Out of Control Policy Blog

Bruegmann on the Future of American Cities, Pt. 1

University of Illinois at Chicago prof, author, and urban realist Bob Bruegmann is going toe-to-toe this week with transit advocate Gloria Ohland in the LA Times' Dust-Up on the future of urban growth. In Part 1 they present two sharply contrasting views on urban sprawl. According to Bruegmann:

After doing a considerable amount of research on this subject for my book I concluded that very little of what was said about sprawl was either accurate or useful. The accepted wisdom today is that sprawl is recent, peculiarly American and caused by increasing automobile ownership and use. In fact, if we define sprawl in the most basic way as the decentralization of cities at constantly lower population densities and without any over-arching plan, it is fair to say that it has been going on since the beginning of urban history. Whether in imperial Rome or 19th century London, whenever a new group of people could afford to escape the congestion, noise and unsanitary conditions of city centers, they did so. In fact the exodus from central London in the 19th century, made possible by the newly invented railroad and public transportation, was at least as great as anything seen in the United States after World War II.

And every time a new group moved out there was an intellectual and artistic elite that was affronted and wished to stop it. In 19th century London, for example, "right-minded" individuals condemned the miles of brick row houses then being constructed for middle class families as ugly boxes erected by greedy developers. They considered these new neighborhoods a blight on the countryside and were sure that they would become a slum in a generation. Of course, within a generation, this same class of people had decided that these very row houses were the essence of central London, the antithesis of the new sprawl they saw at the urban fringe.

And so it has gone over the centuries. Today we are told that sprawl is economically inefficient, socially inequitable, environmentally damaging and aesthetically ugly. The current lead argument is often environmental, based on the notion that high-density compact settlements are more energy-efficient and less polluting than lower density, more scattered ones. However, there is little evidence that this is the case. The old 19th century cities were environmental horrors and only worked as well as they did because they were so much smaller than today's cities and most people were so poor that they had few choices in where they lived or worked. The most likely scenario to solve our energy problems and avert global warming is not to remake our cities at 19th century densities so that they can sustain 19th century technologies like the internal combustion engine, but instead to find new fuel sources and more efficient ways of using them at whatever densities people choose to live.

In any event, even if I am completely wrong and sprawl is a terrible thing, the record of attempts to stop it are not promising. In London, for example, where planners instituted a green belt and some of the toughest restrictions in the world immediately following World War II, they were unsuccessful. Indeed, the urban population of London has now scattered across much of the South of England. Throughout Europe, people are buying and using cars at a much faster rate than in the US and their dense, old cities are now sprawling outward faster than most American cities, particularly places like Los Angeles. In fact, the L.A. region has become so much denser over the last 50 years that it is currently the densest urbanized area in the United States. It is this increase in density and not density-lowering sprawl that lies at the root of many of the woes experienced by L.A. today.

Ohland's response offers a concise distillation of the main pro-transit, pro-smart growth (and in my estimation, misguided) arguments. It can be summed up in two sentences:

"[R]educing the amount of driving should be our number-one public policy goal"

"We've got to build more compact communities near transit instead of more sprawl."

These sentiments are almost taken as an article of faith among like-minded urban planners and smart growth advocates, but as my colleagues Sam and Ted point out here, here, and in their recent book, The Road More Traveled, conventional wisdom among urban planners is chock full of transportation myths (pardon the pun) that need to be reconsidered. Also be sure to check out Sam's earlier post about the myth of the transit-oriented city.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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