Revisiting Sprawl

Today’s Chicago Sun-Times includes a review of Robert Bruegmann’s popular new book Sprawl that includes some interesting summaries of themes in the book that run counter to the “conventional wisdom” on urban sprawl. For example (emphases mine):

Among the suburban sprawl presumptions: Sprawl leads to excessive energy consumption caused by long commutes: “The problem isn’t private transportation,” Bruegmann insists. “The problem is that we have an old-fashioned 19th-century technology, the internal combustion engine using fossil fuels. Let’s solve that problem — maybe by creating small, fuel-efficient vehicles — and stop talking about putting the city back into its 19th-century state to make mass transit work. Instead, let’s see what people want to do, then see how the city can be built around them.” Sprawl causes loss of farmland: “Despite all of the scare tactics that we’ve had for 200 years about population inevitably outstripping agricultural production, agriculture is on the rise throughout the globe, except in those places where people are killing each other in civil wars,” Bruegmann says. “In the U.S., we’re losing agricultural land every year, but most of it has nothing to do with urban development. Most of it’s just because you don’t need the land. The amount of land we have for agriculture is so great that about 50 percent of the annual income of farmers in the U.S. is government subsidy, because we just don’t need all of that food.” Sprawl is bad for the environment: “What the farmer will do is take the land and strip off the native, natural vegetation, expose the land to all the elements, plant it with a monoculture and then douse it with chemicals,” he says. “It’s hard for me to see how that’s a particularly environmentally sensitive use of the land. By comparison, low-density suburban or exurban development will have much greater biomass, much greater species diversity, and much less impact on the land.” Sprawl is ugly: “Most people are so sure that strip malls and big-box retail are bad, but what we find ugly today, we may not in the future,” Bruegmann says. “Exactly the same criticism was made about fast food joints and service stations 50 years ago. Now, if you have a service station that’s over 50 years old, or you have an intact McDonald’s, it’s so interesting, it’s novel, it’s quaint. You might not call it beautiful, but you’re likely not to call it ugly anymore.” Sprawl is racist: In many Southern cities, it’s true, whites fled city centers in the 1960s, but the pattern of out-migration in cities with minimal African-American populations, such as Minneapolis, was exactly the same, Bruegmann says. What’s more, he adds, “Blacks move out of the city the same way whites do, when they have the chance, because nobody wants to be in neighborhoods with crime and bad schools. Those are problems that need to be fixed, but I simply don’t believe that forcing people back into the city is the answer.” Overall, Bruegmann contends, sprawl is a natural, historic, worldwide process of decentralization that’s been going on at least since ancient Rome and China, when the wealthy got away from the bustle and noise of city centers by building homes in outlying areas. More recently in the United States, he says, sprawl is essentially democratic. “Sprawl is largely the result of people of the middle class and even the working class getting what once only the wealthy had: single-family houses and private transportation.”

Read the whole thing. And if you needed one more reason to pick up this book, here it is:

Still, the early critical response to Bruegmann’s book has been mostly positive, with reviewers such as Witold Rybczynski, the architecture critic of the online magazine Slate, lauding Sprawl as an “iconoclastic little book” that “demonstrates that sprawl is not the anomalous result of American zoning laws, or mortgage interest tax deduction, or cheap gas, or subsidized highway construction, or cultural antipathy toward cities.” Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman is equally enthusiastic. “The intellectual perception of sprawl is a snobbish one that says it’s all crap, and Bob points out that it just ain’t that way,” Tigerman says.

I should have had this book on my Christmas list…thank goodness for gift cards… (hat tip: Instapundit)