Good-bye Mayberry — Call It Sprawl-Town America

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Once upon a time in America, there were small towns where people gathered in the square, shopped at the local markets and generally lived a sort of Rodgers and Hammerstein existence. Those days are officially over, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, which on Monday released a study heralding a new rise in suburban sprawl, particularly in areas just outside mid-size to small U.S. cities. From 1992 to 1997, the numbers proclaim, our forests and farmlands fell prey to development at a rate of 3 million acres a year, compared with 1.4 million acres that were snapped up annually from 1982 to 1992. It seems that the paving of America — previously associated with New York City and Los Angeles — has crept inward from the coast, and has taken root in a former cornfield just outside Des Moines.

So what's a nation grappling with "local" economies based entirely on strip malls to do? "There doesn't seem to be an easy way to turn this trend around," says TIME editor Charles Alexander. And, in fact, there may not be much desire to change course. "Small towns have a tendency to think everything is fine until things get really bad. And by then, it's too late." That's not to say, Alexander notes, that some smaller cities won't recognize a crisis when they see one. "There will be some enlightened communities that will set aside green space... and might offer tax breaks to developers who want to build in the city center." Even amidst so much bad news, however, there may be a substantial silver lining for America's highest-ranking conservationist. In what may prove to be a startlingly prescient move, Vice President Al Gore — a longtime champion of open spaces who has made suburban sprawl a centerpiece of his presidential campaign — proposed a $2 billion plan to buy and protect undeveloped land. That was back in November, and, if Gore's lucky, this study will only heighten public scrutiny of land-use issues. "These numbers confirm an inkling of conservationism shared by many people," says Alexander. "And Gore's campaign picked up on it," well ahead of the pack.