Straw Men In A Sprawl World

Smart growth isn't an attack on the middle class, and those who argue as such are simply misrepresenting facts to distract from the real issues that planners are trying to mitigate.
July 2, 2007, 9am PDT | Michael Dudley
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Photo: Michael Dudley

Robert Bruegmann, in his June 11th piece in Forbes Magazine ("In Defense of Sprawl") does the reader the good service of reminding us of the dangers of catch-phrases and generalizations. A term like "sprawl" can, as he puts it, encourage us to lump together "all kinds of issues" and hence, disguise more than they reveal. He suggests that the issues are too important to allow rhetorical imprecision to lead us to convenient but fruitless conclusions.

Unfortunately, however, this could be said of his entire article, which is replete with leaps of logic and the sort of "straw (sprawl?) man" arguments which so often characterize efforts to debunk opponents of sprawl (see my recent Planetizen op-ed, "Paved Paradigm")

For example, he chastises the "anti-sprawl lobby" for suggesting that we need to increase densities and public transit use, when these solutions will not "solve the global warming problem." No, of course they won't "solve" it – and nobody argues that they will – but these are some of the real and laudable steps towards that goal.

He further proposes that a settlement pattern in the "affluent West" consisting of residences more-or-less evenly distributed across the landscape (a la Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacres) would permit localized and "carbon-neutral" alternative energy collection and use. All very well. But he doesn't concede the obvious fact that this would make private automobile use almost mandatory, and public transit impossible – hence nullifying the proposed benefits of his arrangement.

Alternatively, he points out that packing in "all urban dwellers the world over" to so-called "desireable" Parisian densities would require huge investments of energy because so many poor urban dwellers now can't afford carbon-based energy; the alternative would be to keep all these people deliberately poor, an obviously unacceptable solution.

But these are comparisons are between completely different populations and conditions: the affluent West and "all urban dwellers" everywhere – the latter of whom aren't, for some reason, making any use of alternative energy. The resulting argument is so crude that his deliberately absurd conclusion of globalized enforced poverty ends up lending a cruel sheen to arguments of the "anti sprawl lobby". In fact there are technological and social pathways using clean and renewable energy that may well be able to provide many of the world's population with a very desirable "Parisian" lifestyle that is predicated on density, while meeting social equity goals.

But then it is apparent that his principal purpose is to conflate concern regarding the environmental, social and political consequences of low-density land uses, with class conflict – or more precisely, to portray such as a snobbish attack on the middle class and its sensibilities.

The primary element of his argument rests on critiquing contemporary assaults on sprawl with the historical analogy of 19th-Century rowhouses in London, which were disparaged at the time for chewing up the countryside and for their aesthetic shortcomings; yet today are considered to be part of central London.

But as all historians know, historical analogies are never perfect, and in this case Bruegmann's choice is particularly unpersuasive. The 19th-Century residents of these rowhouses were not the owners of multiple motor vehicles making an average of 6 trips per day to ample free parking at jobs, schools and regional, space-gobbling "power centres." They were not stuck in traffic for 45 hours per year, burning ever-depleting fuel sources derived from geopolitically unstable parts of the world, while the globe around them warmed perceptibly leading to extreme weather events.

In other words, the scale and complexity of the issues related to "sprawl", and the globalized ways in which they are all interconnected, are of such consequence that they vastly transcend any comparisons to historical "class-based" critiques. They also demand more thoughtful solutions than the simplistic "either/or" scenarios casually offered here by Bruegmann.

It is true, as Bruegmann points out, that this debate is unfortunately saddled with loaded and imprecise language, and planners have been struggling for years to not just define sprawl but to reign in the use of the label of "smart growth" for developments wholly inconsistent with its principles. It would be desirable for those of us writing in this area to be wary of these pitfalls and to adjust our rhetoric accordingly.

But the discourse among planners and policy makers is further coarsened when we fail to debate the substantive issues on their own terms but instead conflate them with other political agendas and ideals; or when we rely on "straw man" arguments that misrepresent the principles of others, or pit against each other those very sectors in society that must work together to resolve the challenges we are facing.

To express concern over these drivers of change, or to seek their mitigation, is not an act of condescension towards the middle class, nor is it an attempt to weaken personal liberties. The issues that are for better or for worse now encapsulated under the rubric "sprawl" are real, converging crises that will have ever more serious effects for all of us, regardless of class, regardless of political ideology, and, indeed, regardless of nationality.

We are all living in a Sprawl World, and we all have a stake in reshaping it. But what this fundamentally political act will require is a vigorous and willing polity energized by debate unfettered by ideological preconceptions and a readiness to learn from, and not label and disparage, one another.

Michael Dudley is a research associate and librarian with the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg, and teaches city history and environmental psychology at the University of Manitoba.

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