TCS Daily


Learning to Love Sprawl

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 8, 2005 12:00 AM

Everybody knows some things about sprawl: It's a recent, and largely American phenomenon; it encourages wasteful use of resources; it's aesthetically unpleasant; and it benefits the rich at the expense of the poor. We also know that it could be conquered if Americans just gave up their "love affair with the automobile" and favored mass transit.

Everybody knows these things, but Robert Bruegmann's new book, Sprawl: A Compact History, argues that they're untrue.

Sprawl isn't recent, says Bruegmann. Rich people have always wanted to sprawl:

"Ancient, medieval, and early modern literature is filled with stories of the elegant life of a privileged aristocracy living for large parts of the year in villas and hunting lodges at the periphery of large cities. . . . High density, from the time of Babylon until recently, was the great urban evil, and many of the wealthiest or most powerful citizens found ways to escape it at least temporarily."

Sprawl didn't become a problem until the wealthy and powerful were joined by the hoi polloi. Thanks to greater wealth and improvements in transportation, they were able to move from teeming tenements to less-urban settings. Once this started to happen -- before the automobile hit the scene, and beginning outside the United States -- social critics began to complain that sprawl was ruining pristine landscapes, and destroying the charm of urban life. (Ironically, as Bruegmann also points out, some of the very aspects of sprawl criticized by earlier generations -- like the miles of brick terrace row houses built in South London during the 19th century -- are now regarded as quaintly charming: "Most urban change, no matter how wrenching for one generation, tends to be the accepted norm of the next and the cherished heritage of the one after that.")

Bruegmann also notes that sprawl is not, in fact, a particularly American phenomenon, and illustrates his book with pictures of strip malls and low density housing from places as diverse as Bangalore and Paris. He also notes, in reports that remind me of similar discussions in James Scott's Seeing Like A State, that most efforts on the part of urban planners to reduce sprawl seem to make things worse, and to enrich incumbent landowners at the expense of the poor and the middle class.

Bruegmann's analysis seems to echo my own experience. I live in Knoxville, a sprawling community indeed. (Metropolitan Knoxville covers nine counties, and has a population of about 600,000). Knoxville sprawls because it's easy to build new homes and businesses here. That also makes housing very cheap. People who could barely afford a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, or a row house in Brooklyn, can easily afford a very nice home here. Yes, it sprawls -- but I spoke this morning to a producer in New York who took 45 minutes to get to her Manhattan office from Brooklyn by subway; it took me 20 minutes to drive to work.

The biggest complaint against sprawl, as Bruegmann repeatedly points out, seems at core to be that some people are getting above themselves. Nobody, he writes, complained about sprawl when it involved the spectacular country estates of the rich: "Sprawl is subdivisions and strip malls intended for middle- and lower-middle-class families." He notes the irony of Pete Seeger's condemning "little boxes made of ticky-tacky" when they represented working people's hope for a better life, and compounds the irony by noting that those same houses are now "being reappraised by hip, young urbanites who see them as charming period pieces."

There's much more to Bruegmann's book, both in terms of numerous statistics, charts, and graphs, and interesting arguments (among other things, he suggests that low-density living may be more environmentally friendly, and may encourage its occupants to be more interested in the environment than they would be if they lived in urban warrens, since people move to suburbia and exurbia in order to be close to nature).

As Artemus Ward famously observed,

"It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble. It's the things we do know that just ain't so." Bruegmann's book makes a strong case that a lot of the things we think we know about sprawl just ain't so. I hope that it gets the attention it deserves.

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