbia into the next slum”.

The tactic of renaming, or rebadging, concepts and policies is a modern plague. Witness how the adjective “smart” is routinely applied to many dubious notions (smart growth, smart planning, smart power) or how carbon emissions have evolved into carbon pollution. Words are stripped of meaning, invested with new meanings or simply discarded.

Alternatively, sound practises can be discredited if rebadged negatively. Leinberger resorts to this in calling outer suburbs “the next slums”, or “the slums of the future”. Unfortunately, the habit caught on in town planning circles, including here.

Of course, it’s nonsensical to suggest that suburbs can be slums. Certainly not slums as defined by The Oxford English Dictionary: “An overcrowded district of a town or city, having squalid housing conditions and inhabited by very poor people (emphasis added)”. By definition, suburbs are the exact opposite of slums. Historically, they represented an escape from slum conditions and do so now. Leinberger’s purpose is transparent. It’s to shift the bad odour surrounding one word, “slum”, to another word, “suburb”.

All the more reason for media consumers to beware the overcrowded and squalid, if only metaphorical, slums of environmental journalism.

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