December 9, 2005


Sprawling into controversy: Professor and author Robert Bruegmann is defying conventional wisdom with his claim that suburban creep is both an ancient phenomenon and a beneficial one. (Scott Timberg, December 9, 2005, LA Times)

Professor and author Robert Bruegmann is defying conventional wisdom with his claim that suburban creep is both an ancient phenomenon and a beneficial one.At first glance, Robert Bruegmann — a childless academic whose modernist apartment building sits in a dense, upscale Chicago neighborhood — seems like the kind of guy who'd hate the suburbs. His peers and predecessors have, for decades, decried the unplanned, low-density, auto-dependent growth of shopping malls and subdivisions.

But he's emerging as the unlikely champion of what we've called, at least since the 1950s, "sprawl." His counterintuitive new book, "Sprawl: A Compact History," charts the spreading of cities as far back as 1st century Rome — and finds the process not just deeply natural but often beneficial for people, societies and even cities.

The Boston Globe has called Bruegmann "the Jane Jacobs of suburbia," after the urban historian who celebrated the serendipitous, high-density warren of Greenwich Village and other old neighborhoods.

"Sprawl has been as evident in Europe as in America," he writes, "and can now be said to be the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live." [...]

[W]hile the traffic, pollution and housing prices may dismay residents, Bruegmann insists that "the problem of Los Angeles is the problem of success: It's become so attractive that everyone wants to live there." And it's done this, he says, without paying the environmental and aesthetic price of more wide-open cities like Atlanta and Houston.

By contrast, he argues, the "smart growth" policies of Portland, Ore., have been ambiguous. Portland is eminently livable but has not reduced sprawl and remains a low-density city. As its density starts to climb, he says, housing prices are going up.

One of his most shocking assertions is that suburban spread helps cities and their urban centers: Look at the way immigrants and the poor moved out of Lower Manhattan, for instance, only to have the area later reborn as a chic living space for artists and young people. It wouldn't have happened, he argues, if the highways and houses beyond the city center hadn't siphoned off population, allowing these neighborhoods to be reborn.

Ideally you'll have most people, especially those with kids, move out of cities, which are anti-human constructs, and leave the cities to Richard Florida's anti-social creative class.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 9, 2005 7:42 AM

Now I'm confused. I thought you loved the cities as buses and trains writ large: machines for forcing us to jostle up against our fellows. Not to mention the more usual connection that it is only in cities that buses and trains can operate profitably.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 9, 2005 8:24 AM

Trains can take us from the suburbs we live in to the city for work and then home again at end of day. Cities will be just glorified office parks and entertainment centers.

Posted by: oj at December 9, 2005 8:58 AM

Sprawl became an issue on the news peg of a government report, which said that it had suddenly accelerated by a large amount. The government later withdrew the report: in fact, the rate had not changed at all. They blamed the computer (a bug in a new statistical package). The correction got hardly any publicity. I stumbled across a mention of it in a Detroit Free Press editorial, and that's it as far as I know.

So it's hardly surprising that the whole thing is bogus.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at December 9, 2005 9:52 AM

Algore made "sprawl" an issue way back when. He wanted to move lots of people into cities. He must have been betting that the electorally Blue nature of cities was a certain kind of cause-effect relationship, namely that living in cities makes you liberal.

Posted by: Tom at December 10, 2005 11:00 AM

Not necessarily liberal, but more dependent on gov't at all levels, an inevitable consequence of coordinating living and working arrangements for high-density areas.

Which is why Orrin's urbanphobia and rejection of the Second Way dovetail.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 11, 2005 12:21 AM