October 2, 2005


The virtues of sprawl: Sprawl isn't what it used to be, some experts contend. Is it time we stopped worrying and learned to love the subdivision? (Anthony Flint, October 2, 2005, Boston Globe)

Some recent developments outside Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas are far-flung but quite dense, for example, suggesting a kind of creeping efficiency in America's continuing suburbanization. A Brookings Institution study on the Los Angeles area found an average of nine people per acre of newly developed land from 1982 to 1997, three times the rate of the New York metropolitan area. By the measure of people per square mile, Los Angeles--hemmed in, for all its expanse, by mountains and the ocean--is more dense than Chicago, according to the Census Bureau. The lines of single-family homes packed in close together have even prompted some grumbling that this fresh brand of suburbia doesn't provide enough elbow room.

Density is only one factor in the analysis of dispersed development. Because all the functions of life—homes, stores, entertainment, and work-places—are rigidly separated and spread out, everyone needs a car to get around. That means long commutes, traffic jams, and less quality time with family. Local governments are going broke trying to extend water and sewer lines and other infrastructure to outlying areas, even if it's dense once you get there. Sprawl eats up farmland and open space, and investment in sprawling areas has tended to be at the expense of inner cities, worsening social and economic fragmentation.

But is all that a bad rap? Maybe, says Robert Bruegmann, a professor of art history, planning and architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who identifies many good things about sprawl. ''It's no better or no worse than any other settlement pattern," Bruegmann says. ''It works because it satisfies a lot of needs. When people have been able to afford it, people move out of cities. We now have tens of millions of people who can do what only a small minority once could do."

Bruegmann, whose new book, ''Sprawl: A Compact History" (Chicago), will be published this month, joins consultant and author Joel Kotkin, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and others in finding inspiration in the subdivisions, like a Jane Jacobs of suburbia. The embrace of dispersal follows a long tradition started by Thomas Jefferson and followed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Today Bruegmann and others feel it's important to identify what's good about spread-out development because sprawl has been hammered for over two decades by activists urging ''smart growth" and New Urbanism, the latter an architectural movement promoting compact traditional neighborhood design.

Sprawl gives us ''decentralization and democratization," Bruegmann says—an orderly use of land that draws in working-class and middle-class people and allows them to head upward in the economy and society. Homes in new subdivisions in the South and West commonly start at $120,000. To try to curb sprawl is to stand in the way of the flourishing of the American dream.

''It's a way to get things once possessed by only a few," Bruegmann says. ''Privacy, mobility—social and physical—and choice."

Nor is sprawl a new phenomenon. From ancient Rome and China to 19th-century London to Paris and Los Angeles today, society has spread out during economic good times. ''There's a massive out-migration as soon as people can afford it," Bruegmann says. Accordingly, maybe we should all stop worrying and learn to love the subdivision.

With such density levels it will make sense to extend public transportation to such neighborhoods if energy costs ever do rise to significant levels--which remains a dubious proposition..

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 2, 2005 8:50 AM

In my part of the country it's all about choosing your neighbors and your children's classmates.

Public transportation continues to be irrelevant to suburban life, which depends upon instant mobility and the capability to move personnel and materials with real-time flexibility. There just isn't time to wait for the bus and we can't carry bags of mulch or soccer teams on the light rail cars.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 2, 2005 10:42 AM

"we can't carry bags of mulch or soccer teams on the light rail cars."


Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 2, 2005 11:10 AM

We jusdt a have a truck come in and dump it at one house then wheelbarrow it around the neighborhood.

Posted by: oj at October 2, 2005 11:46 AM

Ah, wheelbarrows. A true progressive, straining at the bit to progress back to the neolithic age.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 2, 2005 12:13 PM

It isn't just the density of the suburbs that counts for public transportation. It's also where people want to go. If people all work in little suburban parks spread all over the area, public transportation won't work.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 2, 2005 12:46 PM

Wheelbarrows are anti-society.

Posted by: jefferson park at October 2, 2005 1:42 PM

Not if you only have one and the whole community has to borrow it.

Posted by: oj at October 2, 2005 2:26 PM

> "we can't carry bags of mulch or soccer teams on the light rail cars."

> Wimp

I was once on a Paris Metro car with a British rugby team. It worked out fine for them.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at October 2, 2005 5:52 PM

Good thing you're not in charge of toothbrushes.

Posted by: joe shropshire at October 2, 2005 8:45 PM

Wait a minute...you hate skyscrapers but you love high density housing? How does that work?

Posted by: Governor Breck at October 3, 2005 7:36 AM

They're neighborhoods. Did you read the thing in the Valley News about how we live in the second biggest micropolis in America, combining rural atmosphere with a boatload of people?

Posted by: oj at October 3, 2005 7:51 AM

No, I wouldn't use the Valley News to train a puppy.

Posted by: Governor Breck at October 3, 2005 10:56 AM