Sprawl: a Compact History


Sprawl: a Compact History, by Robert Bruegmann is old news by now, but Interboro has always felt compelled to respond to it.

Why? Mostly because it’s clear that a more sober, less hyper-polemicized treatment of the topic was in order. Interboro often tells its students that much of the anti-sprawl literature is not worth the paper it’s printed on. So many of the rants you find in books like The Geography of Nowhere and on websites like Sprawl Busters are so simplistic, so sloppy, and so infused with class bias, that they invariably do more to harm their cause than help it. Moreover, these books and websites rarely look at sprawl through a historical lens. That is, they never bother to investigate what sprawl is, how it evolved, how it manifests itself in other countries, etc.. Most importantly, though, these books and websites are not fair. They seldom acknowledge that for better or for worse, sprawl works very well for some people, and that the track record of late-twentieth century attempts to curb sprawl is mixed at best (indeed, there is more evidence that thus far, these attempts have created more problems than they have solved).

Sprawl: a Compact History was pitched as this sort of book. Unfortunately, it is not this sort of book, not really. While Bruegmann does many important things here, it is in the end a highly contrarian, populist apology for the built environment as it exists. Despite his claim that he is writing “through the lens of history,” Bruegmann sometimes seems to be motivated by one-upmanship, and sometimes seems to dismiss anti-sprawl attitudes, measures, and the like simply to be contrarian. He seems a bit too eager to show his stripes, to demonstrate, for example, that he is not in the tradition of “urban intellectuals bashing the burbs,” that he’s not down with the existing literature that privileges a “tourist eye” view of the city that concentrates on the historic center, that he’s not one of those revenue-sharing regionalists.

This is annoying, and sometimes offensive. Bruegmann’s flippant attitudes towards race and equity, for example, are inexcusable. He lists as “another complaint about sprawl” the argument that “when affluent citizens leave the city and move to the periphery, they abandon the problems of the central city, instead transferring their civic concern and tax dollars to outlying municipalities,” but gives very few reasons why it’s not a good complaint about sprawl (which of course it is). Moreover, Bruegmann’s retort to Rusk and Orfield’s regionalism is that “there is little consensus about more far-reaching policies, for example, schemes for major income redistribution.” What kind of retort is that?

Bruegmann is also wrong to criticize suburban scholars as having an outdated view where “the inner city was portrayed as poor and filled with minorities, and where “the suburbs were described as being white and affluent.” It’s one thing to note (correctly) that cities and suburbs have evolved somewhat, quite another to suggest that it is an outdated way of thinking about cities. Anyone with access to Census data can see that. So too is it wrong to say, as Bruegmann says in the introduction, that sprawl “seems to have been a logical an perhaps even predictable result of increasing wealth and the democratization of society.” Presumably, Bruegmann is here taking on those who trace sprawl to, say, tax policy, automobile production, or anti-urban attitudes, but while it’s true that sprawl cannot be attributed to any one such factor, clearly, it is the product of a particular combination of them. Sprawl certainly did not just happen, as Bruegmann seems to want to say, despite his point that sprawl increasingly characterizes most urban regions around the world that have quite different policies, or even attitudes about urbanity.

But as was stated, Bruegmann does some important things here. Many of his insights—for example, that sprawl is less an objective reality than a cultural concept, and that it is “a term born at a specific time and place and used over the years by a wide range of individuals and groups for specific purposes”—seem obvious enough, until you realize that they are not represented in the existing sprawl literature. Another example of this is B’s point that it’s somewhat difficult to define sprawl. He asks: “What about the houses visible from the airplane window over New Jersey that clearly aren’t new but, instead, old farmhouses taken over by urban residents who no longer farm the land? Would this still be sprawl?” And later, “in very few cases have these indictments against sprawl targeted architecture or landscapes acceptable to upper-middle-class taste, no matter how scattered or low in density.” Another basic yet overlooked insight here is that sprawl is not new, and neither is it particularly American.

One of his more memorable (arguably less basic) insights is that it is not objective issues that drive the sprawl debate, but rather “much larger questions about planning and democracy, aesthetics and metaphysics, and differing class-based assumptions about what makes a good urban life.” As with so many issues, “objective” arguments about sprawl, while often employed effectively, are more often than not marginal when it comes to motivating individuals to take a position. For example, by forcing individuals to drive more, sprawl contributes to global warming, but might it be, as Bruegmann suggests, that “the driving force behind the complaints at any period [is] a series of class-based aesthetic and metaphysical assumptions?” Interboro suspects so. After all, how many criticisms about sprawl begin with some over-romanticized portrait of how nice things used to look? A related point Bruegmann makes is that anti-sprawl legislation tends only to benefit what he calls the “incumbents club,” that is, families that already have all the urban amenities they want, and who benefit from the rise in land policies that tend to accompany anti-sprawl legislation.

But strangely, when he takes up the “objective” arguments—basically, when he rehashes the Burchell / Richardson debates–Bruegmann’s record is split. He is certainly right to point out, for example, that it is in fact sometimes cheaper to build new infrastructure than retrofitting old infrastructure, and that America is not running out of land, and that quantitatively, commuting times tend to rise with density, but of course, all of these things have qualitative dimensions that Bruegmann doesn’t really take up. For example, while it’s true that “residents of Oklahoma City can get around their metropolitan area much more easily and quickly than those of . . .New York or Los Angeles or Tokyo, obviously, longer commuting times are a price residents of New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo are willing to pay. If Bruegmann is willing to make these sorts of qualitative arguments in favor of sprawl—for example, when he argues (correctly) that there is no evidence that even if sprawl were irrefutably more expensive than compact development, citizens wouldn’t be willing to pay the premium in order to have the lifestyle they wanted—he has to at least acknowledge the ones that undermine pro-sprawl arguments.

We might also ask here what Bruegmann means by “density.” For all his talk about how we need to be more precise with our definition of sprawl, he says surprisingly little about how blunt a term “density” can often be. Yes, Los Angeles is the most dense city in America, but as is well known, this is based simply upon the number of acres consumed by urban development. Bruegmann echoes Wendell Cox, suggesting that people are often surprised to learn that the nation’s most dense urban area is the very area perceived by many people to be the epitome of so-called “urban sprawl,” but clearly, places like Los Angeles are both dense and sprawling. If density is measured so simply, there is no contradiction here. Again, it’s a question of how density is measured and what sort of density is desired. To cite another example, Bruegmann supports his point that “despite a widespread perception that American cities and suburbs are constantly expanding outward at ever-low densities, in fact. . . an increasing number of cities and suburbs in America. . .are actually becoming denser by noting (among other things) that rowhouses and townhouses are accounting for more and more housing starts. Again, while this is true, isn’t the more important point to ask whether this represents the right kind of density? In fact, one of the reasons why commuting times increase with density is because the transit infrastructure isn’t in place to accommodate increased density. Bruegmann’s argument is not, despite his intentions, an argument against planning; on the contrary it is an indication that density needs to be planned for, and that maybe this trend of rewriting zoning codes to permit denser housing typologies needs to be rethought.