Book Review - 'Sprawl: A Compact History'

Read Time: 8 minutes

June 13, 2006, 7:00 AM PDT

By Josh Stephens

With Sprawl: A Compact History, author Robert Bruegmann has become a favorite sprawl apologist, yet his flawed arguments and dismissal of the most serious concerns of the anti-sprawl movement ultimately add little to the prevailing land use debate of our time, writes Josh Stephens in this book review. 

Josh StephensDebunking, and Creating, Myths of Sprawl

Sprawl: A Compact History
Written by Robert Bruegmann (University of Chicago Press, 2005)
Reviewed by Josh Stephens

Every movement -- be it political, academic, or geographic -- needs its points and counterpoints, and in a world that for the past few years has embraced all things denser, smaller, and "smarter," even smart growth can use a devil's advocate. In Sprawl: A Compact History, University of Illinois planning professor Robert Bruegmann takes on that role and offers a compelling array of claims contradicting now-conventional ideals of urban development.

Sprawl poses a series of provocative questions. Was redlining racist, or merely a prudent strategy by banks nervous about lending money in neighborhoods already on the wane? Does bulldozing virgin land reveal deeper flaws in capitalism than cramming immigrants into tenements? Does sprawl represent a uniquely American desire to conquer the wilderness, or does every culture seek more living space? Is waiting for the bus more fulfilling than piloting two tons of steel anywhere at any time?

With lively, pointed prose aimed at hipsters and housewives alike, Sprawl is engaging enough to deserve a great many readers who like entertaining histories and enthusiastic arguments, even if their logic springs a few leaks. Those leaks arise in part because, as Sprawl's sub-title implies, this is not a comprehensive history. It focuses on examples somewhat in isolation, and even if those examples are compelling in their own right, implied generalizations, wordplay, and strategically chosen statistics combine in arguments that ultimately are only momentarily tantalizing.

Sprawl includes three sections: a history of sprawl, an analysis of movements against it, and the "remedies" that those movements spawned. At each turn, Bruegmann accepts that the current American landscape is more than all right, and argues that Americans should have chosen sprawl because sprawl is good and that no movement towards density, no matter how fervent, should obscure suburbia's virtues.

The Elusive Definition of Sprawl

Bruegmann first sets out to provide a fair, comprehensive definition of the concept of sprawl, because, he claims, interest groups and ideologies naturally pervert the definition of such a nebulous concept. He refers to sprawl as an "invented" concept, as if by any other name it would contain less asphalt and kill fewer trees. He explains, "sprawl, like the terms 'urban blight,' the 'slum,' and many of the other terms associated with urban development, is not so much an objective reality as a cultural concept, a term born at a specific time and place...It has accumulated around it an entire body of ideas and assumptions." Never mind that he declines to provide similar explications of "community", "lifestyle", "front yard", and "American dream" -- but so far, so postmodern.

Bruegmann then attempts to define away that which makes sprawl -- by any conventional definition -- most troublesome. He ignores sprawl's inherently spatial component -- preferring instead to depend on its more subjective cultural, demographic, and political implications -- and dismisses aesthetic concerns by way of mockery. With as much snarkiness as has ever been applied to urban planning, he admits, "and, by the way, it is ugly." This is nearly the only mention of aesthetics, and the dismissal indicates more than that he probably would not enjoy carpooling with Peter Blake. Bruegmann does not actually deny the visual degradation of sprawl -- he concedes it, in fact -- but instead tries to imply that it does not warrant serious discussion, presumably because aesthetics do not lend themselves to objective measurement and therefore have no impact on people's lives.

One of the most pointless re-definitions of sprawl that Bruegmann posits is that sprawl is not uniquely American. He points to the expansion of Paris as proof that sprawl is a universal force of nature, and he notes that only a small fraction of Parisians live on picture-postcard streets. Yet he fails to prove that the proliferation of sprawl amounts to anything but a contagion, regardless of national origin. Sprawl might not be confined to America, but neither are cancer, AIDS, or the Backstreet Boys. Moreover, this claim still begs the question of whether all those dwellers on the fringe would jump at the chance to live in the Seventh Arrondissement, if only it wasn't already full.

With this "definition", or lack thereof, in hand, Part One of Sprawl marches chronologically through the 20th century to provide a history of sprawl, the basic tenets of which will be familiar to any student, or even casual observer, of the American urban form. Bruegmann's appealing thesis is that sprawl has both resulted from and in conscious choices that Americans have made about where they want to live, what they want to live in, and what they are willing to do to get there. Bruegmann addresses many of the typical sprawl conspiracy theories (which variously blame developers, banks, oil and auto companies, white people, and a myriad of pro-sprawl laws and policies), and he offers some reasonable alternative explanations that do not hinge on greed, corruption, or racism. But even if sprawl is humanity's gift to itself, Bruegmann's unkind words for other urban forms and their attendant lifestyles reveals an unsettling bias that should not pervade a scholarly work.

Politics, Stereotypes, and Missing Links

In an America by now well-versed in the politics and geography of red and blue, snide references to anti-sprawl "elites" and "city-dwellers" provide unsubtle clues about Bruegmann's political agenda. Having already denigrated Paris, he turns to sprawl's bourgeois detractors, who cling to "a specific set of assumptions about urbanity made by members of a small cultural dense city centers that contain major highbrow cultural institutions. In these dense city centers, they believe, citizens are more tolerant and cosmopolitan because of their constant interaction with citizens unlike themselves." In characterizing the goals of the urban left as hopelessly quaint, Bruegmann fails to explain exactly what's wrong with welcoming disenfranchised classes, giving them equal access to those institutions, and enabling them to escape the sort of bigotry that would prefer them to just shut up, spread out, and accept their "lowbrow" fate.

Bruegmann does not rely entirely on cultural arguments, however, and when taking the wider geographic and demographic view, his most self-satisfied (and publicized) assertion comes when he declares that the bazillion square-mile Los Angeles region does not really qualify as sprawl. Depending how you bend the Census data, Los Angeles has grown into the most dense urban area in the country. This dubious observation leads Bruegmann to proclaim that sprawl simply does not exist in L.A. In fact, he adopts the argument of his opponents by implying that density makes it all OK, as if high density means that millions of acres of desert, beach, farmland, chaparral, mountain, and coastal plain were never bulldozed, never polluted, and never carved up by developers seeking easy, short-term profits.

A Question of Policy

Sprawl's greatest strength lies in its final chapters, which discuss the problematic nature of policies and regulations, such as growth boundaries and transit subsidies, designed to combat sprawl. Bruegmann notes that these attempts have often worked poorly, raised real estate prices, and/or created backlashes, and he effectively argues that forces more powerful than those of public policy and aesthetic sensibilities have complicated and even thwarted efforts to zone, greenbelt, and light rail our way out of rampant growth.

Indeed, modern public policy would benefit profoundly from honest accounts of when policies' effects have deviated from their intent, and Bruegmann evokes the dangers posed by policymakers and bureaucrats so entranced by their work that they fail to notice, or care, how those policies affect people. (On this premise, if not on the conclusion, he and Betty Friedan would surely agree.) But Bruegmann gives this conclusion a defeatist tone by implying that the persistence of sprawl in the face of flawed regulations means that America should simply succumb to the naturalistic fallacy, as if nature is telling us that the easiest path is the best and that the best choice is the one we have already made.

The proponents of New Urbanism, smart growth, and the like often weather criticism that they are idealists who have the nerve to prescribe a gossamer world detached from the realities of politics, economics, and culture. Yet even if these theories sometimes lack a commitment to balance, objectivity, and rigorous scholarship, so does Sprawl. Bruegmann deserves commendation for advancing strong, controversial conclusions that counterbalance those of his intellectual adversaries, such as James Howard Kunstler, Andres Duany, or the late Jane Jacobs. But in fighting fire with fire, Bruegmann often neglects to explain his logic or acknowledge even a glimmer of wisdom in the theories he attempts to combat. Just as they cannot all be wrong, it would be absurd to believe that he, despite his bluster, is all right.

The result is a cartoon version of scholarship that advocates little but the status quo. It is entertaining, and it may be partially true, but it ultimately reduces the debate to a shouting match. And until a new devil's advocate comes along with some more serious and balanced challenges to the ascendant wisdom, the battles against sprawl will, no doubt, continue to rewrite the ordinances, divert the capital, and slash the tires of the forces that promote it.

Josh Stephens is the editor of The Planning Report and the Metro Investment Report, monthly newsletters covering land use, infrastructure investment, and public policy in the Los Angeles Region. A former high school teacher and part-time freelance writer, Josh has been published recently in Volleyball Magazine, English Journal, and You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography.

Editor's Note: Sprawl: A Compact History is a Planetizen Top 10 Book for 2006.

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