How to teach about sprawl

Michael Lewyn's picture

Today, I turned in my grades for my seminar on "Sprawl and the Law." It occurred to me that some readers of this blog might be academics, and might be interested on how one can teach a course on sprawl.

I began by defining the issue. As I pointed out in an earlier post (at the term "sprawl" has two common meanings: where we grow (city or suburb) and how we grow (pedestrian-friendly or automobile-dependent). Policies that affect the first type of "sprawl" need not affect the second (and vice versa).

Then we discussed the question frequently debated on Planetizen: is sprawl good or bad? I used Oliver Gillham's book, The Limitless City, as a text, since Gillham addresses both sides of the argument. We discussed sprawl's impact on social equity, air pollution, traffic congestion, and a variety of other matters. Because my courses focus on legal issues, I limited our discussion of the pros and cons of sprawl to one class. However, urban planning instructors might wish to devote more time to the question.

But because I teach in a law school, I focused on legal rules relevant to sprawl. I began by focusing on the "how we grow" element of sprawl; since Jacksonville (where I live and teach) is a growing but highly car-dominated city, I believed that this element of sprawl was more relevant to my students than the urban decay common in Rust Belt cities. In particular, I spent most of the course on land use and street design regulations that contribute to sprawl: we read case law on zoning laws segregating land uses, minimum lot size requirements, and minimum parking and setback regulations, as well as examples of, and critiques of, those rules. Similarly, we read and discussed pro-sprawl street design regulations, such as rules mandating wide streets and cul-de-sacs. We then discussed possible solutions to pro-sprawl land use regulation, such as land use deregulation and New Urbanism. And because many of my students had never known anything but sprawl, we made field trips to Jacksonville's most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

The last few weeks of the course were spent on the "where we grow" element of sprawl. We focused on highways and public transit, as well as the pros and cons of land use policies designed to curb suburban development and/or encourage urban redevelopment, such as Oregon's urban growth boundaries and the sort of redevelopment-oriented eminent domain upheld by the Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London. In addition, we spent about an hour or so of class time on the poor quality of urban schools as a driver of suburban migration, and on solutions to this problem (such as vouchers and school finance reform). If I was teaching in a declining city (such as St. Louis) I would have spent more time on "where we grow" sprawl, and in particular on the education issue.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



You missed something important

It doesn't sounds like you spent much time on the "where we grow" sprawl as it pertains to the historical forces behind it. You stated you only discussed the pros and cons of policies aimed at curbing suburban development. If students or anyone else are not educated comprehensively on the forces that led to suburban development (the where part), they might be misled. Furthermore, with law students you would have to be extremely careful because some might be in positions later in life as a lobbyist to influence sprawl-fighting (the where part) legislation without even knowing why it exists. When confronted, they might suggest "my professor in college explained it was a bad thing."

It would seem to me that law school is a better environment to discuss the "how we grow" part because that has so much to do with tedious municipal regulations. The where part encompasses so much more in terms of economics, social, political, and cultural forces. You can't simplify it to a policy favoring a highway or a zoning code or even a set of policies.

Learning something like this without proper context, like anything, can be a bit dangerous.

Michael Lewyn's picture

just to clarify...

I did do some historical background here and there, both at the start of the course and when we discussed highways at the beginning of the "where we grow" section.

And when I taught the course at Southern Illinois University's law school (close enough to St. Louis that "where we grow" is a bigger issue than in Jacksonville) I spent much more time on the "where we grow" part; in particular, I spent a full week on the school issue and on school desegregation law, as well as discussing public housing and the FHA.

But I do agree that the "how we grow" part does lend itself to more extensive treatment in a law school setting.

History matters


I admired your complicating the sprawl issue in your earlier posting into "how" and "where." But historical context is very important to this (and most issues), helping us get at "why" and "when."

Bob Bruegmann's book on the history of sprawl is important, though by seeking to explain and understand it, he's been pilloried by some as an apologist --even among some academics who should know better. If you haven't read it, you should.

Deconcentration and decentralization were widely hailed as good solutions to urban ills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Now they're equally vilified. Development that some Londoners decried as the worst in suburban spread around 1900 is now lauded by new urbanists as ideal models of modestly scaled, vibrant urbanism. Why? Things have changed: population growth, technology, societal patterns, cultural expectations. The same historical interchange from hero to villainy occurred between public transit and automobiles.

Understanding "why" and "when" is important. In my last lecture in a planning history course, I ask students about unintended consequences. 75 years ago, the very best planning wisdom hailed suburban living, well-served by autombiles, as best practices. Now, that model is disgraced among many. Whereas, we now "know" that "they" were wrong then, and that compact development served by a dense web of public transit is the way to go.

What might we find out that skewers this line of thinking?


An interesting question about history.

History certainly matters, but how?

You raise a very interesting question, but there is a suggestion (in the way you present it) that we should draw the conclusion that things we think we "know" now are probably wrong because things we thought we knew in the past turned out to have unintended consequences. Perhaps that's not what you intend to argue, but the suggestion is very strong (and I've heard many people make that argument as a refutation of planners' expertise).

The implication would seem to be that we can't really learn anything from history, except that we have been wrong in the past and we are likely to be wrong again-- and therefore we probably shouldn't try to do what we think is the right thing now.

It's a very odd and not very helpful logic: ideas associated with auto-cominated suburbanization turned out to have all sorts of unintended consequences, therefore our current thinking about the alternative of more complact development patterns and more modes of transportation must be wrong, too.

There is another problematic dimension of this logic: it seems to assume that we have to make a dichotomous choice between suburbanization and compact development. Not so. There is no reason we can't have everything we have ever liked and valued about suburbs but without the problems associated with what people loosely refer to as "sprawl." We have to understand the patterns, the whole geography of diversified metropolitan development and the relations between the parts, and not get fixated on the simplistic image of sprawl as simply dispersal.

When I teach students about "sprawl," I start with the history of our development patterns, including both the cultural and the relevant political and institutional history. Then we look at the different critiques of so-called "sprawl" as they relate to different aspects of both suburbanization and the post-war decay of American cities.

There is just no reason why we need to image that we have a forced choice between urbanization and suburbanization. Throughout the history of human civilizations, we've had both tendencies. The biggest problem with the last few decades of suburban development is not that it is suburban, and not even that it has spread out over the landscape, but that it has collapsed development into a single, homogenizing, mono-cultural pattern that undermines both the ecology of places in a region and outstrips the not just the capacity of its transportation and utility infrastructure but the capacity to respond effectively to growth. It's not just that "compact the way to go," but that re-diversifying and re-connecting places is the way to go. Diversifying our opportunities for life, movement, social interaction, economic activity, etc., is the way to go.

"It's not just that "compact

"It's not just that "compact the way to go," but that re-diversifying and re-connecting places is the way to go. Diversifying our opportunities for life, movement, social interaction, economic activity, etc., is the way to go."

Agreed, but increasing density (in other words more compact development) accomplishes just that - more people means more and better services, better parks, better transit, etc can be provided and at a lower per-capita cost. More jobs within walking distance means more economic activity. More services in walking distance means more social interaction. Movement is enhanced by compact development because there are a variety of ways to reach your destination which includes walking, cycling, mass transit, and cars. Also, the long-term return on investment of compact development tends to be greater than that of sprawling development, generating more economic activity.

This reminds me of an acquaintance of mine who said "what's wrong with living spread out if everything I need is within walking distance?" The answer to this is obvious - it is impossible to have everything within walking distance and have everything spread out at the same time.

My view

Everything you say makes sense, but I have a different take on the previous comment and planning, in general.

I believe, as most people do, that we can learn from our mistakes and from the past. But, I'm not sure the implication from the previous post was that we can't. Regardless, my view is that we can learn from the past, but we are terrible at planning the future. There are far too many unknowns about economic, cultural, and political factors.

Why not focus on substantive policy as opposed to procedural plans as Michael has hinted before and I have as well? So, my point here is that we never "know" about the future and shouldn't try to plan it, but we do perceive problems, trade-offs and solutions in the present and should simply "act".

It depends what you mean by "planning for the future."

Sounds good, but I don't know what it would mean to "simply act."

I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that "planning" means anticipating and solving every possible problem that might occur in the future. Not only are we not ever going to be good at that, it is also typically a huge waste of time and tends to focus our attention on trying to imagine all the horrible consequences of anything we might do. Such an effort is a political morass, whatever technical proficiency we might develop at it. In fact, the more we elaborate the technical abilities the more the politics would become intractable. The result is typically paralysis and a tendency to get stuck in the status quo condition.

On the contrary, "planning" ought to mean building the capacity to solve problems in the future. So a plan isn't just a bunch of solutions proposed in advance, but a framework for collaboration that enables us to move in a progressive direction (conserving what we decide to conserve, building what we think needs to be built, and fixing what we decide needs to be fixed).

We can only "act" if we have the capacity to act, and that capacity to act depends entirely on the way we are able to organize concerted action (and also establishing a process of learning).

In the context of land use/infrastructure planning

I don't believe planning means "anticipating and solving every possible problem that might occur in the future." But, cities try to plan land uses for every single parcel in their boundaries sometimes 20+ years into the future. In doing so, they plan supporting infrastructure many years into the future as well. Imagine the Detroit area in the 1960s planning for a 50 year horizon based on a near straight line population/economic forecast. Things haven't quite panned out as expected. That's all I'm really saying.

As for "building the capacity to solve problems in the future" or a "framework for collaboration" quite frankly, I don't know what that means. But, I would be open to you explaining it to me in the context of land use planning.

As for "simply acting", I mean enacting policies and/or creating something instead of making plans.

History Matters Redux

Actually, my polite rant for historical context is more about the arch rhetoric that often surrounds the issue of "sprawl," something that the original story is completely free of.

In many places I read villifications of planners way back when, contributing to our current woes by making generous accommodation for the automobile, and by separating land uses. How dare they?

But many of them were following the 'best practices' of their day, as we do today with more current best practices. All actions have unintended consequences, but that shouldn't stop us from doing our very best (including planmaking but also, of course, data gathering, analysis and projections on which to base those plans.)

Again, it's the simplistic "sprawl is evil" cartoon that my historical encouragement was aiming at.


Brand new! Urban Grid City Collection

Each city has its own unique story. Commemorate where you came from or where you want to go.
Grids and Guide Red book cover

Grids & Guides

A notebook for visual thinkers. Available in red and black.
Woman wearing city map tote bag

City Shoulder Totes - New Cities Added!

Durable CityFabric© shoulder tote bags available from 9 different cities.
Blockitecture - Garden City

Just In! Get the Garden City Expansion

New from Blockitecture! Create towers, cities, and dwellings with this set of architectural building blocks.