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Slandering Sprawl By: Robert Bruegmann
The American Enterprise | Tuesday, May 16, 2006


There is overwhelming evidence that urban sprawl has been beneficial for many people. Year after year, the vast majority of Americans respond to batteries of polls by saying that they are quite happy with where they live, whether it is a city, suburb, or elsewhere. Most objective indicators about American urban life are positive. We are more affluent than ever; home ownership is up; life spans are up; pollution is down; crime in most cities has declined. Even where sprawl has created negative consequences, it has not precipitated any crisis.

So what explains the power of today's anti-sprawl crusade? How is it possible that a prominent lawyer could open a recent book with the unqualified assertion that "sprawl is America's most lethal disease"? Worse than drug use, crime, unemployment, and poverty? Why has a campaign against sprawl expanded into a major political force across America and much of the economically advanced world?

I would argue that worries about sprawl have become so vivid not because conditions are really as bad as the critics suggest, but precisely because conditions are so good. During boom years, expectations can easily run far ahead of any possibility of fulfilling them. A fast-rising economy often produces a revolution of expectations. I believe these soaring expectations are responsible for many contemporary panics.

Consider, for a moment, the thunderous din of complaints about traffic in Los Angeles. From one perspective, this reaction is bizarre. Even when speeds on the freeway decline to 20 miles per hour, drivers throughout the Los Angeles area move much more quickly than they do by car or public transportation at the center of almost any large, older industrial city in Europe or the U.S. It is clearly not that congestion is objectively worse in Los Angeles; it is that the highway building program of the 1950s and 1960s was so successful in reducing congestion that people became used to being able to drive across the entire metropolitan area at a mile a minute, dramatically expanding their choices in living, working, and recreation in the process. Since then, L.A.'s population has grown dramatically, but road building has slowed because of political pressures. This squeeze produced the inevitable result: more congestion.

Some Los Angeles residents now find themselves even more frustrated about traffic than residents of Paris or New York City. This has little to do with the traffic itself, however, and everything to do with the fact that Parisians and New Yorkers never entertained the possibility that they could drive through the center of the city at 60 miles per hour. The problem in Los Angeles is a deflation of greatly raised expectations.

Today's unprecedented concern about sprawl is similarly an indication of how much expectations have risen among ordinary urban dwellers. Metropolitan changes have become such an issue in Los Angeles and Atlanta not because these are inherently undesirable places to live. Quite the contrary. These places have become so attractive that many new residents have flooded in. This has been beneficial for much of the population. These cities have generated enormous numbers of jobs and vast wealth for a tremendous number of people. Of course, as in all other cities throughout history, there have been problems.

For some of these problems, there are solutions. Others will simply disappear as boom periods fade and citizens adjust their lives to avoid the dislocations and imbalances. For yet other problems there are no real solutions, because they involve a clash in goals and desires among different parts of the populations. In these cases, most people will eventually learn to live with the consequences.

Trying to ameliorate longstanding urban trials is a sensible course of action. What is far less sensible is directing so much critical energy at conditions that don't really qualify as traumatic, or circumstances that can't be changed without causing severe unintended consequences. This is particularly so in the case of urban sprawl--where a clampdown would cause severe losses among the less savvy and well-connected parts of our population.

As comfort spreads, blame the other guy

When asked, most Americans declare themselves to be against sprawl, just as they say they are against pollution or the destruction of historic buildings. But the very development that one individual targets as sprawl is often another familyÍs much-loved community. Very few people believe that they themselves live in sprawl, or contribute to sprawl. Sprawl is where other people live, particularly people with less good taste. Much anti-sprawl activism is based on a desire to reform these other peopleÍs lives.

Affluent exurban residents are among the most zealous guardians of the status quo. They are often adamant about preserving their area exactly as it was when they arrived. Yet rural areas, after a century of losing people as farmers abandoned their land for the cities, are now being repopulated, often at nineteenth-century densities. The new residents are urban families who want the look of old rural New England, but with all of today's urban conveniences. They demand the aesthetic experience of "traditional" settlements without all of the inconveniences associated with that kind of landscape.

This trend, while much accelerated by affluence, has been going on for a long time. Among the best documented inhabitants of exurbia are a number of early American prophets of what we now know as environmentalism. Think of Henry David Thoreau in his shack at Walden Pond just beyond suburban Boston, John Muir in a house across the Berkeley hills from San Francisco, Aldo Leopold at his weekend retreat near Madison, Wisconsin. These were all exurbanites, individuals who loved what they considered a rural life but who also wanted ready access to the city.

Many members of cultural elites are not interested in hearing about the benefits of increased choice for the population at large--because they believe that ordinary citizens, given a choice, will usually make the wrong one. Yet sprawl has certainly increased choices for ordinary citizens.

At the turn of the century, it was primarily wealthy families who had multiple options in their living, working, and recreational settings. An affluent New York banker and his family could live in many different communities in the city or its suburbs. They could summer in the Adirondacks or at Newport, winter in Florida or on the French Riviera. They had the luxury of ignoring their neighbors and choosing their friends elsewhere.

Today, even the most humble American middle-class family enjoys many of these choices. The privacy, mobility, and freedom that once were available only to the wealthiest and most powerful members of society are now widespread. So if the question is, "Why has sprawl persisted over so many centuries and accelerated in the modern era?" the most convincing answer seems to be that growing numbers of people have discovered that it is the surest way to obtain the rich, satisfying life all citizens crave.

Class bias is the key

Class-based aesthetic objections to sprawl have always been the most important force motivating critics. It seems that as society becomes richer and the resources devoted to securing basics like food and shelter diminish, aesthetic issues loom larger. Certainly the number of people complaining about the visual impact of sprawl, and the vehemence of their rhetoric, have increased with each successive campaign against it.

There is an obvious class bias in these judgments. The indictments against sprawl almost never target architecture or landscapes acceptable to upper-middle-class taste, no matter how scattered or consuming of land. One doesn't hear complaints about the spectacular British villas, the private gardens of the French Riviera created in the 1920s, or the great country houses built by American industrialists at the turn of the century on northern Long Island or in the Brandywine Valley in Delaware. "Sprawl" means subdivisions and shopping centers for middle-and lower-middle-class families. Today it is notoriously "McMansions"--houses judged by some observer to be excessive in size or stylistic pretension.

In both the U.S. and elsewhere, the driving force behind complaints against sprawl at any period seems to be a set of class-related tastes and assumptions, almost always present but rarely discussed. In the nineteenth century, for instance, London exploded outward as developers threw up mile upon mile of brick terrace houses. The resulting cityscape horrified highbrow British critics of the time, who considered the new districts to be vulgar, cheap, and monotonous. Nevertheless, the houses continued to be built, because so many middle-class inhabitants of central London saw them as a vast step upward for their families. Within the last generation or two, elite opinion finally came around, and today these row houses are widely considered to be the very model of compact urban life.

Similarly, during the 1920s the built-up area of greater London underwent a doubling, creating an outward sprawl at least as great as anything seen in recent America. Much of the growth consisted of rows of semidetached houses. These sturdy homes, like the row houses of the nineteenth century, were deprecated by much of the British cultural elite. But they were highly appreciated by ordinary Londoners. And now, ironically enough, these neighborhoods are considered the antithesis of sprawl, and the homes are being lovingly restored by members of the aesthetic elite of the current generation.

If history is any guide, the current revolt of the "sensitive minority" against sprawl will soon seem a quaint product of a bygone era. Highbrow critics loudly castigated the landscape created by "vulgar masses" fed by "greedy speculators" in cookie-cutter postwar American suburbs like Daly City, California. But now that their landscapes have matured and their original plastic-shaded floor lamps have become collectible, many of these vintage neighborhoods have become trendy. In like manner, as hard as it is to imagine today, by the time the landscape around the now-treeless subdivisions of look-alike stucco boxes at the edge of suburban Las Vegas fully matures, these subdivisions will likely be candidates for historic landmark designation. 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.

Beware of faulty fixes

Although sprawl obviously causes considerable problems of all kinds, the same could be said of any kind of settlement pattern, and there is precious little evidence that the dislocations caused by sprawl are as serious as activists would have us believe. More important, many of their proposed reforms would likely create fresh difficulties. Some of the anti-sprawl remedies tried thus far have been highly ineffective; others have led to unintended consequences arguably worse than the problems the reformers set out to correct. Whether in London immediately after World War II, or in Portland, Oregon during the last couple of decades, previous anti-sprawl policies have failed to stop the outward spread of people and jobs, and may well have aggravated the very things they were supposed to alleviate, like highway congestion.

The history of political treatments for urban woes is rife with traumatic side effects. In the mid twentieth century, for instance, there were panicky responses to the "crisis of the central city." Proclaiming that they would put an end to declining property values and the flight of residents and jobs, planners instituted "urban renewal," public housing expansions, "neighborhood revitalization," and such. In the end, many of these efforts to "cure" urban woes ended up triggering and worsening them. Difficulties that could have been short-lived blips were actually exacerbated.

This is not surprising. In very complex systems like a city, any intervention in one place is likely to cause changes, often unintended, throughout the entire mechanism. Besides, anti-sprawl policies tend to be highly inequitable. They are usually most beneficial to an "incumbents' club"--families who already have many of the urban amenities they want, and who benefit from the rise in land prices that accompanies any regulation discouraging new growth. These same policies can place a heavy burden on exactly the part of the population least able to protect itself.

Many anti-sprawl plans are based on a simple and static view of the proper shape of an urban area. There is a desire to repudiate the untidiness of the democratic, industrial city of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and return to the order of the European city from medieval times through the era of absolutist monarchs--when city form was dictated by central authority and the building of successive walls.

Like the common schematics of electrons racing around the nucleus of an atom, or diagrams of planets circling the sun, planners love to push a "natural" order. But everyone now knows that none of those natural phenomena is as tidy as the diagrams suggest, and systems of human social life are even more complex and chaotic. Yet many urban reformers continue to reject the inevitable human messiness of cities, which they try to manipulate with blunt controls.

Two of the most important American attempts to create utopian "garden cities" illustrate the difficulties of artificially planning and then manufacturing an ideal community. The towns of Reston, Virginia and Columbia, Maryland were privately developed "new communities" intended to be compact and transit-oriented, with a balance of jobs and housing. In the end, Reston and Columbia managed to attract an enthusiastic resident population. What they did not do was to provide models for stopping sprawl.

In both of these cases, the original master-planning team failed financially, and the projects had to be reorganized. Nor were these two communities notably successful in their central goals. The planners had hoped that residents would take jobs adjoining their housing, and drive less. They pushed elaborate public transit. Neither effort was successful. As planners of new towns in Britain had discovered decades earlier, ambitious residents of any given community are quite likely to find better jobs somewhere else in the region than in the place where they happen to live. The result was that a high percentage of the residents of Reston and Columbia ended up working elsewhere. Given the overall low densities of both towns--around 3,000 people per square mile--it's not surprising that residents use the automobile much like suburbanites anywhere. In the end, despite all of the careful planning and high-minded architectural design, these towns function very much like any other middle-class suburb.

Leaping to judgment

Unfortunately, we don't understand our new urban areas very well because many of the individuals best equipped to describe them--historians, social scientists, planners, urban theorists--have been so quick to condemn that they've never really looked carefully. Aesthetic biases and failures of analysis and fair description of suburbs have created a prejudicial hierarchy that looks down on suburbia as a lower form of urbanity. I suggest we set aside the traditional distinctions between urban, suburban, and rural and think instead of settlements across a vast landscape as if they were celestial bodies, each exerting a force field, stronger or weaker according to their size and density, and changing in intensity across time.

For instance, many people have viewed suburbia as antithetical to the old downtowns. But it is probably more useful to think of the two locales as siblings, always reacting to one another. After seeing the success of office parks in the suburbs, for instance, developers in the central city created large new office and hotel complexes with extensively landscaped grounds. Conversely, developers of suburban places like the Reston Town Center in Virginia or the Easton Town Center in Ohio watched downtown business associations improve their competitive position by capitalizing on their historic heritage, restoring buildings, and installing traditional street furniture, and countered by creating new suburban "downtowns" meant to look and function like old city centers. This competition is healthy.

Another misunderstanding grows out of the provincialism of critics living in fast-growing urban areas. Many such people have the impression that the entire country is fast being paved over. But in truth, cities and suburbs occupy only a small percentage of our country's land. The entire urban and suburban population of the United States could fit comfortably into Wisconsin at suburban densities. Moreover, the amount of land set aside permanently for parks and wildlife areas has grown faster than urban land.

Self-interest and fear of change

Although opponents of sprawl believe they are making rational and disinterested diagnoses of urban problems, their actions usually involve powerful, often unacknowledged, self-interest. The self-interest is clear in the case of the New Yorker who owns a weekend home in the Hamptons and rails against the continuing development of Long Island. In similar fashion, families who have recently moved to the suburban periphery are often the most vociferous opponents of further development of exactly the same kind that created their own house, because that would destroy their views or reduce their access to the countryside beyond their subdivision.

The power of self-interest can also be seen in individuals who press for mass transit yet are very unlikely to use it themselves. They assume someone else will ride, and free up highway space for themselves. Here again, members of the incumbentsÍ club form alliances to protect their advantages, sometimes in unexpected and ephemeral ways.

The anti-sprawl campaign might bring together, if only temporarily, a conservative retired couple in Maine worried about a shopping center outside their village and a young New York City social worker of radical political inclinations infuriated by what she perceives as a government tilt toward SUV owners over subway riders. A small farmer worried that new suburban neighbors in Des Moines might complain about farm odors, crop spraying, and agricultural vehicles on local roads could easily find himself backing the same kind of stringent land controls as a large residential developer in San Diego who knows that he will be able to pass on the cost of additional regulatory hurdles to his homebuyers, and that his lawyers will be able to negotiate the bureaucracy more easily than his smaller competitors. Opposing sprawl could well be the only issue on which all of these people would agree.

There seems to be no strong correlation between political affiliation and anti-sprawl activism. The most important factor in pushing individuals toward an anti-sprawl position is class. In general, like the City Beautiful and Prohibition movements before it, the anti-sprawl project has been heavily supported by upper-middle-class professionals. The reform leaders come overwhelmingly from an elite group of academics, central-city business executives, and employees of non-profit organizations.

One of the oddest aspects of the anti-sprawl campaign is the way it has altered the relationship between progressive and conservative ideas. Within the past several decades, many of the people who still think of themselves as progressive have turned pessimistic and have concluded that social trends have actually gotten worse rather than better. They look to conservation and preservation rather than the development of new resources or technologies, they want to limit growth rather than aid it, and they prefer to recreate urban forms of previous eras rather than experiment with new settlement patterns.

This position puts them squarely in the camp of many traditional conservatives, who have always been more interested in maintaining what exists than forging toward the possibility of progress. The anti-sprawl movement is a powerful compound of this new progressivism and a traditional conservatism. It seems to be part of a widespread erosion of confidence in the future, and a desire to sentimentalize the past.

The reality is that, rather than declining, many suburbs are actually becoming increasingly gentrified. One of the most visible aspects of this has been the dramatic rise in the number of teardowns: the replacement of smaller houses with much larger ones. One might have thought that teardowns would be welcomed by anti-sprawl forces because they represent a desire to reuse and revitalize older communities. But many of the same organizations that fight sprawl also want to discourage teardowns, claiming they destroy the character of communities. This suggests that the real target might be less sprawl than change itself.

The world is right behind us

Enemies of sprawl often hold up dense European city centers as alternatives. But it's not so much the actual preferences of the inhabitants that make those areas the way they are, as simply the fact that their settlement patterns were fixed generations ago in a way that would be hard to alter now. Though many Europeans still live in small apartments in high-density districts, polls consistently confirm that the vast majority of them, like most people worldwide, would rather live in single-family houses on their own piece of land than in an apartment building.

And now that they are becoming affluent enough to act, Europeans are moving into suburbs in increasing numbers. They are bringing jobs and retail with them. In country after country across Europe, consumers are demanding the convenience of longer store hours, shops closer to where they live, and easier access by automobile. The result is a proliferation of large supermarkets, shopping centers, discount centers, and Big Box retail outlets like Wal-Mart or Target.

While the suburbs of European cities or those of Australia or Canada have not developed exactly like those of the U.S., the patterns have been similar. The shift of population from the center of Paris to its suburbs, for instance, has actually been sharper in recent decades than in Chicago. Between 1962 and 1990 the city of Paris slipped steadily in population from 2.8 million to 2.2 million. The inner suburbs first gained in population, overtaking the population of the city and reaching over 3 million by 1975. Then the outer suburbs witnessed an accelerating growth, rising from 1.7 million to 2.6 million in 1990. Beyond that, an "exterior zone" including the rest of greater Paris grew from 1.2 million to 2.9 million. At present, the city of Paris accounts for fewer than a quarter of all Parisians.

Despite efforts by the French central government to channel growth, the outer Parisian suburbs and exurbs, with their low-density subdivisions of single-family houses, shopping centers, industrial parks, and freeways, function and look increasingly like those in the United States. This process of rapid dispersal has been visible in virtually every major city on the globe where incomes have risen and there has been an active real estate market--from Boston to Bangkok and from Buenos Aires to Berlin.

Cars win everywhere

Given the low overall densities in European suburbs, it's not surprising that the private automobile has become the most common way for residents to get around in recent decades. Even in the Paris region, which has one of the most extensive systems of public transportation in Europe, public transit does not play much of a role through large parts of the territory. Public transit accounts for only about 30 percent of vehicular travel in the area, and this figure declines further with each passing year.

Use of the private automobile, in contrast, has been rising quickly throughout Europe--even faster, in fact, than in the U.S. This makes sense, since, outside the central core, the automobile is almost always a quicker means of getting from one place to another. The average commute to work in greater Paris, for example, is 27 minutes by car, 53 minutes by public transport. A massive switch from public transit to the automobile has taken place even though the French government, along with those of all the other Western European nations, has levied very high taxes on autos and gasoline to discourage car use and finance public transport.

The same pattern is visible in the Tokyo area. Despite one of the best public transit systems in the world, Tokyo has some of the worldÍs longest commuting times. And the public systems are the slowest option.

Even if travel times were longer by automobile than by public transportation (which is rarely the case in any city) the comfort and convenience of the automobile would probably make it the transportation mode of choice for many middle-class urban dwellers. That's why the automobile had become the dominant mode of travel in all affluent nations. Even in a country like the Netherlands, which has one of the highest densities of any country in the world, less than 10 percent of commuting trips are now on public transportation.

Getting what we wished for

For generations, almost all urbanists who critiqued the ills of the modern city ended up advocating dispersal of tightly packed populations. When that really happened on a large scale, the next generation of planners were horrified. Without a doubt, suburbanization has created many problems, as fast change always does. But, on the whole, it appears to have been very beneficial to most urban dwellers.

It's hard for us today to really grasp the nature of city life a hundred years ago, when millions of urban dwellers were obliged to endure cramped and unsanitary tenements, dangerous traffic, pollution-choked streets, and deadly factories. The cleaner, greener, safer, more private neighborhoods that most metropolitan residents now live in would astound our great-grandparents. At very least, our highly dispersed urban regions deserve a bit of respect, before we jump to the conclusion that they are terrible places in need of total transformation.

Intellectuals often resist the notion that ordinary citizens play a large and healthy role in the creation of cities and societies. They argue that the average urban family actually has few choices, because options are dictated by vast economic, political, and social systems. The family can only buy what the merchant offers, or the developer builds, or the government allows.

Of course everyone's choices are constrained by what is available. Yet it seems fair to say the average American family today has more real options than a similar family in any other society or previous era. Moreover, the power to make decisions capable of reshaping society is highly decentralized at present. Even a billionaire willing to spend every penny would only be able to buy about 2,000 moderately expensive houses in most big U.S. cities.

At the same time, every individual has some role in determining how the city looks and functions. If I shop at a suburban Wal-Mart rather than a downtown department store, or choose to live in an apartment near the old downtown rather than in a single-family house on five acres in exurbia, these actions have an effect on urban form. It is precisely these kinds of choices, echoed and re-echoed by millions of independent citizens, that have profoundly reshaped AmericaÍs urban areas.

More than any other human artifact in the world today, our urban areas are the result of the everyday actions of each person, each group, each institution. In its immense complexity and constant change, the city--whether concentrated at the core, looser and more sprawling in suburbia, or extending into the vast exurban penumbra--is the grandest and most marvelous work of mankind. Tear up and start over at your own risk.

This essay is adapted from the author's book, Sprawl.

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Architectural historian Robert Bruegmann is professor and chairman of art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of the new book Sprawl.


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