Friday, January 07, 2005

Class and Exurban Transition

Last month's arson at the Hunters Brooke subdivision in Charles County, Maryland gained national media attention. Destroying 26 houses in a largely unoccupied site of new construction, there was immediate speculation as to the motives of the perpetrators.

Environmental activists were first suspected as similar acts of arson in Colorado, Arizona, and California, had been perpetrated by individuals claiming allegiance to the "Earth Liberation Front." The development of Hunters Brooke had been criticized by the Sierra Club as it has destroyed a sensitive wetland habitat.

A competing theory regarding who set fire to Hunters Brooke speculated that it was the action of local white supremacists who were trying to intimidate African-Americans from settling in the county.

Today's New York Times has an interesting article that does a good job at exploring the complexity of exurban sprawl through the example of the Hunters Creek Arsonists.

Six men in their twenties have been charged with the incident. While reports indicate that some of the accused who were taken into custody made racist remarks, the article suggests that their motives were more complicated.

Many seemed to be long-time, working class residents of a county whose growth was bringing with it a significant change in both demographic makeup without an expansion of jobs that paid decent wages.

The exurban fringe--where land use has been quickly transforming from agricultural to upscale housing--is the site for a host of socio-economic, cultural and ecological challenges. In the case of Charles County, the reaction of these young men in the face of change was to engage in a pointless and materially destructive act.

Planners and policymakers in exurban areas should recognize the potential explosiveness of the dynamism of growth and seek ways to develop open processes of planning that address the impact of limited economic opportunities and ecological damage. Keeping social equity, diversity, and ecological sustenance at the center of discussions surrounding exurban change could minimize anti-social reactions to urban growth and make more sustainable communities.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)