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.
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.



more costs than driving

Smart Growth "deniers" always seem to overlook the myriad costs of sprawl. Beyond auto-centric social problems (isolation, depression, obesity) the infrasructure costs are much higher than dense, attached homes, and single family dwellings traditionally use more resouces for heating and cooling and leak more heat into the atomsphere.

Since most of our urban centers were historically built near farm lands, sprawl often occupies the nation's richest agricultural lands, and continues to threaten agriculture.

Here in Northern California, sprawl development is spreading rapidly in the Central Valley, traditionally the breadbasket of the nation. Where do these sprawl dwellers work? Too often a congested 1-1/2 to 2 hour drive west in San Francisco.

rob bregoff

Sprawl offers much of the same

All of the "sprawl has no problems" proporters fail to recognize the disfunctional landscape that sprawl inevitably produces. A fine example can be found where I live in Central Ohio. Known as the Polaris Parkway, just north of the I-270 loop around Columbus, Ohio, the area is exemplary of the auto-centric dominated culture. The Ohio Department of Transportation recognized that the area would need a major upgrade of the I-71/Polaris Parkway interchange. A public-private partnership was established for the sole purpose of "solving the congestion problem". A few years later and a couple hundred million dollars later, traffic still sucks.

I wonder what the sprawl proponents would offer as a solution. Would they want to widen Polaris Parkway to 10 or 12 lanes from its current 8 lanes?

King George's last days...

Watch "Transformers" this weekend and look for a subtle subtext: the machines turning on us, or rather, 'them'. When national film critics pan "Transformers" as mere fluff and computer graphics, you'll know the subliminal message is a threat to corporate power. Suburban sprawl development is nothing more than wage-slave housing compounds, rows of multi-car garages with attached houses, a funding mechanism that creates more profit from car sales than home sales. We are at war; a threat to the US democracy is from within. To maintain power, corporate rule will initiate WWIII disguised as Armageddon.

Sprawl and smart growth

The arguments in support of genuine smart growth policies, and the critique of sprawl, are intellectually sound but don't reach the perpetuators. This debate will go nowhere until smart growth advocates understand and take seriously what it is that drives sprawl: the individual's desire for that image of the good life that is embodied in the single family detached home in a green setting, free from perceived urban disamenities. Whether this is an outcome of our Anglo-American cultural inheritance or is a more intrinsic component of human nature, it is a real desire, it is something that highly intelligent and well-educated people participate in, and it - not developers, not the automobile - drives the thousands of individual decisions about residential location that collectively make for sprawl. Until planners and urban designers can offer a substitute that relocates Delores Hayden's suburban triad of privacy, community, and nature into a dense urban setting, and as long as individuals' desires can be accomodated through cheap transportation and willing governments, we're going to be seeing a lot more sprawl. The design challenge: give the cities more of the elements that people seek in suburbia, and design the suburbs to rectify their environmental wrongs while preserving what it is that people want in those locations.

Streetcar Suburbs

design the suburbs to rectify their environmental wrongs while preserving what it is that people want in those locations.

Aren't New Urbanists doing just that by designing suburbs that are like the old streetcar suburbs, which are walkable and take only about one-third as much land as sprawl suburbs.

Charles Siegel

Murrican Dream.

This debate will go nowhere until smart growth advocates understand and take seriously what it is that drives sprawl: the individual's desire for that image of the good life that is embodied in the single family detached home in a green setting, free from perceived urban disamenities.

Only a fraction of the population wants this. Surveys bear this out.

Drive down any suburban street and see how many people don't care for their lawns; this can be a general back-of-the-envelope proxy for the fraction of the population that would like a choice to live somewhere else and not have to care for the greenery.




I agree that the anti-sprawl community tends to advance specious arguments as Bruegman did. His historic anlayses, while interesting reading, were indeed deeply flawed.

That said, the perception that planners have control over development generally is also flawed. Yes there are comprehensive plans, and Boards of Appeals and recommnedations from planners--all helpful in controlling sprawl. However, the development community has found that by tossing around the phrases SMART GROWTH, DENSITY, and TOD they are able to get projects approved and the press/public on board. The planning community is rendered impotent--tin men in the development process.

Planners in reality have little control over sprawl. Where they could do the most good is in continuing to define Smart Growth and its tenets. Absent that, the real estate development community is holding all the cards.

Chuck D'Aprix [Charles D'Aprix]
Economic Development Visions
The Downtown Entrepreneurship Project

Man Bites Dog - Professor Defends Sprawl

Of course, Bruegmann gets so much attention only because it is so rare for a professor to defend sprawl. Just as it is news when a man bites a dog but not when a dog bites a man, it is news when a professor defends sprawl but not when a professor attacks sprawl.

Bruegmann's attracts attention purely because his thinking is so marginal, and this Forbes article contains his weakest arguments yet.

As this op-ed says, it is an absurd for Bruegmann to defend sprawl by saying that stopping sprawl won't end global warming - as if anyone ever claimed that this alone would stop global warming rather than being one part of a larger effort to deal with global warming.

It is absurd to say that, in theory, the cars could all be powered by green fuels and not cause global warming, at a time when global warming has already begun and these fuels do not yet exist in practice.

It is absurd to say it would aggravate global warming if everyone in the developing nations lived at Parisian densities - without mentioning that it would be much, much worse if everyone in the developing nations lived at Houston's densities, and that it would reduce global warming if everyone in American cities lived at Parisian densities.

Bruegmann's arguments in this article are so flimsy that no one would pay any attention to them at all if it weren't the fact that a professor defending sprawl is news, like a man biting a dog.

Charles Siegel

The Middle Class Issue

I found that the most interesting micro-topic discussed, while briefly, was the issue of the middle class being victimized by anti sprawl. If anything, the case is exactly the opposite. Sprawl is development which, as I look out the window of my suburban office, has close to 85% (quick visual survey) corporate owned retail. I do not know the exact statistics, but logically, I figure that there would be a larger and more stable middle class, if the built environment supported a more localized economy, not one dominated by national chains that resemble pyramid schemes.

Real Problem is Mass Produced Buildings

People can choose to live outside of an urban or town center if they wish.

The premier problem of sprawl is mass produced housing and commercial development. "Build it instantly and they will come" subdivision construction is drawing thousands of Americans out of their existing homes to buy the product of the instant American dream- a big house and big lawn away from crime and industry.

If this product didn't exist, people wouldn't buy it. They would have to find their own personal contractor and piece of land to build on. This would GREATLY slow down the rate of development in the US.

These mass produced homes are built so cheaply they are expected to last only around 25 years.

The mass produced retail shopping centers constructed to serve these new housing developments are so large and dominated by chain stores that they dwarf the landscape, alter the character of the community and eradicate local retail businesses.

Reigning in residential and commercial development by prohibiting the mass produced model is critical. This includes efforts to regulate cost and quality of building materials, scale and number of units in any given project. Small, quality builders must be supported over the large builders who are constructing these unsustainable communities.

Policy change has to be implemented at the federal, state and local levels to ensure that large builders cannot continue to build instant homes and mega shopping centers en mass in our country.

So many of the preceding

So many of the preceding comments on this article and the sprawl vs. anti-sprawl "debate" are so ridiculous, I don't even know where to start. It is clear to me that the vast majority of those emotionally involved in this debate have never been involved in the entitlement and development of land that - I guess most of you would say - fuels sprawl. I won't defend Bruegmann's views nor those of his most adamant critics. He seems to be an intelligent and honest professor, who's not a lobbyist, nor is he mysteriously in the back pockets of suburban land speculators trying to shift the tides of public sentiment. Can you pick apart some of his arguments or logic? Certainly. But I've yet to see anyone really put up a no-doubt-about-it argument defending or attacking "sprawl." And to that extent, Bruegmann is on to something - it is impossible to categorize or quantify what is and is not sprawl.

In my opinion, the debate-stopper is clear: people vote with their feet. There is no ballot box. Votes are cast when locations decisions are made, homes are sold, and leases are inked. The "if you build it they will come" notion is utterly ridiculous. There is no shortage of marginal-quality power centers or cookie-cutter, quarter-acre lot subdivisions, built on the urban periphery, that have failed miserably. Likewise, there are plenty of beautiful 12-story mid-rises that have not lived up to their anticipated success. There is no way to mitigate consumer preferences without mandating change (and I am referring to preferences in the face of trade-offs). Is that really the direction we want to go? If the majority prefer smaller, denser housing, public transit and "walkable" neighborhoods (to name a few), then eventually these land use and transportation patterns will revert to the highest and best use for many "sprawling" regions over time. I like living in my small one-bedroom condo, riding my train to work, and walking to and from activities. And I consider myself fortunate to be able to do so. But I recognize (unlike many of you it appears) that many people don't care for that lifestyle, or if they do, just can't afford it. Does that mean we should forcibly persuade them to "get with the system" or subsidize them if they can't afford it....?

Or what if a shift in preference will not occur until it is too late to save the world from "sprawl"? I guess we can either enforce and subsidize change, or let time take its course. I vote for the latter. Either way....immediate short-term change would require us all to pay for it directly or indirectly, a cost that most people right now are not yet willing or able to burden.

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