Russia and the second great rush to the suburbs

Richard Register

Sixty years ago it was the American rush to the suburbs financed by the national government of the USA: GI loans, deductible house interest payments at tax time and free, free at last, thank God all mighty free at last freeways. (Actually, the term was coined by Brooklyn, New York lawyer and urban planner Edward Basset in 1930 but coming on strong only during and since the 1950s.)

This summer it’s Russia’s turn. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s President, has recently announced his government is buying up 2.5 million acres of land for single-family house development. He says 77 percent of his country’s people live “cooped up” in apartments, so it is time to liberate them to the American lifestyle of cars, driveways, gasoline chug-a-lugging, long commutes, and whatever other fringes required for sprawl development. Says the head of Russia’s Federal Fund for the Promotion of Housing Construction Development, “We think that people who have their own homes, driveways, and careers are fundamentally different than those who don’t have these things.”

Well, let’s try to get a sense of proportion here. The Russians want cars and sprawl – by policy now. India is producing the Tata Nano, a very cheap car so that ever more people in that country of 1,183 million people can gain the advantage of hurtling around faster than on their motorbikes and three wheel open “autos” or “auto rickshaws” with the illusion of sheltered security. That’s in a country that sees more then 100,000 deaths a year in automobile accidents. In Brazil a country I know some from four visits, there’s a mania for more cars still growing. China – I’ve been there 13 times now – invests heavily in auto manufacture and builds roads faster than any other country in the world. In a taxi cab in Beijing once, talking with a bilingual local and suggesting that cities reduce instead of expand car infrastructure, the young businessman said, “But if I don’t have a car how can I get a wife?” That’s getting basic about a society’s perceived need for something.

Let’s add them up: .142 billion Russians, 1.184 billion Indians, .193 billion Brazilians, 1.338 billion Chinese and the total is 2.714 billion people hungry for cars. That is nine times as many people as the total population of the United States and doesn’t even count the other countries that want more cars. Then there’s the fact that US citizens think they have no responsibility for the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as if they were not the consumers of the product, and the fact that the Gulf Coast locals want more drilling (but safer) to create more jobs.

We may be in trouble.

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