America out of love with urban sprawl
Sunday 08 February 1998
In both countries its alarm cry, warning of strangers approaching its back yard, is scaring politicians. In Britain it is forcing environment ministers to backtrack on plans to increase the proportion of homes built in the countryside. In the US it is achieving an even more dramatic turnaround by rehabilitating planning (actually, "habilitating" might be better, as the idea has never found much favour in the Utopia of the urban sprawl).
Christine Todd Whitman, sometimes tipped as a presidential candidate, has just devoted much of her inaugural address for her second term as Governor of New Jersey to the issue. She promised - in terms her fellow Republicans would normally denounce as "communist" - to restrict development in the countryside and direct it to existing towns and cities, pledging to preserve a million acres of farmland.
This follows an outbreak of local groups formed to fight plans to build near their homes. One even clubbed together to buy the land from the developer (he said his life would have been made "very difficult" if he had not sold).
It's the same story around Washington DC, where people are swamping public meetings to berate developers, and Maryland's Governor Parris Glendening has directed local counties to produce plans for stopping urban sprawls. One repentant official explained: "The Devil is at the door and it's time for us to stop sinning."
MEANWHILE spare a thought for Lucian Chalfen, who is having a hell of a winter. Mr Chalfen works for the New York Department of Sanitation, and his one relief from all that garbage comes when it snows: the department is in charge of clearing the stuff away.
Caught napping by a blizzard that paralysed the city two years ago, New York has now stocked up to fight the Ice Age. It has all sorts of new gadgets, including infra-redsensors that measure pavement temperatures, and a huge 12 million BTU snow melter for Wall Street to stop stockbrokers getting cold feet.
"We can put 350 salt-spreaders and about 2,000 snowploughs on the road at any one time," boasts Mr Chalfen. "No other city, no state can do that. I don't know of anyone who can marshal that kind of equipment."
The only problem is that less snow has fallen in New York this year than in any winter for more than a quarter of a century. The ploughs have not been called out once, and only 5,000 of the 200,000 tons of rock salt stockpiled for the season has been spread.
And why the freak winter? El Nino? Global warming? Lee Grenchi, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University, won't be drawn. "Who knows? Weather forecasting is a humbling experience."
o IF LUCIAN Chalfen is tormented, William Wharrie is in seventh heaven, for he's achieving the American dream through Canada geese.
Feathered football hooligans, the geese are an increasing menace on both sides of the Atlantic - driving out other birds, attacking children, and producing a slimy green dropping every three minutes. Their population has increased 30-fold in Britain since 1950 and is doubling every eight years.
No one knows what to do. In Britain, a special government committee has sat for years without much progress. Park-keepers and local authorities have tried destroying their eggs by pricking them, dipping them in paraffin, even hard-boiling them and returning them to nests. Wandsworth council tried to shoot them but was stopped by an animal lovers' campaign led by Linda McCartney and Carla Lane.
In the US they have been fed to the poor in soup kitchens (the meat tastes oily and gamey) but the animal rights groups are just as strong as in Britain; which is where Mr Wharrie comes in. He is making a fortune harassing the geese with his dog, Chevy (it chases them, geddit!), one of a growing number of entrepreneurs using border collies. The secret, apparently, lies not in their One Man And His Dog skills, but because they look like Arctic foxes, one of the few beasts the geese fear.
"It's kind of nuts," he says. "People feed the geese and then pay taxes for me to chase them away. They have created a great business for me. I love this country."
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