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The Way We Live Now

How America went suburban, and why.

Mar 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 25 • By VINCENT J. CANNATO
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A Compact History

by Robert Bruegmann

Chicago, 301 pp., $27.50

SPRAWL. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, say most critics. Browsing through a university library catalog recently, I found over 20 books on sprawl published since just 2000. Nearly every one of them takes a dim view of the subject, their titles oozing with doom, outrage, dismay, or some combination thereof: Road to Ruin: An Introduction to Sprawl and How to Cure It; Up Against the Sprawl; City Limits: Putting the Brakes on Sprawl; Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money; and It's a Sprawl World After All: The Human Cost of Unplanned Growth--and Visions of a Better Future.

You get the idea.

So one might have low expectations for Robert Bruegmann's recent contribution to the literature. Yet this book is a refreshing antidote to the avalanche of pessimism emanating from the so-called sprawl debate. As Bruegmann writes in his introduction, it seemed as if "so many 'right-minded' people were so vociferous on the subject [of the perils of sprawl] that I began to suspect that there must be something suspicious about the argument itself." He approaches the topic with some much-needed skepticism toward these "right-minded" critics and adds a healthy dose of nondogmatic libertarianism to the mix. The result is an eminently readable and rational book.

What is sprawl? Bruegmann, a professor of art history and architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, defines it as "low-density, scattered, urban development without systematic large-scale or regional public land-use planning."

Critics charge sprawl with all manner of sin: causing global warming, pollution, and the depletion of natural resources, aiding the nation's so-called obesity crisis, increasing economic and racial inequality, destroying the family farm, and despoiling open spaces, killing off American cities, encouraging "big-box" retailers like Wal-Mart who underpay their workers and kill "mom-and-pop" businesses, and creating conformist communities whose residents neglect the public interest for their own personal "privatopia." On top of that, they argue, suburban sprawl is just plain ugly.

The ideology of the anti-sprawl camp is easy to pare down to basics. Cars and roads are bad, public transportation is good. Low-density development is bad, high density is good. Local government is bad. Regional or metropolitan government is good. Private, "unplanned" development driven by the market is bad. Planned development according to the dreams of urban planners is good. Cities are the apex of American civilization and society. Suburbs and exurbs are drab, conformist, and politically reactionary.

Sprawl: A Compact History tugs at nearly every aspect of the anti-sprawl critique and finds many of the theories wanting. Bruegmann also places the issue within the larger historical context. He attempts to show that dispersal from high-density core areas to low-density outer areas is a phenomenon common not just to modern America, but also ancient Rome and 19th-century England. He also argues that sprawl is not simply a phenomenon found in free-market-mad America, but also in more "noble" societies like Europe, Canada, and South America.

We think of central Paris as a wonderful example of how to emphasize high-density urban living, but Bruegmann notes that, between 1962 and 1990, Paris's population dropped by more than a half-million, and saw its population dwarfed by its inner and outer suburbs, filled with single-family homes, industrial parks, and shopping centers. "By 1999," writes Bruegmann, the larger Parisian metropolitan area known as "Ile-de-France had nearly 10 million people, meaning that the city of Paris accounted for fewer than a quarter of all Parisians."

So what really lies behind the arguments against sprawl? Bruegmann seems to pinpoint the issue. Although suburban sprawl, like any other social or economic trend, creates it own set of issues, "the driving force behind the complaints at any period seems to have been a set of class-based aesthetic and metaphysical assumptions, almost always present but rarely discussed."

Although the current sprawl debate dates back to the mid-1990s, it's really a much older story. The crusade against sprawl is merely the latest saga of the battle against suburbia that began in the 1920s, blossomed in postwar America, and continues with today's jeremiads against sprawl.