Urban sprawl justifies terrorism

Urban sprawl in Europe results directly from the democratic process, and this March 2006 letter to EU anti-terrorism coordinator Gijs de Vries explains that sprawl in Europe can only be ended by contra-democratic political violence. An earlier letter gave a general justification for terrorism.

Amsterdam, 22 maart 2006

Gijs M. de Vries
Council of the European Union
Wetstraat 175
B-1048 Brussel

urban sprawl justifies terrorism

In an earlier letter I gave four general justifications for terrorist campaigns in Europe, intended to force changes in policy on specific issues. Justification derives from...

I referred to European spatial planning and transport issues: they are not generally seen as terrorism-related, but they are intrinsic aspects of European liberal-democratic societies.

Urban sprawl is probably the most important of these issues. There is some public awareness of its relationship to liberal democracy - especially the idea that Soviet cities were different because they were Soviet. Urban sprawl meets three of the criteria listed above. It is a very large-scale spatial phenomenon, which now extends well beyond traditional suburban areas. The democratic process contributes to sprawl, by specific pro-sprawl policies, but especially through a reluctance to obstruct the obvious preferences of the core electorate: a family car, a family home in a green environment. In fact the democratic process makes democratic anti-sprawl policies impossible, because they impact so directly on such emotional preferences. Stopping sprawl means fighting democracy.

Relevant European Union research programmes are:

The SCATTER project lists general negative effects of sprawl, identified by its critics and researchers, including:

The negative aspects of sprawl are also summarised by the Irish Planning Institute in their Submission to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government: Policy on housing in rural areas (November 2003). Ireland has been badly affected by sprawl: there are anti-urban cultural traditions, clientelism hinders spatial planning, and the economic growth of the last decade created the market pressures. The IPI refers to 'one-off rural housing', but most of it is in fact built for urban workers: it is classic European urban sprawl, perhaps at lower densities. The negative effects include:

The IPI also rejects claims that sprawl has benefits: dispersed new housing "will not re-generate an area, attract employment, or maximise service and facilities provision". However, it also explains why people opt for dispersed housing, in the Irish context:

The desire for space, for low density in itself, for a green and/or rural location, can be identified in all European countries. Some other important factors do not apply in Ireland, for instance 'white flight' - moving out of urban areas to avoid immigrant minorities. Ireland has a specific anti-urban tradition: romanticisation of the rural peasant family, as representative of national core values. In varying intensity, similar attitudes can be found in other countries - in the Baltic States especially, they are compounded by the association of urbanisation with 'Soviet occupation'.

In Urban sprawl, one-off housing and planning policy: more to do, but how?, James Nix identifies an explicitly pro-sprawl lobby in Ireland, appealing to cultural and even racial nationalism as a justification. It includes the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Eamon O'Cuiv, democratically elected as a member of parliament for a rural constituency. He presented this racial-ruralist ideology to a seminar on rural development:

"We are a unique people and an ancient race with long-established traditions and settlement patterns. Why should we be forced to live by imported models, designed to suit people who live in totally different countries with totally different cultures?
( http://www.friendsoftheirishenvironment.net/papers/print.php?sid=169)

Nix describes other relevant political and social attitudes in Ireland, and resulting policies. They include the idea, that it is a legitimate source of farm income, to sell farm land as development sites. In this way sprawl is seen as a benefit for rural areas, costs are ignored, and there is political pressure from the rural electorate to permit, encourage, and even subsidise sprawl. This Irish example illustrates the general problem, that there are always economic interests promoting sprawl - and they can present it as advantageous. The democratic political process makes it almost impossible to restrain such lobbies, when the financial interest is substantial.

The RURBAN project research links political regime, and urban pressure on the countryside. In Rural Areas Under Urban Pressure: Case studies of rural-urban relationships across Europe, Imre Kovách, Luca Kristof and Boldizsár Megyesi write:

The transformation of the political regime in post-socialist states after 1989 prompted the reorganisation of most elements of its rural society and some characteristics of agriculture such as liberalisation of state subsidy system and privatisation of land and immovable assets... After the capitalist transformation, people received state compensation from for the lands socialised during the socialist era. However, most of the new landowners did not want to keep the arable land for agricultural use. They commercialised their (re)privatised arable lands or building sites for urban out-migrants or investors.

In Germany, developments since reunification have illustrated the direct causal relationship between democracy and sprawl. For a centrally-planned economy, the German Democratic Republic had a high rate of car ownership and single-family housing. It was however lower than in West Germany, and the regime change led to dramatic shifts in land use around major cities. In Überlegungen zur Suburbanisierung in Ostdeutschland, Peter Franz summarises the first phase:

Die raschen Veränderungen nach 1990 haben gezeigt, daß sich mit dem fortschreitenden Andauern dieser "eingefrorenen" Raumordnung aber auch ein Veränderungsstau aufgebaut hatte, der mit dem raschen Ende der SED-Herrschaft handlungswirksam werden konnte. Der am stärksten unterbundenen Handlungsautonomie kleiner Gemeinden und der Unternutzung ihrer Flächen entsprechend, entwickelten gerade diese ein besonderes Interesse, die neueröffneten Handlungsspielräume der neuen förderalen Verfassung auszufüllen und Lagevorteile für sich auszunutzen. Zu diesen Lagevorteilen zählt insbesondere die räumliche Nähe zu einer großen Stadt mit dem darin konzentrierten Potential an Konsum- und Wohnbedürfnissen. Wie wir heute wissen, war dies - neben anderen Faktoren - mit Grundbedingung dafür, daß im Unterschied zum Suburbanisierungsverlauf in Westdeutschland in Ostdeutschland zunächst eine rasante Gewerbe- und Handels-Suburbanisierung unter starker Beteiligung westdeutscher Betriebe und Filialketten einsetzte. Ein besonderes Merkmal dieser Gewerbesuburbanisierung ist, daß sie in starkem Maße von Fernzuzügen geprägt ist, also erst gar nicht der Umweg über innerstädtische Standorte eingeschlagen wurde.... Um etwa drei Jahre zeitversetzt zur Gewerbesuburbanisierung setzte die Wohnsuburbanisierung ein.
(UFZ-Bericht Nr. 14/2000)

The rapid suburbanisation in eastern Germany, combined with economic migration to western Germany, illustrated the negative effects on older urban areas. Small and medium-sized cities lost 10% to 20% of their population, in less than ten years. As a result, the former GDR is now developing a form of urban planning for 'shrinking cities', with mass demolition as a major planning instrument. Infrastructure such as housing only has economic value, if there are people to use it: if all the users move elsewhere, then the effect is equivalent to its destruction. In Aktuelle Aspekte des Suburbanisierungsprozesses aus Sicht der Stadt Halle, Karsten Golnik summarises the negative impact of the 1990's suburbanisation on the city of Halle:

Für die Stadt Halle ergeben sich durch den Prozess der Wohnsuburbanisierung weitreichende Konsequenzen: (UFZ-Bericht Nr. 14/2000)

Despite the obvious negative effects, an anti-sprawl policy is politically impossible. In Neue urbane Landschaft - die kulturlandschaftliche Perspektive der Suburbanisierung, Jürgen Breuste points out that the necessary measures - taxation and limitation of single-family houses, higher property taxes, new regional government with limitation of local autonomy, and much higher petrol taxes - lack sufficient 'political will'. The political reality behind that euphemism is, that only a dictatorship could enforce a vehicle fuel price of € 10 per litre, in Germany or any other European state.

Sprawl is inevitably political: there can be no neutral consensus to regulate it, because some people want sprawl. De EU anti-terrorism coordinator is himself a member of a pro-sprawl party, the conservative-liberal VVD. In the campaign for the March 2006 local elections, the VVD's parliamentary leader, Jozias van Aartsen, spoke strongly in favour of building more houses and roads in the Dutch countryside. He complained that this was being obstructed by a "cartel of red planners and green policy-makers".

In European democracies, electoral hostility to anti-sprawl measures combines with pro-sprawl cultural preferences, resulting in a sprawl-oriented political structure. In effect, modern democracy is a sprawl democracy, and the democratic process is inherently incapable of limiting or correcting sprawl. Sprawl in Europe can only be ended by contra-democratic political violence, and contra-democratic political violence is the core of your definitions of terrorism.

Paul Treanor

Gijs de Vries, European Union anti-terrorism coordinator
Tjibbe Joustra, anti-terrorism coordinator, Netherlands
Bart Nieuwenhuizen, national anti-terrorism prosecutor, Netherlands

Gijs de Vries / justifications for terrorism