Thursday, April 12, 2007

For some time I’ve been meaning to write about Robert Bruegmann’s “Sprawl: A Compact History”, which I read several months ago—meaning the book is not nearly as fresh in my mind as I would like. Nonetheless, it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, so I’m going to take a stab at it anyway.

“Sprawl” is a primer on the history of urban development, as well as a critique of the arguments against sprawl, the amorphous term applied to the tendency of cities to expand outward in ever decreasing densities. Bruegmann’s book is meant as corrective to the overheated rhetoric of militant sprawl critics like James Howard Kunstler. Bruegmann takes on what he regards as the central myth of the anti-sprawl movement, namely that sprawl is a modern phenomenon, largely confined to the United States and driven by Americans’ heavy reliance on the automobile.

Bruegmann argues that cities as dense human settlements are historical accidents, formed because of a concentration of natural resources in specific and limited geographic regions. For thousands of years the growth of cities was checked by the presence of defensive walls, but even during ancient times, rising affluence allowed a select group of people to live beyond the city limits. The poorest people have often been confined to dense city centers, while the wealthy moved as far as the infrastructure of their day would allow. (Though Bruegmann notes that the poor have been able to flee city centers when there was land available that was deemed undesirable by their affluent counterparts.)

Almost from the start, this urban exodus prompted a backlash, which Bruegmann says to this day usually comes from two quarters: Those who previously fled the city and fear that their bucolic paradise will be spoiled by new arrivals, and those who object to sprawl on aesthetic grounds. Bruegmann thus argues, convincingly, that much of the criticism of sprawl is elitist, the result of subjective judgments made by people who scorn the choices freely made by their fellow citizens.

Bruegmann makes a good case that the automobile’s influence in promoting suburban development has been, if not exaggerated, than at least greatly misunderstood. The automobile, Bruegmann writes, was not a substitute for public transportation but rather for the private carriages that once belonged exclusively to the wealthy.

In other words, the automobile did not create a desire for private transportation but merely made it affordable for the masses. Indeed, the recent experience of Los Angeles suggests that building public transit systems does not encourage dense residential development, but that increasing densities leads to a demand for public transportation because it renders automobile use impractical.

Bruegmann also tries to rebut the article of faith among mass transit advocates that building new highways causes congestion to grow worse. Rather, this increased congestion merely reflects the pent-up demand that the new highway has unleashed. Furthermore, Bruegmann writes, if new highways are not built, people would simply move even further away from cities to escape gridlock.

It’s a compelling argument, but that’s all it is—an argument. Bruegmann doesn’t marshal empirical evidence to support his view, and he’s no better at separating cause from effect than the highway opponents he criticizes. He is also too dismissive of the effects that government policies have had in encouraging suburban development. He argues that housing policies, such as the home mortgage deduction, do not favor one type of development over another. What he ignores is that such policies underwrite the cost of sprawl, allowing it to accelerate more quickly than it might otherwise.

If sprawl is neither uniquely modern nor uniquely American, then why have European cities remained denser than their American counterparts? Bruegmann notes first of all that population densities in European cities are decreasing even as the same trend is reversing itself in the United States. But sprawl has occurred more slowly in Europe for two reasons: One, much of Europe lay in physical and economic ruin at the end of World War II, while the U.S. was unscathed and would soon undergo an economic boom. Second, European nations enacted national land-use regulations that we as Americans would regard as severe.

The closest parallel in the United States are Oregon’s urban growth boundaries, which Bruegmann examines at some length. He finds that they tend to protect what he terms “the incumbents’ club”: those who benefit from the status quo that the land-use restrictions aim to preserve. Often these are people who already own developable land within the growth boundaries or enjoy affordable housing at the time the restrictions are put into place.

While urban growth boundaries may succeed in keeping cities dense, they also encourage people to move outside the boundaries, where land is cheaper, according to Bruegmann. In that way, they may retard suburban growth but encourage growth in what we now term the exurbs.

Bruegmann is certainly correct to criticize this kind of planning. The reason Jane Jacobs objected to the urban planners of her day was that they seemed to assume that human beings behaved according to mathematical laws that were universal and predictable. In reality human communities are self-organizing systems. Bruegmann believes that government planners can do nothing to frustrate the free will of people to live wherever they choose and can afford.

That’s true. But he ignores that many people now seem to be choosing, even outside cities, to build higher-density, walkable communities that may not be the same as cities but look less and less like the suburbs many of us grew up in. Older suburbs are trying to create town centers and many now require new developments to include sidewalks.

Bruegmann assures us that American communities, after decades of expansion, are growing denser, but he doesn’t seem interested in stopping to ponder why. It may be elitist to say so, but perhaps people are discovering that some ways of living are better than others, and that perhaps an entire society can on occasion make the wrong choice.

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