A blog that takes a hard look at suburban sprawl

Sprawled Out: The Search for Community in the American Suburb is a tool through which author John Michlig examines the post-World War II phenomenon of suburban sprawl. Looking more closely, John is writing the blog as he writes a book, which uses his city of Franklin, Wisconsin as the basis for examining sprawl around the country.

This topic is close to my heart. Just last Friday, I was down in Prairie Crossing, a relatively new exurban development Grayslake, Illinois. I’d heard of Prairie Crossing only as having a farm in it, though by its proximity to Chicago I correctly believed that the area around it was most likely anything but farmland. Sure enough, subdivisions with huge houses dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see.

But upon driving through Prairie Crossing, one thing that immediately set it apart from literally every one of the subdivisions I have seen before was that rather than having stereotypical manicured suburban lawns, many of its lawns appeared to be covered with tall grasses and native plants. There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance in prairie grasses swaying against the 3,000 square foot homes.

Prairie Crossing bills itself as a a “conservation community.” To that end, the development’s web site describes it as combining “responsible development, the preservation of open land and easy commuting by rail.” Not bad; your kids can attend a charter school near your super-modern home that was “built to the highest standards of energy efficiency,” while still being well away from unwanted ruffians and sexual predators that lurk on every street corner and back alley. Best of all, you can drive your Chevy Suburban or sterling Escalade to your job in the city while still feeling good about saving the environment.

To their credit, Prairie Crossing does have a large organic farm amidst its houses. Attending a class there on the farm last Friday, I got to be a fly on the wall, eying damage from a recent wind storm and admiring the rows of green crops. But one thing that me a little uneasy, even angry, was seeing the lush farm fields already sprouting crops, and the line of McMansions on the horizon.

A lovely farm field in northern Illinois, with subdivisions encroaching on all sides.

A Prairie Crossing farm field, with comfortable houses in the background.

To be fully honest, I saw the other side of this view some twenty years ago, when my mother had a very large house built in Dane County. It was former farmland that overlooked several acres farmland that were still in use. But visiting the same area last year, I was horrified to see that all of the land had been consumed by perfect lawns and ostentatious houses. A few years before that, the farmland around where my buddy Kent had been raised was turned into matching fields of sprawl.

I bet you dollars to doughnuts that neither Franklin, nor Middleton, is doing much anything to preserve land or ensure a steady food supply. And I wonder, how much is the rapid consumption of farmland for construction of huge single-family houses contributing to the problem of rising food costs? Say what you will, there is a connection.


Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.