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Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann

Heaven is a truck,
That got stuck,
On the freeway.
— Pavement

Sprawl. The very word conjures up images of SUVs inching along pitted concrete, driven by commuters hidden behind tinted glass who juggle cell phones with one hand and travel mugs with the other while negotiating the smoggy abyss between far-flung dreary cookie-cutter subdivisions and even drearier strips malls and office parks.

But like an urban planning version of Dr Phil, University of Illinois at Chicago professor Robert Bruegmann tells us in his new book Sprawl: A Compact History to embrace our symptom. What critics disparagingly term “sprawl” should actually be considered a good thing. By and large, history shows that communities, if they’re dynamic, tend to expand geographically over time, barring any natural or manmade barriers to development. What’s more, sprawl has always been with us: archaeologists have found evidence of human settlements going back millennia that experienced successive periods of growth on their peripheries.

Bruegmann maintains that there are at least two causes of sprawl in its modern form, increased affluence and the spread of democracy. As average folk have gotten more economically and socially secure, they have voted with their feet and opted for the privacy and freedom that low-density living allows. That they presume to encroach on the bucolic preserves of their so-called betters rather than stay cooped up in crowded urban tenements is at the bottom of what much of the critique of suburban and now exurban development is really about. Critics of sprawl over the last century or so generally have been either privileged snobs bent on protecting their turf or holier-than-thou reformers who think they know what’s best for the masses. They have tried to obstruct the free exercise of individual choice with zoning laws, large-scale community development projects and mass transit systems. And like all attempts at social engineering, these best-laid plans have often gone astray.

Thus it isn’t surprising that Bruegmann looks at modern campaigns against sprawl for the most part to expose their elitist underpinnings. “Wherever and whenever a new class of people has been able to gain some of the privileges once exclusively enjoyed by an entrenched group, the chorus of complaints has suddenly swelled,” he writes. In London in the 1920s, architect Clough Williams-Ellis (whose name alone bespeaks volumes of snootiness) and planner Thomas Sharp decried the development of tacky rowhouses in neighborhoods like Merton Park, along with their equally tacky inhabitants. The opening up of the “crabgrass frontier” of the American suburbs after the Second World War similarly caused anxiety among high-brow critics like Lewis Mumford and William H. Whyte, who saw the tract house development as a paragon of 1950s mass conformity. In the 1970s, anti-sprawlers hooked up with New Age environmentalists who added “sustainability” to the litany of worries plaguing primarily upper-middle-class people seeking to keep others from encroaching on their backyards. In each case, those who had already gotten theirs are shown to be motivated by keeping others from doing likewise.

Yet there’s more than a little disingenuousness in Bruegmann’s dismissal of sprawl’s modern critics in that he doesn’t address how various factors besides personal preference may work together with demonstrably negative consequences. This is something Thomas J. Sugrue’s award-winning book Origins of the Urban Crisis, to cite just one example, does to stunning effect with its well-documented analysis of the compound forces of economic deindustrialization, racial discrimination (including urban and suburban housing segregation) and top-down public policy contributing to inner-city Detroit’s postwar decline even as its adjacent areas have thrived. And in terms of the elitist attitudes, Bruegmann’s assertion of privacy, mobility and choice as primary human values is itself an elitist notion as social psychologist Barry Schwartz shows in books like The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less and The Costs of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life. Using empirical research, Schwartz reveals “freedom to choose” as a characteristic upper-middle- and upper-class value whereas “freedom from want and uncertainty” is what’s valued by those more economically disadvantaged.

Part of the problem is the concept of “sprawl” itself. Its definition as the process of decentralization of metropolitan areas has its origins in the period right after World War I in Britain. Since then it’s been bent and twisted to describe a plethora of ills, real and imagined, from urban decay to air pollution to social alienation and more. This has worked to the advantage of critics, according to Bruegmann, because the term’s malleability enables them to appeal to a broad constituency in promoting their causes du jour. But the same holds true for Bruegmann, who uses it to set up paper tigers, indulge in speculation and otherwise shadowbox with questions of urban development. And if Bruegmann dismisses various critics’ explanations and remedies for sprawl for not taking into consideration the complexity of the urban environment so too is his call to bring the unfettered market to bear on all aspects of it equally simpleminded. Most telling is what might be termed Breugmann’s “view from above,” embodied in his aerial photographs of sprawl and his descriptions of urban and suburban areas as seen from commercial airline windows. His history of sprawl isn’t compact so much as it is superficial, looking at sprawl as a surface effect but never getting to underlying causes. Time and again, Breugmann rationalizes the built environment as it exists as the result of individual preference and the supposed propensity of market logic to win out without ever presenting a sustained, consistent argument against the social and political structures within which development has historically occurred.

Indeed in his attempt to present a revisionist view of sprawl based on libertarian values of privacy, mobility and choice, Bruegmann engages in some interesting rhetorical contortions. For example, at one point he argues that the vast shantytowns on the outskirts of places like Lagos, Mexico City and Calcutta in the lesser-developed world should be looked at as effects of rational self-interest as much as inadequate public resources by virtue of providing those who live in their squalor with the benefits of private ownership and individual “lifestyle” options. A real moment of cognitive dissonance is his call, in a book supposedly dedicated to promoting a free-market perspective in urban planning, for a reappraisal of the good works of New York City development Svengali Robert Moses, demonstrably one of the least-democratically responsive municipal bureaucrats who ever controlled a bloated budget and lorded over a leviathan administrative apparatus through which to deploy it. The very antithesis of everything Bruegmann purports to embrace, Moses channeled billions of dollars in public funds, not private capital, into pet projects with little or no regard for individual choice and/or privacy concerns of local residents, literally ripping apart whole sections of New York in the process. One of his brainchildren, the Cross-Bronx Freeway, destroyed one of that borough’s most vibrant Jewish communities and is still one of the most loathsome stretches of highway in America. It took Jane Jacobs and a phalanx of grassroots activists to keep him from cutting a similar swath through Greenwich Village.

If Bruegmann is correct and sprawl is an effect of upward economic and social mobility, one wonders what will happen now with the apparent stalling of living-standards indexes in America and Europe, along with the advent of globalization and the rise of the Wal-Mart economy. Bruegmann’s book may hint at the answer with evidence showing increasing densities in many metropolitan areas over the last two-and-a-half decades, roughly the same period when average wages began falling in real terms and average housing costs escalated. They say you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. We may find out soon enough that the same holds true for sprawl.