Reviews

Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann

Vince Carducci

Bruegmann maintains that there are at least two causes of sprawl in its modern form, increased affluence and the spread of democracy.


Sprawl

Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Length: 264
Subtitle: A Compact History
Price: $27.50
Author: Robert Bruegmann
US publication date: 2005-11
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.