America Town
Originally published in the New Planner, January 2008

In America Town, University of Oregon architecture and landscape architecture professor Mark L. Gillem highlights an unsung hero of American exports: suburban sprawl. Gillem knows firsthand — he’s a former urban planner for U.S. military bases abroad. Currently, The U.S. military stations servicemen and women in more than 140 countries. Yet in its ever-extending reach, how does the government accommodate the infrastructural, environmental and land use needs that these developments require? The answers lie within insular, gated enclaves where big box comforts of home are never far from reach. From Germany to South Korea, military planners have created defensible, mini-homelands in which the excesses of American culture are writ large. 

Gillem notes that these bases employ recognizable land use and site planning patterns: “Locked in their versions of suburbia, with its low-slung homes, oversized shopping centers, and franchised restaurants set amid a heavily manicured landscape, American soldiers need not be bothered with learning the language, cultures, or customs of their hosts.” Sound familiar? Social dislocation and single-family zoning are familiar concepts for planning students and advocates of mixed-use development today. Yet when translated into the military industrial context, they take on a even darker form. For those unlucky enough to be living nearby, the health and psychological effects are extreme. Clamor, noise pollution, contamination and crime are just some of the socio-spatial problems unleashed upon neighboring populations. In fact, a four year study of residents living nearby an Air Force base in Okinawa found lower than average birth weights due to aircraft noise, as well as increased emotional and health problems in children such as nervousness and hearing loss. 

The author situates current conditions within the history of colonial planning schemes. He cites French attempts to “order” North African city spaces by razing vernacular and organically developed cities in order to make way for a grid, as well as British expropriation policies within Indian cities. Reading ideology through urban form, America Town provides a disturbing implication of the planning profession within the U.S. imperial project. It’s an uneasy partnership that — to the detriment of many — produces problems far more vexing than bad design.