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November 11, 2005

Don't Steal This Book

This Slate book review (found via Brad Plumer) covering the history of sprawl is so infuriatingly silly, it's hard to know where to begin.

In a nutshell:  Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski reviews a book by University of Illinois at Chicago professor Robert Bruegmann arguing -- quite correctly -- that suburbs have been part of urban life for millenia.  In ancient Rome, wealthy patricians escaped to exurban villas.  Just so, the walled cities of medieval Europe were surrounded by noxious industries such as slaughterhouses, as well as many of the people who worked there.  Since cities have always had low-density outskirts, Bruegmann argues, it's simply inaccurate to characterize "suburban sprawl" as entirely an invention of 20th century American car culture.

All that's fair enough -- the suburbs have always been with us, in one form or another.  And for good reasons:  some folks prefer not to live in the city, and some cities prefer to locate public nuisances outside of town.

But from this, the article (I'm not sure whether it's Rybczynski or Bruegmann who's responsible) draws conclusions about sprawl that are hard to fathom -- and even harder to square with reality.

Consider this quote:

It appears that all cities—at least all cities in the industrialized Western world—have experienced a dispersal of population from the center to a lower-density periphery. In other words, sprawl is universal.

OK.  Granted, pretty much all cities have suburbs.  To that extent, sprawl is universal.  But also, quite clearly, different cities sprawl in different ways, and to vastly different degrees.  Even within the Pacific Northwest -- an area with a comparatively uniform culture and politics -- the major cities display surprisingly different patterns of urban density, walkability, and car dependence.  To that extent, sprawl is highly malleable, and manifests itself very differently in different places; it's not universal at all.

And quite clearly, the patterns of sprawl are affected by policy differences among the cities. Vancouver promotes downtown development and compact regional centers, restricts the development of farmland at the urban fringe, and has built few lane miles of urban freeways.  Consequently, it sprawls least among all Northwest cities.  Oregon's growth management laws have limited rural sprawl in greater Portland, in a way that neighboring counties in Washington State have not.  And so on.  Clearly, policy matters -- quite a lot -- in determining the shape of cities, and how they grow over time.

Extending that sort of study to other cities in the US and the world, it's clear that there are both far more sprawling cities than those of the Pacific Northwest, and far more compact ones as well.  Some of the differences in urban design and layout have to do with geography, climate, and cultural preference; others to wealth, history, and technology.  But some, quite clearly, are related to policy choices.  Places that choose to build lots of miles of freeway through the city core, and ring roads around the periphery; that require minimum lot sizes for homes; that mandate street patterns that are branching rather than gridded; that strictly separate housing, jobs, and services; that fail to protect open space and farmland at the urban fringe; that allow taxes from central cities and inner suburbs to be used to pay for infrastracture at the urban fringe -- the places that pursue these sorts of policies tend to have more of their residents living in low-density, sprawling suburbs than places that don't.

But the book (or perhaps just the review -- I don't know who's at fault) draws the opposite conclusions:

What this iconoclastic little book demonstrates is that sprawl is not the anomalous result of American zoning laws, or mortgage interest tax deduction, or cheap gas, or subsidized highway construction, or cultural antipathy toward cities. Nor is it an aberration... Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals—Adam Smith's "invisible hand."

How's that again?  It's one thing to claim that the impulse to spread out is both common and understandable.  It's quite another to say that policies that quite clearly encourage and subsidize sprawl are irrelevant to how cities grow.  The former is defensible; the latter is laughable; and how you move from one to the other is beyond me.

I wish I were inclined to read the book to see whether Bruegmann backs up his arguments with facts, or if Slate's reviewer mischaracterizes the book.  But life's just too short.  If anyone wants to read and review the book themselves, please, by all means, enlighten me.

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An article in last month's Walrus Magazine called "The End of Suburbia". Good read. Unfortunately, they do not put much of their content online.

If you can't get it, drop me an email and I can snail a copy to you.

Posted by: Scott Nelson | Nov 11, 2005 6:40:26 PM

Hi, Clark:

Kevin Nance, architecture critic of the Chicago Sun-Times here. I'm doing a piece on Robert Bruegmann's book and would like to chat with you. Would you give me a call at (312) 321-2024 or respond via e-mail? I'd like to ask a few questions occasioned by your post. Thanks, KN.

Posted by: Kevin Nance | Dec 21, 2005 3:30:50 PM

Perhaps you should read the book. Your pundit rhetoric on sprawl is a perfect example of what the author has identified as part of the mountain of poorly researched opinion on the subject.

Posted by: bluejay | Feb 19, 2006 12:28:05 PM


I'm no pundit -- at least, I hope I'm not. But I do spend quite a bit of my time researching sprawl -- with a special focus on quantifying the differences between different patterns of urban & suburban growth. So my objection to the idea that sprawl is universal, and unaffected by policy, technology, and infrastructure spending, isn't based on my *intuitions* about how cities differ & have developed, but on analyses of census data and the like.

In fact, my *intuitions* about sprawl proved pretty much useless -- time and again, analysis of actual data has proven that my intuition isn't a particularly helpful guide. Example -- "Sprawling" Las Vegas is actually a fairly compact city, as are many of the new metropolises of the US west. Not nearly so compact as the old pre-auto urban areas on the east coast, but much moreso than comparable cities of the South and Midwest. This pretty much went against my intuition, which was that cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas epitomize sprawl. Of course, definitions of sprawl vary; but in all cases, it's hard to make a priori judgments about how much a city "sprawls" compared with comparable cities without looking at the data.

At any rate, the thing that sealed my scorn was the claim that sprawl isn't affected by policy choices. How else can one understand the huge differences between Seattle & Vancouver BC -- two places that 1) share similar features of geography, economy and climate; 2) have very significant differences in policy & infrastructure investment over the last 50 years; and 3) have vastly different, and easily quantifiable, sprawl records?

It's one thing to make a normative claim that sprawl isn't something worth worrying about -- that's a pundit's role. But it's another thing to make a factual claim about sprawl's "universality" & imperviousness to policy differences. That's a researchers' role -- and as far as I can tell, that claim is bunk.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Feb 22, 2006 11:53:33 AM

yeah, Clark is definitly not a pundit bluejay. I've seen him do some of the research on sprawl. I wish i had that good posture!

Posted by: Gary Durning | Feb 22, 2006 12:53:00 PM

Yeah, good posture is a great cure for sprawl!

Very *punny* Gary!


Posted by: Michelle Parker | Feb 22, 2006 3:01:25 PM

Hello All,

My point is that what sealed Clark's "scorn" (that sprawl isn't affected by policy choices) is not Bruegmann's argument at all. He doesn't say that sprawl isn't affected by policy choices! This is why I suggested that he read the book and make an informed choice as to it's relevance. Let me quote a small excerpt (p 222/223) ...

"Does this mean that all efforts to understand urban change and to plan for the future are futile? Of course not. Planning is exactly what every individual and every group does all the time, each according to specific sets of expectations and assumptions. The question is really at what level and through what means should planning and decision making take place. Should this be intensely local, at the level of the family or municipally or county, or should these decisions be pushed upward to a region or a state or an entire country? Is it best done by governmental regulation or do market forces provide a more flexible and better informed process of decision making. I don't think that history provides any simple answers to questions like these, and there is ample reason to think that different problems are best dealt with at different levels and in different ways. It does suggest that the inevitable response of sprawl reformers to push for more public planning and more regulations at constantly higher levels of government might not be wise. It also suggests that since everything - the basic urban patterns, our evaluations of them, even our political and social institutions - are constantly changing, we should be very wary of any sweeping diagnoses or remedies. We should also be constantly alert to the unintended consequences and harm that any of these remedies might do to some part of the population."

Bruegmann is saying, folks, we don't know exactly what we're dealing with here. Go slow ... proceed with caution. The book is in my estimation some good food for thought!

(p 223) "With any luck, when the fourth wave of anti-sprawl agitation gets underway during the next major economic boom we will have more information about existing conditions, more flexibility of thought, and a more nuanced assessment of the benefits as well as the problems of sprawl. We might even have decided by then that the use of the work "sprawl" itself is confusing and divisive, hopeless as an objective description of the infinitely complex and fast-changing urban world around us and counterproductive as an analytical concept."


Posted by: bluejay | Feb 23, 2006 8:34:40 AM


That's very reasonable. What it sounds like, then, is that the Slate review -- at least, as I read it -- didn't do a good job of representing Bruegmann's real points. Which makes me much more inclined to give the book a chance. Thanks for the perspective & insight!


Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Feb 24, 2006 10:14:05 AM