Sprawl

UIC Professor Robert Bruegmann’s new book: Sprawl: A Compact History (U of C Press) is out, and it is a stunner. Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago alerted me to its imminent appearance, although having worked with Bruegmann as my dissertation advisor over the last few years I knew it was on the way.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has made sprawl a celebrated cause for preservationists for the last decade. Sprawl hurts historic communities and must be stopped. It is something everyone seems to agree on.

Bruegmann’s new book has his typically contrarian take on popular progressive issues: He seems to like sprawl and believes that most people like it in practice, even if they dislike the idea of it.

Heresy! How can I read such filth!

Well, I can read it first of all because I take the train, rarely drive a car and hence have plenty of time for reading J,

Secondly, I can read it because it is phenomenally researched and well-written. Moreover, a lot of his arguments are spot on. The book begins with a history of sprawl, arguing quite convincingly that sprawl has beset urban areas since time immemorial and that many of the lovely historic areas we try to preserve today were sprawl when they were built, railed at for their cheap, ticky-tacky sameness and suburbanness. He traces three periods of sprawl and three campaigns against it in a tightly constructed fashion.

Perhaps the most important argument in the book is the one that unravels it a bit. Sprawl is a negative word, a buzzword and a trendy term and as such tends to be employed indiscriminately against anything that offends the speaker. Bruegmann makes a lot of hay with this fact, noting quite correctly that those who argue against the unplanned, low-density, low-regulation growth on the suburban periphery are also likely to kvetch about the new highrise next to the train stop, even though it is heroically anti-sprawl.

He also explodes several mythical perceptions. The first notice I got about the book was from my brother, incredulous at Bruegmann’s claim that Los Angeles is more densely settled than Chicago. Bruegmann, using a slew of sources from every political angle, proves it. Chicago has exurbs – places like Morris and Mettawa and McHenry that are within the city’s gravitational field and strikingly low-density while Los Angeles does not. In fact, seemingly sprawling Phoenix is also higher density simply because of the limitations of getting water to new developments. A bungalow on a quarter acre is twice as dense as a bungalow on a half acre.

He also explodes the myth of a sprawl-free Europe, and he is right, I have seen the TESCOs and IKEAs myself. Europe has sprawl and automobile ownership has been rising dramatically for generations. I just got e-mailed a new article on British sprawl from a student. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/3846739.stm

We think of Europe as anti-sprawl because we think of the central 30 or so arrondisements of Paris where a fraction of Parisians actually live. The current Paris riots prove Bruegmann’s point horribly, although I can’t say they will make Sprawl a bestseller like the LA riots did for Mike Davis’ City of Quartz.

Speaking of sprawling slums, I remember being shocked when I saw Singleton’s Boyz In The Hood (1991, right?) at how everyone was living in what looked to me like low-density suburban bungalows. I was like, HUH? New Jack City seemed more realistic, in a support-my-stereotypical-misconceptions sort of way. Poverty is supposed to be highrise, at least if you’re from Chicago.

Bruegmann enjoys shocking the liberal elite. One of the points that aligns him with “free-market” rightists is that many of the efforts to stop sprawl end up pushing development elsewhere and pushing land prices up within the regulated districts of “the incumbent’s club.” The basic argument that regulations can push up values (by adding amenities) is true, but he leans a bit too heavily on anti-environmentalist Bernard Frieden (in contrast to other points that have footnotes from both sides of the aisle) and the ersatz populism of how regulation benefits the rich at the expense of the poor.

Logical, but not an argument that the poor have made for themselves. Television suitheads argue over who gets to be the voice for those on the real as well as the metaphorical rooftops. Not a winnable argument when the only voice worth hearing is silent. This is the impoverished minority that, by definition, has no champions. The rightists offer them favelas and open machinery jobs and the leftists offer them projects and the dole.

They defy the logic of libertarianism because they do not exercise choice, an important point in Sprawl: A Compact History. The middle class likes to live in a single-family house in the suburbs. As the middle class grows, you need more of those, ergo sprawl. For those with choice, sprawl is, in Bruegmann’s convincing estimation, a choice they make. As Joel Garreau proved over a decade ago, people will happily move another 15 miles from their job if they can get more house and yard for the same money.

If the libertarian argument weakens at poverty, it also falters at prosperity, where it envisions infinite growth and wealth. I think there is a limit to how much crap you can accumulate and still enjoy it. The worldwide growth of the middle class is certainly a cohort of worldwide sprawl. Is there a limit? Bruegmann acknowledges this with his statistical discovery that cities are getting denser again since 1990 and we may soon reach automobile saturation. Plus, most people hate sprawl – whatever it is – and one of their upper middle-class free market choices will be to avoid it, an argument he also makes.

There is a lot more in this volume about automobiles and highways that might just make you crazy, but Bob is so refreshingly contrarian that just as he boils your progressive blood by mercilessly slamming environmental regulations he suddenly launches into a paean to the success of Moscow’s communist urban planning.

He would never join a club that would have him as a member, and that is a valuable and dangerous quality in a thinker. He likes cities and suburbs and conurbations because they are messy and historical and overdetermined, not neat and ideological. I like that. Buy the book.

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3 Responses to “Sprawl”

  1. Lubliner Says:

    Vince; Love reading your blog. Please keep it up!

  2. Dean Blobaum Says:

    An excerpt from Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann is available on the University of Chicago Press website: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/076903.html

  3. Wendi Berman Says:

    Thank you. I had quite a knee jerk reaction to the LA TIMES article about Bruegmann’s book and I set out a’ scribbling. Your essay made me think twice before hitting the PUBLISH button. Obviously I need to read the book first. Still…come on…he lives in a grand Chicago condo. He can’t really think sprawl is a great idea. Or is it great for “them?” For “those people?”

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